In a press release issued yesterday, James Beard award nominee Monica Pope announced her plans to transform t'afia, her signature restaurant devoted to sustainability and seasonality, into Sparrow Bar + Cookshop, which is opening today at 10:00 a.m. While it is tempting to focus on the Sparrow part of the name, Pope has made two interesting choices by putting the word "bar" first to describe the space and by choosing "Cookshop" instead of restaurant, bistro, cafe or even grill, the word that normally follows "bar" in describing a restaurant. The term "cookshop" refers, according to the press release, "to the namesake medieval cookshops that serviced the takeaway food needs of visitors and locals, who didn't have access to kitchens for monetary or safety reasons." Cookshops were a gathering place, and that's how Pope envisions Sparrow.
To match the new name, design company installationsantiques has completely transformed the space with "a host of salvaged and repurposed materials, including steel wainscoting, chairs laminated in walnut and cherry (and) antique columns from Paris, Texas (that support) a community table." Completing the new look are staff uniforms by Becki van der Oord "that pairs handmade, distressed leather welding aprons from Stash Co of Sealy, TX, blue suede Red Wing boots, dark chocolate Dickies and gingham or chambray shirts."
Pope spoke to Eater about the timing of the change, the extent to which other restaurants influenced her thinking, what sort of food she'll serve and how she envisions diners responding to Sparrow.
Why are you making these changes now? I've been at this for a long time, essentially 20 years. Five years ago, things changed for me personally. In that time, my life fell apart. I felt like the whole restaurant scene changed while I was trying to stay above water. I was trying to figure out how I was going to continue to do what I do.
In the midst of that, t'afia stopped being a good expression of who I am now. I'm different now. I've kind of found myself if you will. Ten years ago doing t'afia was an expression of the community. Now we're 10 years along, and my conversation with the local community is different. This is what is more honest to me now. I've been working on this specifically for two to three years. Only in the past few months, I've been able to green light it. It's all happened really quickly.
I've been reflecting the last year, because I'm turning 50 this year. I had my daughter when I was 40. She looked at me and said "Mommy you're halfway to a hundred." I made this statement when I was 17 years old that I was gonna change the way Houston eats. I've spent 20 years trying to figure out what that means. Does it mean how people eat at home? Does it mean how people eat at restaurants? I realize it's a lot of different things.
It's all enmeshed: a personal and professional journey of self discovery. Creating family. About five years ago when everything fell apart, I started to prioritize family. That's what (this summer's OIMBY) backyard suppers were about. I have a home and I have a backyard. I knew this (change) was gonna happen. In some ways, I was coming full circle and connecting my home life and my professional life. If I just talk the talk here and I go home and I don't have that, that's not ok.
I used to wear tshirts with the words on them. I was a walking billboard. I don't have to do that anymore. That was my task for 20 years. I just want to enjoy it now. I described it months ago like looking for love and finding love. I've found love, not just for my future wife, but for my community. I'm like this stuff is unbelievable. There's so much behind that. So much work. So many relationships. I want to enjoy that.
The uniforms, specifically the aprons, sound like some of what both Underbelly and Oxheart are doing. How much were you influenced by some of the new restaurants in Houston in planning Sparrow? It's a dialogue. It's a conversation. We're all influenced by what's out there. What the waiters are going to wear? It's stopped being fun for me. It all seems kind of contrived to me.
I don't want to sound like I'm disrespecting anyone. I don't want to sound like I'm not inspired by (them). I'm just in a place where I saw what was going on. I was heading that way anyway. I think we came up with an outfit that really makes sense for what we believe in here. It's all kind of work related. It's gotta last. I have a diverse, quirky staff. What do we put them in that they all look good?
(The staff is) concerned about the blue suede boots. It's a Redwing shoe. It's gonna petina. It's gonna be great. There's always this fear, "She's gonna put me in blue suede shoes." We're not gonna make you look like fools. We've worked hard to make sure everything feels right. Sometimes you do something, and two weeks later it looks like crap. I can't throw money away like that.
How will the food and dining experiences be different? The marketing situation will be different. In terms of the food, I've always said we do great food. Now people get it. I think I've spent the last year or two really trying to keep it very essential. I'm thinking in a more edited way. Even though we're serving similar foods, the style is different. We're just doing things differenetly. At t'afia we were doing lounge food, and we were doing 3 different meuns. I think people are gonna walk in and they're just gonna get it.
I've heard that won't work in Houston. I've heard that for 20 years. We're a very well traveled, moneyed, cultured group of people here. I'm gonna make it easy for people. I know people will connect with it now. I know from engaging people in classes. The first group to my backyard didn't know who I was. I didn't know who they were. They weren't my fans. They thought it would be neat. It's all about the experience.
It's similar food with little tweaks that mean something to me. Stuff I thought people wouldn't go for. We're still gonna do mac and cheese. We're still gonna do mashed potatoes, but I can still be creative. It's really vivid. We're gonna do it in such a way that you just love it.
How would you describe the concept of "Bar and Cookshop?" I think Sparrow is much more democratic and fun. I put bar first and cookshop second. Not that I'm trying to get away from the restaurant business, but I am trying to put the bar forward. I'm being very deliberate about the cookshop idea. I think even though we didn't have that appelation people don't really want that much restaurant. I don't want a food truck necessarily. This experience that we used to provide at the farmers' market with little food stalls where people cold engage with the artists. These are people that I admire and respect who have changed the way Houston eats. I'm still trying to figure out what that means.
It's not your typical restaurant opening. Just come and experience it. We just want people to be excited about it. I want to be excited about it.
· Sparrow Bar + Cookshop [Official Site]
· Monica Pope to Transform T'afia [-EHOU-]
· Monica Pope to debut Sparrow Bar & Cookshop [Houston Examiner]
Monica Pope [Photo: Deb Smail for Sparrow Bar + Cookshop/Facebook]