According to Bobby Heugel, co-owner of both Underbelly and The Hay Merchant, the fact that these two establishments were built together, and will open within 2 - 3 weeks of one another was pure coincidence. A very serendipitous coincidence.
Heugel and The Hay Merchant's head honcho, Kevin Floyd, had just begun the search for possible properties on their first project together outside of Anvil and former Catalan chef Chris Shepherd happened to be on the same quest for his own place.
Thus, they all combined efforts and grabbed the current space where they both now stand; Underbelly would be built from the ground up and The Hay Merchant would be a remodel/build-out of the previous structure. Like fraternal Siamese twins, they are physically attached, but remain two completely separate entities.
Heugel, walking through the space at Underbelly, explained that he'd really "gotten into" restaurant design over the last year and that Shepherd was more focused on the menu, kitchen and the thing that has all of Houston, the nation and pigs everywhere squealing: the in-house butchery.
For the sake of efficiency and competitive pricing, the one area shared by both Underbelly and The Hay Merchant is the butchering room, with its massive double doors that can accommodate an entire cow, pig or other large animal. Certain cuts suited more for the restaurant's menu will go into the kitchen at Underbelly and the remaining trim that make up the creative pub menu of dishes like burgers, sweetbread po'boys and crispy sweet and sour pig's ears inside The Hay Merchant will go next door, although we suspect there will be plenty of sweetbreads and pig's ears on Underbelly's menu at times too.
Otherwise, the two businesses are taking great pains to keep their identities separate, even going as far as banning employees of each from stepping foot into the other while they're on the clock.
Inside Underbelly, the smell of fresh cut wood permeates the high-ceilinged dining room, with most of the interior covered or accented in some type of wooden element. Carpenters have been hard at work hand crafting wooden table tops, a giant community table that will be located parallel to the very open stage-like kitchen line facing the entire room and some functional as well as simple, modern wooden shelving. The dark shelves provide storage and a prominent place to display the preserves that will be available for purchase as well as acting as the frame for the open kitchen.
Also on view, aside from the kitchen (and the always congenial Chris Shepherd cooking inside it), is a curing room with temperature and humidity controls, seen from two large windows at the end of the dining room. Stepping outside and back into Underbelly's kitchen, we mused, "if you stand in there long enough, will you turn into bacon?"
All existential meat product questions aside, the entrance of Underbelly is just as stunning as the rest of it. The host stand greets guests immediately with a (you guessed it) large wooden desk and behind it will be a mural on the chalkboard wall by well-known Houstonian artist, Carlos Hernandez. This erasable mural will change seasonally. Hernandez also installed a permanent mural at the entrance of the dining room with panels of all sizes and shapes displaying different scenes. Some include a scar on Shepherd's hand, the knife that created it, a pig snout, a fish and a copy of the first ad ever published in the city of Houston.
In another nod to Houston's roots and Shepherd's cuisine, the wall between the entrance, the private dining area and the bar which leads into the main dining room will feature photographs of the people and places in and around Houston that have inspired Shepherd over the years. A different larger photo will be featured each season, in the middle of the wall.
On one side of that wooden hallway is the bar, which will stay open until 2 a.m., six days a week. Underbelly will be closed on Sundays because, as Heugel explained, "Chris really likes football, and yes, that's really the reason."
In addition to the patio, bar tables and the actual bar that was intentionally lowered by 4-inches to lessen the barrier between guests and bartenders, Underbelly will only serve beer and wine. But rest assured, that beer and wine will be stored properly in a large floor-to-ceiling wine cellar that also acts as a wall behind the bar, made of glass, one side facing the bar, the other facing the dining room, displaying all wines in their temperature-controlled room (even the reds-yay!). This transparent element connects the two spaces and the wooden storage inside enhances the warm, but modern feeling of the entire restaurant.
On the other side of that wooden wall of photos is the private dining room. The almost-hidden entrance is through a sliding barn-like door at the end of the wall, and the entire room is covered in wooden planks of different sizes, tones and textures. These were all repurposed from the structure when it was Chances (whose sign still stands tall outside the property as of yet). Maybe they should nickname this room "the gay bar(n)" in yet another homage to its predecessor.
After the grand tour of Underbelly's entrance, bar, wine cellar, kitchen, butcher room, curing room, private dining area and main dining room, Heugel and Shepherd honestly asked our opinion: "What do you think?"
We can honestly answer, "It is worth the wait."
*While Eater is flattered to have been granted access to Underbelly's interior, we should also mention that the ownership requested no photos be taken of the space, hence the lack of photography. We respect their privacy and hope to bring you photos when they become available.