When Batanga opened downtown in April of last year, brothers and co-owners Hank Fasthoff and Brian Fasthoff were well prepared to run the place. Brian had been in Atlanta for 20 years, heading up restaurants; Hank had been practicing law here in Houston. The two had long talked of a joint venture, and last year, the timing just seemed right. We caught up with them as they reflect on their first year in business, the bonds they've forged with fellow downtown restaurant and bar owners, and what they're looking forward to in the year ahead.
Brian, you've run restaurants before. So, opening a place isn't new to you. But what makes this Houston spot different?
Brian Fasthoff: We'd been talking for a long time about doing something together, but we didn't want to do a re-do of my restaurants in Atlanta. Those were tapas places, too, with live music, but the difference here is that we're a step up, we think, in the food, in the space, in the service.
Hank Fasthoff: It's very high-level here. Conceptually, Batanga is a Latin American tapas bar with Latin American music, but here, it's a lot more upscale, with a more professional team. And, frankly, it's a lot cooler.
How was the process for opening Batanga for you here in the Bayou City compared to your Atlanta experinces?
Brian: Man, it just exceeded expectations. Right from the start, the City of Houston was fantastic, working with us on permits and licenses we needed, and taking us through that process. And our neighbors downtown have been great. If we ever needed help with how something was supposed to work or how to navigate something, they pitched right in to help us find our way. In Atlanta, it's a lot more tooth and nail, whether we're talking about getting permits or working alongside companies next door. Here, it's a lot more friendly.
Hank: My day job is being an attorney and the thing that surprised me the most about all of this, is how everyone in the industry has really just treated me like not just an equal, but like family. It's pleasantly surprising.
What's been one of your hurdles to your first year of business?
Hank: It was challenging to recruit staff to come and work downtown, as opposed to being a more neighborhood bar. But, we are so thrilled with the team we have in place.
Batanga [Photos: Gary Wise]
Brian: I agree with what Hank said, but I think the challenge to getting our staff wasn't that people didn't want to come downtown, but that we had such a slim talent pool because there are so many good restaurants and bars in Houston that it's very hard to keep up with demand for great people. There's a lot of opportunity here in Houston, and that's great – both for the restaurants and for the people who work in them. Houston's restaurant industry is booming.
So is downtown. What does that mean for you?
Brian: It means our second year is going to be busier than our first!
Hank: There are all these new hotels and residential towers coming into downtown. And we know our name has gotten around. But it's not just about us, it's about all of the bars and restaurants in downtown. That has a positive impact on us, because people are thinking again about downtown as a place where you can go for dining and entertainment.
Brian: We've noticed that many people start after work hours with a cocktail and then go on to the park to see a movie or they spend the weekend at the ICON, and the evenings tend to build to this crescendo. People are walking more to visit us, and maybe three or four other places a night. We've come to know the people who live and work downtown and we see them when we're out at bars and restaurants down here.
What items have become the most popular on your menu?
Brian: The Colombian empanadas, for sure. And the Cuban chicken skewers. We do a fish taco that people like a lot, and even though it's not necessarily Latin, the hamburger at lunch is great. So far as drinks go, the standout has been the Peruvian Mule, a take on the Moscow Mule, only we do it with pisco. And our mojitos are really popular. Something else everyone's love is that every Sunday we roast a whole pig, and we do a $32 three-course dinner with ½ off on bottles of wine.
So, what's next for you?
Brian: We have a few things up our sleeve, we're not quite ready to reveal yet. But this year, we're looking at doing more corporate events, being involved in some festivals. We might even do some cosmetic things to the restaurant.
What do you want your guests to feel like when they come into Batanga?
Hank: I'd like them to feel like they've escaped to somewhere else.
Brian: And it does feel that way. The patio is huge and it's really beautiful at night; you're sitting right there at the base of the clock tower, and it doesn't feel like Houston at all.
Hank: It feels like you could be in a city in Spain or South America.
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