Contributor Ellie Sharp interviews Johnny Carrabba on his newest restaurant in Upper Kirby.
Locals might know Johnny Carrabba for his 27-year history with Carrabba's, his family restaurant ties in Houston and for his casual spot Mia's Table, named after his daughter. Most recently, he opened week-old Grace's, a restaurant named after his late grandmother Grace Mandola. While Carrabba is known for his Italian focus—with the exception of Mia's—this place is decidedly international in scope. It pays homage to Houston's diverse community with dishes from all over the world that have been inspired by Grace's recipes. Sweet and sour calamari & shrimp, yellowtail carpaccio, chicken tortilla soup, gumbo, Gulf fried oyster salad, a wagyu hamburger, steak, carne asada and more are presented on the eclectic menu. Designed by architect Ed Eubanks of Eubanks Group Architects, the restaurant is awash with charm, warmth, and nostalgic touches. Here now, our interview with the longtime Houston restaurateur on how this may be the last establishment he opens in Houston, and why it's a tribute to the once matriarch of the family who was also his culinary mentor.
When I came in I noticed all the lace [framed in the entryway], does this have any special meaning?
This [place] is named after my grandmother, Grace Mandola. She lived in a little bungalow house on the East End. I'm trying to make this restaurant look like a house and make it feel like you're walking into your grandmother's house. So I had these two ladies named Jane Weil and Evie Katz, and they own this little company, and they traveled the country going to estate sales—they found all this stuff. A lot of people think it may be my grandmother's, but most of the things [were brought it] to make it look like a home.
Why were you inspired to name this place after your grandmother?
My two grandmothers were my closest friends, and my grandmothers worked really hard on taking care of the family. My grandmother Grace was the best cook I ever met. Not only was she great with Italian food—she was Sicilian—but she was raised in Louisiana, so that was a big influence. She taught us a lot about food through osmosis, and she cooked from the heart. She taught us a lot about hospitality, and our memories as a kid weren't really about vacations, they were mostly about Sunday meals with her.
My sister and I would stay with her two weeks every summer, here in town. She would sit down with us on Sunday and we would plan our whole week as far as our meals. And you take my mother, her name is Rose Mandola Carrabba, and she has three brothers: Vincent (Nino's and Vincent's), Tony Mandola (Tony Mandola's), and then Damian Mandola, who is my former partner. He had a restaurant called Damian's. But if you look at these three sons, along with myself, we wouldn't be in the restaurant business without her. She gave us the original base for a lot of our recipes, and she needs to be honored. And I used to always thank her and she'd always say, "I didn't do anything." And I said, "You gave me a career." She was an amazing lady.
And Mia's is named after your daughter, so should we expect future restaurants named after other relatives?
You know what, I'm going to give you a little inside news. This is probably my last restaurant. I started Carrabba's 27 years ago and then I opened the Woodway/Voss location 25 years ago, and I still own those two. I got in business with Outback Steakhouse, and I ran that company for a while, but now that company is very big. I'm very happy with it; it's a chain restaurant, and like I said, Outback Steakhouse owns it. I really wanted to get back home and get into the business that I know. I'm happiest when I run a small, family owned business. And this restaurant isn't even a week old. I have a lot of work to do here, we do – I have a great team, and I think once get this thing where I want it, then I'll be very happy and satisfied.
I think there is something significant and symbolic about ending with your grandmother's inspiration. She inspired you to begin, and this restaurant is kind of like the bookends to your legacy.
I've never looked at it that way, but I think that's it. But my real point right now is that I want to enjoy what I do. And I want to enjoy my people that work with me. I want to enjoy my customers. I want to have a social life also with my two children and my fiancé, Randi. And I think I'm having fun. If I grow, it's more meetings and more stress and I have enough stress. And I think I want to enjoy however many years I have left.
But [also] I have a lot of very loyal employees. And I feel like they have to grow as individuals, and I have to provide an opportunity for them. I need to show a little bit of growth for their personal growth and I think that we're doing that. I always say that the restaurant business is like giving birth. When you're giving birth you're saying "never again," and when the baby wakes up every two hours in the night for the first several months you say "never again." But the memory of the hard work wears off. The labor. And then you say, "Let's try it again." And I'm trying to fight that, but I think this is it. Matter of fact, looking at you right now, I know this is it.
I'll quote you on it! But of course you can always be like Brett Favre and keep retiring and returning.
Right, or like Muhammad Ali. He must have retired five or six times but just kept coming back. So, never say never.
I was amazed at the versatility on the menu at Grace's.
Houston is a very international city. I'm modeling the restaurant a little on three restaurants that I love across the country. I love Union Square Café in New York. Then there's The Ivy in Los Angeles and then Mustards [Grill] in Napa. Very eclectic menus. But if you look at Houston, it's very international and if you look at my menu it's very diverse just like our city. I have Asian influence, I have a little down home soul food, and I have American food. And there are a couple little foodie things, but we make our living on really common food.
That's usually the best.
And I think those stay in business the longest. The other thing is that when you have good, well-executed common food it never really goes out of style. So I really try to buck the trends. Trends come and go. They come and go but good Italian food, or good comfort food, has been around and is going to stay here.
So is it safe to describe the menu as a mix of American and Tex-Mex cuisine with a splash of Asian-Italian fusion?
[Laughs.] And the funny part about it is I can't do Italian anymore because I sold my soul, but I only have one pasta dish. But it's fun to be doing something different; I've been doing Italian food for so long. It's very challenging for me, because Italian food I could do in my sleep. But then here, it challenges me and it challenges my staff.
Seems like the kind of thing your grandmother would appreciate.
Yeah, she made a heck of a gumbo and I have a gumbo on the menu. We have chili and tortilla soup. She was good at all that stuff. She was full-blooded Italian, that food was really good. She was raised in Louisiana so she had all that. And then she moved to Texas and she got to be really good at chili and enchiladas. She was a chameleon.
I bet no one ever went hungry in her house.
You can look at us. We're on the happy side.
The recipes are inspired by your grandmother's but aren't necessarily the specific ones she used?
No one in the family is a schooled chef so she taught us through tasting and osmosis. So when I try the gumbo, I don't have her gumbo recipe but it's my memories of it, in my taste buds. She was a very soulful cook. So her inspiration is with us no matter if it's her recipe or not.
You've developed a great little community with Carrabba's, Mia's, and Grace's in such close proximity and everything in walking distance of each other.
I call it my "trifecta" – Carrabba's, Mia's, and Grace's. And the restaurants are so different. I don't ever think that Grace's will take business away from Carrabba's because it's so established. Grace's, like I told my staff, has to earn its own stripes. It has to earn it's own reputation. That's the pressure that we have. It's a new restaurant and we gotta win our own customers over [again]. One of the best compliments I've gotten was from one of my regular customers who came in the other night and he said "I felt guilty walking in over here because the Carrabba's valet saw me and I felt like I wasn't being loyal." Our neighborhood is very loyal to my staff, and that's a good sign. But we'll build our own clientele over here.
You've developed a committed following over the years. What do you think it is about your restaurants that keep people coming back?
As companies get older, most start experiencing absentee ownership and turnover. We work really, really hard on low turnover and I work really hard on the lack of absentee ownership—I'm very hands-on. But the real thing that happens to restaurants is they lose their culture and they get away from their initial hunger, their initial vision. We try really hard to hold onto the culture and we also work really hard to stick to our core values and fundamentals. I would say that our fundamentals are food, service, cleanliness, atmosphere, and ambiance, and I must have high morale. Even though we have our core values, we move with the times. Eating out is not just getting your stomach full anymore, it's entertainment. So evolution and changing is good. I think that's how we've survived the last 27 years.
· Grace's [Official Site]