For nearly half a century, Ouisie's Table has been part of the fabric of Houston, a Southern-comfort-food-meets-Gulf-Coast-cuisine enclave known as much for its menu as its gracious hospitality and quirky traditions. The original location operated on Sunset Blvd. starting in 1973 before opening on San Felipe in 1995. Owner Elouise Adams Jones (AKA Ouisie) talked to Eater about opening shop, staying in business and why diners love having patience.
What led you to open Ouisie's Table?
I guess mostly I needed a job. I'd left an administrative job at the Houston Chronicle in the late 1960s because I wanted to do something else, and every time I sat down to figure it out what that would be, everything that appealed to me always ended up pointing to food and restaurants. I'd never worked in a restaurant, but I knew what I wanted my restaurant to be. I started small with the Traveling Brown Bag Lunch Company, which a business that provided homemade lunches I delivered every day to the Houston Chronicle. The success of that gave me the boost and the confidence to grow. Five years later, I decided it was time to try my hand at running a restaurant. I found an old vacant building on Sunset Blvd. and on May 12, 1973, I opened Ouisie's Table.
The restaurant was open for many years in that Sunset Bouldevard location, then it closed and then reopened. What led to that?
At the end of the 1980s a lot of things were happening in my life, including my son's death. I needed time to reconnoiter, so that's what I did. I call it a period when I just went to count seagulls in Galveston Bay. As for reopening, on the very day I closed on Sunset the owners of the land where Ouisie's is today approached me and asked me to relocate. I told them I needed some time. They didn't touch the property until I came in almost five years later and said I was ready. I was working on the design of what I wanted to build, and we got started. I will say they had no idea what I had in mind – they were thinking a small little space like Sunset. They never dreamed I wanted a building that big, but I knew the restaurant would grow. I also knew if I didn't make it big enough when I started, there wouldn't be any space left to grow after a few years. That's how the present Ouisie's came to be.
How has the menu evolved over the years—or how has it stayed the same? Did you ever try to remove something from it and diners didn't like it, or are there certain popular dishes that have been with you from the beginning?
When Sunset opened, almost everything on the menu was original. I was using recipes from my family, especially my grandmother, but my rule was to cut no corners. My approach was to take old home recipes that I thought missed something but had a lot of potential. I learned if you take those, don't cut any corners and use the best of everything that went in them, you had great food. The menu changed every day and sometimes several times a day. If we ran out of anything, we'd figure out what we had and fix something else. I had some of my kitchen staff tell me that working that restaurant was the best training they ever had. Out of that, we had some items that customers came to demand. Shrimp and Grits is something no one had heard of and then couldn't get enough of. We still have it. It's something you just don't fool with. Ouisie's Table pimento cheese is sacred. Same with our egg salad. Our lemon pie and our chocolate pie. Never leaving. Chicken-fried steak, a must keep.
A restaurant that has been open for 40 years clearly has a devoted following. Are you seeing multiple generations of diners coming in now? Did you ever imagine that this would be the case?
On Sunset, we sometimes posted drawings kids had made in school. Well some of those very kids are bringing their kids into the restaurant. We've had wedding events at Ouisie's for couples whose grandparents started coming in when we opened. I love seeing all these families grow and change. It is something I anticipated because it was something I wanted when I started the business. As I mentioned before, and it may sound foolish, but I just never thought this restaurant wouldn't succeed.
What's one thing you've learned over the years that you had no idea about at all in the beginning?
In truth, good food never changes. I started feeling I was blazing new paths by demanding that our ingredients would only be the best and freshest available, no artificial fillers or cutting corners and prepare everything so that you can taste the flavors. Now I look at what restaurants are doing with farm to table, never frozen and buying local, and while the ingredients are more varied, the basics are the same. And looking back, I was following what our pioneer ancestors were doing. I've learned good food all starts the same.
There are two iconic images at Ouisie's—the famous red dress and Patience. What's the story behind those?
Patience is the newer of the two, maybe six or seven years ago. He's a big yellow lab statue I saw in the window of a prop store one day. I fell in love with him so I brought him to the restaurant, and we had a contest with our customers to name him. The name Patience won. He sits on the bar, but the staff is encouraged to bring him to a table where there's an extra chair. Most people love him. Some don't quite get it. One night when there had been a mix-up on an order, and the customers were getting a little upset. The server brought him to the table and told the people, "We are getting the order straightened out as fast as we can. In the meantime, can will Patience help?" Everything worked out immediately. The dress, named Miss Ruby after my sister, goes way back–the dress is 54 years old and has been going up in the restaurant for 18 years. My sister wore it for the 1958 Houston Debutante season, and then was packed away for years. One year, in 1990, I didn't have a Christmas tree, so I dragged it out and made it my "tree," hanging it high above the fireplace in my apartment. Everyone loved it, so when I opened on San Felipe, we made a space to hang it. It goes up just before Thanksgiving and comes down after Valentine's. It used to hang in the open but a few years ago, we had it restored and put it in a large plexiglass case. It keeps the dust off of it and frustrates the basketball wannabes who used to try and land our biscuits in her bodice.
· Ouisie's Table [Official Site]
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