City Guide: Midtown Houston
The day began with culinary and spelling challenges: Do I order “katfish and grits” or “pork chops and pankakes” at the refreshingly unpretentious Breakfast Klub, where a microcosm of 21st-century Houston—African-Americans, Vietnamese, Hispanics, Anglos, college students in jeans, glad-handing politicians—mingles each morning with hungry out-of-towners?
It ended half a mile away with snapper carpaccio (not karpaccio) at Reef, the city’s most celebrated new upscale restaurant. My fellow diners included a former Texas governor and his nattily attired entourage.
Welcome to Midtown, Houston’s trendiest—and still evolving—neighborhood.
Frequent travelers to the nation’s fourth-largest city are familiar with the adjacent Downtown neighborhood, which houses headquarters for energy giants and Continental Airlines, the George R. Brown Convention Center, Minute Maid Park and the Astros, and Toyota Center and the Rockets. Eight miles to the southwest, Uptown has its longstanding allures, too, including the still fashionable (and still expanding) Galleria shopping complex and scores of tony restaurants.
Midtown is the newbie–in style, substance and surprises. Yet it’s also an oldie.
This 325-block enclave, steeped in rich history but until recently mired in decay, is enjoying a remarkable renaissance with its eclectic collection of restaurants, pubs, wine bars, shops and venues for music and theater. Convenient to visitors, the area extends southwest from the city center to the nationally recognized Museum District, spanning both sides of Main Street and Houston’s only light-rail passenger service.
Don’t expect a tightly packaged neighborhood in which every block yields a distinctive discovery. With development booming, that may soon come—but for now, here stands a nightclub, there’s a gas station. Ornate churches and decades-old law offices coexist with strip shopping centers. The “big block” (Main and Travis Sts. at Alabama St.), so dubbed because of its four restaurants and two clubs, is flanked by an abandoned building and a dirt parking lot.
You‘ll also witness a visual hodgepodge: Reef, for instance, occupies a dwelling that in other eras housed an automobile showroom and a Vietnamese mini-mall. The Breakfast Klub (open for lunch, too) took over a convenience store. A giant Carmen Miranda statue guards the entrance to Tacos a Go-Go. With sidewalk cafés, benches and attractive lighting, West Gray near Bagby and Brazos illustrates the potential.
It’s not an artificial tourist trap. Blocks-long loft apartment buildings—almost all opened in the past decade, with more under construction—are home to most of Midtown’s 18,500 residents. Many are new to Houston; others are fleeing from, not to, the sprawling suburbs. They average 25 to 40 years old, and their vitality is evident day and night.
Travelers should think of Midtown as a treasure hunt. There are no lodgings in the immediate district, though dozens are nearby.
It’s best to rely on a map, three well-placed rail stops and good walking shoes. Just take heed: When I meandered without a plan one afternoon, I got penned in the Dog House Tavern (not a bad thing) and lost on the central campus of Houston Community College (oops, I forgot to register for biology class).
Most attractions are either north of Main or on Main, but the opposite side has its lures, especially 13 Celsius, a sophisticated new wine bar honored by the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance for restoring a long-vacant 1920s dry-cleaning establishment.
Few new residents or frequent visitors realize that this neighborhood was once a pillar of Houston society. A century ago, oil barons and their families lived here in 5,000-square-foot homes. Years later, Walter Cronkite attended Sam Houston High School (now HCC), where Lyndon Johnson taught briefly. Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski was a resident.
But when I moved to Houston in 1970, Midtown was in serious decline. Vietnamese immigrants initiated a short revival, but only a handful of restaurants remain from that incarnation (including Mai’s, where you can feast until 3 a.m.). By the ’90s, it was an eyesore, a dilapidated mix of boarded-up storefronts and empty lots with isolated gems, among them the revered Brennan’s of Houston restaurant, a cousin of the New Orleans legend.
The 1990 census listed Midtown’s population at 490. Tourists were all but invisible. “But the location doesn’t get any better than this, and the rail line was coming,” says Houston native Marcus Davis, who opened the Breakfast Klub in 2001.“We struggled for about two years, then came the boom.”
What to see and do? Depends on your mood, curiosity and appetite. Above all, Midtown is a foodie’s paradise. Three standouts: Reef (Travis St. at McGowen St.), whose chef, Bryan Caswell, was recently named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs of 2009, is one of the finest destinations for seafood in the country. Its redfish on the half shell with fried mac and cheese is the stuff of legends. Before or after dinner, savor an Asian margarita at Reef’s cozy 3rd Bar.
T’afia (Travis St., adjacent to the Breakfast Klub) is Monica Pope’s homage to local growers and produce. Pope, a James Beard Award nominee in 2007, changes her menu daily, using the freshest ingredients. (Who knew that portobello stew with cashew-and-walnut croquettes could be so delectable?) On Saturday mornings, Pope conducts free cooking classes while her Midtown Farmers’ Market takes over the parking lot.
Ibiza’s (Louisiana St.) chef-owner, Charles Clark, has a pedigree that includes apprenticeships with Texas culinary legends Dean Fearing and Stephan Pyles; he also opened a restaurant in Marbella, Spain. Faithful diners are addicted to Clark’s lamb chops with creole mustard sauce. The wine list is terrific.
Other global delights: Transylvania-born Johann Schuster’s Wiener schnitzel at Charivari; pistachio-crusted salmon over primavera risotto at Damian’s Cucina Italiana; Akaushi Wagyu beef sirloin at Crave Sushi; lump-crabmeat nachos at Cyclone Anaya’s; sautéed shrimp in orange-mojito marinade at Julia’s Bistro; and Parisian-style crêpes at CoCo’s. Or settle into Farrago’s World Cuisine, where the lunch menu includes Latin pork stew, a Vietnamese salad and Jamaican jerk pizza.
Brennan’s, decimated by fire during Hurricane Ike’s 2008 rampage, is due back by the end of the year, again serving “Creole cuisine with a Texas twist”—and you won’t find friendlier vibes than at the Breakfast Klub. Retail options
But Midtown fun doesn’t stop at the table. Occupying almost a full block along Smith Street, Spec’s is one of the world’s largest food and beverage emporiums, so vast that employees have been known to roller-skate through aisles jammed with 40,000 labels of wines, beer and booze, plus a dazzling array of cheeses, deli meats and other products. Need a souvenir? Your buddies back home will never forget fiery, Texas-made Devil’s Lightning hot sauce.
By contrast, Sig’s Lagoon Record Shop is a Main Street hole-in-the-wall whose inventory extends beyond Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald LPs—this is the place for vintage vinyl—to Three Stooges videos, Roller Derby bubble-gum cigarettes and “Wash Away Your Sins” soap.
A tad more upscale: High Fashion (a 30,000-square-foot fabrics showroom), Adkins Architectural Antiques, the House of Glass, the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft and half a dozen art galleries.
For an email fix, seek out Coffee Groundz, on McGowen, and set up your PC next to a cup of peach, banana and strawberry gelato drizzled with Grand Marnier.
Spirits of the night? At 13 Celsius (so named because that’s the ideal temperature at which to store red wine), I counted 74 bottles of wine priced at $40 or less, and all but a few are available by the glass. Romantics snuggle on sofas, munch on fine cheeses and charcuterie and listen to soft recorded music here, but Midtown won’t disappoint those who prefer a stronger beat. Favorites include the Continental Club (similar to its Austin counterpart),
Shoeshine Charley’s BigTop Lounge (motto: “No phone, no pool, no pets, no phacebook“), Howl at the Moon (dueling pianos), Pub Fiction (key lime martinis) and the Maple Leaf Pub (Canadian beers, eh?). A different kind of entertainment enthralls at the Ensemble, the Southwest’s largest professional African-American theater.
Midtowners can even mingle with the elite if their pockets are deep, their connections solid and their timing right. Special events—really special—are conducted at the House of Dereon Media Center, designed by Tina and Mathew Knowles, on Crawford Street. Recognize the name? Yes, Beyoncé is their daughter, Destiny’s Child their legacy and House of Dereon their clothing line. Rent all or part of the 4,300-square-foot house for parties accommodating 100 to 1,500 guests, or just add it to the intrigue of a Midtown treasure hunt.
HARRY SHATTUCK is a former travel editor at the Houston Chronicle.