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Houston's Restaurant Industry and Food Writers Reveal Their Biggest Grievance of 2014

City dragging its feet on permits, astronomical rent and other gripes about Houston's restaurants.

MF Sushi Houston
MF Sushi Houston
MF Sushi Houston/Facebook

As is the tradition at Eater, our closeout of the year is a survey of friends and food writers. This year, we asked the group eight questions, from meal of the year to top restaurant newcomers. We'll be posting their answers each day until we ring in the new year. Responses are related in no particular order; all are cut, pasted and unedited herein. Readers, please add your survey answers in the comments.

What was the biggest restaurant grievance of 2014?

Mai Pham, food critic for Houston Press and freelance writer for My Table magazine, 002 Houston and Forbes Travel Guide
: A predilection to over-salt dishes. From your basic mom and pop to our chef-driven establishments, salt was overplayed.

Jodie Eisenhardt, Eater Houston contributor, freelance writer and marketing consultant at Two Chicks Communications: I think “local” is an overused term that doesn’t mean as much as it used to. Customers need to start asking specifics about where restaurants source specific ingredients..

Dutch Small, proprietor of Forma Revivo and marketing consultant/publicist at Immersioncy Public Relations: Cove closed. It was pretty much the worst thing that has ever happened to me.

Hank Lewis, food blogger at Hank on Food: This is tough to answer because I try not to go there in my blog. For me it would have to be issues with some restaurants which I won't name who seem to think it is okay to treat a solo diner shabbily. I don't go into a restaurant solo announcing I'm a blogger--I don't want preferential treatment or service and I can pay for my own meals. I worked as a Bartender and a Waiter when I was in university so I know how many customers act like little Emperors and Empresses, and that's not who I am.

However, one restaurant that took a couple of years to construct and finally opened this past year treated me poorly as a solo diner. I came during an off-peak period, went into the hostess station--nobody was there, so sign telling me to go to the bar or elsewhere to get seated, no sign telling me to seat myself. I waited 15 minutes, then walked into the bar and got a hostess's attention, was seated. It was 10 more minutes before I got a menu. There were 4 tables seated in this restaurant that had over 100 tables and 2 servers, 2 buss staff filling water and putting appetizers on the table. I waited and waited, a couple of times I tried to flag down a server--the bussing staff didn't speak English and I tried to communicate with them in Spanglish that I needed a server, to no avail. After about 30 minutes, I just gave up, told the Hostess what happened and asked to speak to a manager. I was told there was no manager on the premises (it was 4:30 PM on a Saturday afternoon, no joke). At that point I just left. I was prepared to spend at least $50 to try several of their dishes and I always tip at least 20%.

I contacted the management via their Facebook page since nobody was answering the phone on their website at most of the reasonable hours I tried to call. I detailed things politely, made it clear that I did not want any meals or beverages comped, but that I was respectfully suggesting that they needed to work on training their staff--especially their hostesses and serving staff--on treating customers with more respect as this is their main source of revenue. Their response was casual indifference.

That restaurant closed before 2014 was even over with, which did not surprise me in the least. From what I've heard around the grapevine, I am not the only diner who was treated that way by their staff. Though there are some high end dining folks who expect a superiority complex from staff and management at high end restaurants (see the iPhone/iPad ad where the faux French accent dude was swearing the caller could never get a reservation), that kind of behavior does NOT play well in Houston. The successful restaurants in Houston at every level from $10 to $200 per plate are diner friendly. This place gutted their business with their own knife and didn't even realize it.

Anthony Calleo, proprietor and chef of Pi Pizza Truck: Landlords absolutely loosing their minds with outrageous rental rates. It's causing the death of the local mom & pop establishment that has, for years, given Houston it's unique food culture. The Raising Canes on Westheimer just after Hazard is the penultimate expression of this.

Chris Frankel, food enthusiast and bartender at Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar: Less aggressive expansion, more aggressive execution, please. Not every restaurant group has to turn into Torchy's Tacos or Morton's The Steakhouse and have dozens of locations to be a success, but it seems like that's a common goal. A lot of establishments I adore have seen noticeable dropoffs in quality because key personnel are too busy focusing on expansion plans to oversee their existing businesses, and that's just unfortunate.

Speaking of Torchy's, honorable mention for the Austinization of Houston: I'm tired of mediocre Austin chains opening up in Houston and watering down our dining scene. I'll go to a locally owned truck and pay 1/3 of the price for a real taco, thanks.

Eric Sandler, former Eater Houston editor, food writer for CultureMap, monthly contributor to Houston Matters and The Cleverley Show: The amount of time it takes the city to approve permits.

Shepard Ross, restauranteur (Glass Wall, Brooklyn Athletic Club, Pax Americana and forthcoming The Dell): Restaurants that open to the public before they are ready. If you’re not ready for primetime, wait until you can give your “A” game to the public...

Marcy de Luna, editor of Zagat Houston and freelance writer for CultureMap: The MF Sushi drama (although I'm happy to hear that chef Chris Kinjo is opening a new restaurant in the Museum District in 2015).