Over the past couple of months, there has been no hotter dining neighborhood in Houston than the Heights. Now home to a slew of newly-opened restaurants, including Lee Ellis’ Star Fish and Justin Yu-Bobby Heugel collaboration Better Luck Tomorrow, the next couple of months will bring even more eateries to the neighborhood known for its discerning diners.
But why? What is it exactly that makes the Heights so perfect for restaurants that offer an incredibly diverse variety of cuisines, vibes, and price points? Eater spoke with some of the neighborhood's most prominent chefs and restaurateurs to dig into what makes the Heights so uniquely ideal for new restaurants right now. Turns out, the combination of palatable rents and open-minded clientele also comes with a unique set of challenges.
According to the chefs and restaurateurs who operate in the Heights, real estate in the neighborhood is still affordable. Despite the fact that rents have steadily risen as Houston’s culinary scene has earned more national acclaim, restaurant owners feel that the potential to make money is enough to justify paying a little bit more for a truly plum location. “Rents have gone up since we signed our deals, but we’re happy with our real estate costs,” says Coltivare’s Ryan Pera. “We’re in the heart of Houston, and there’s a sense of community here that sets the Heights apart from other neighborhoods.”
Perhaps most important, though, is the perception that folks living in the area are particularly discerning when it comes to dining out. “Morgan and I have always believed in ingredient-driven food, and a lot of Heights residents have the same beliefs,” says Pera. “They want to know where their food comes from, as do we. And they want it to taste great, as do we. I feel like we’re on the same philosophical path as the people who live in this neighborhood.”
According to Ellis, who lives and operates Pi Pizza, Lee’s Fried Chicken & Donuts, and Star Fish in the Heights, the area is also home to a diverse population of guests, which is good for his line-up of both casual and more upscale eateries. “All age groups live in the Heights,” says Ellis. “Single people and families are here, and people come from all the areas that are close by because they like a neighborhood setting.”
For Better Luck Tomorrow, the Heights offered an opportunity to bring a unique neighborhood bar to Space City that may not have been possible in other parts of town. “It's difficult to find ways to make small spaces functional in Houston,” says BLT co-owner Bobby Heugel. “We don't yet have the density of other larger cities, so generating weekday sales instead of building large rooms that catch everyone on the weekends requires finding areas where people actively drink and eat out seven days a week.”
Like any location, operating in the Heights doesn’t come without speed bumps. A higher density of young families (read: kids) has presented some challenges for concepts like Better Luck Tomorrow, which describes itself as more of a “bar with food” than a full-service restaurant. “There's more families in the Heights than Montrose for example, and for a business that seeks to provide a neighborhood bar setting, that can be challenging,” says BLT co-owner Bobby Heugel. “We hope that people will realize that we aren't the most suitable business for children and come see us when they need a break from their kids. That conversation can be a delicate one to have, so we are cautiously approaching the issue with folks rather than setting a firm policy, but that might change at some point.”
Also annoying for restaurants in the Heights is the fact that the neighborhood requires patrons to sign up for a private club in order to drink alcohol at a restaurant or bar. “It causes a significant burden on our operations and capabilities, but we wanted to be in the Heights so badly, we decided to deal with the regulations,” says Heugel. “Rent has never been higher inside the loop, but neither has Houston's inner-loop population.”
In November of last year, Heights voters ousted a ban on beer and wine sales that predated Prohibition, but restaurants like Coltivare are still required to jump through the private club hoop. “It is dry, so our concepts that serve alcohol function as private clubs,” says Pera. “Which brings accounting challenges that businesses in other neighborhoods don’t have to deal with.”
All of the restaurateurs that Eater spoke with cited parking and accessibility in the Heights as the neighborhood’s biggest issue. Outside of the headaches that limited parking and sketchy staircases can create for customers, clogged streets and loud crowds can also cause strain with a restaurant’s neighbors. “Being in the middle of a neighborhood and having a good relationship with your neighbors is a big challenge, but we welcome them,” says Ellis. Pera echoes that sentiment, noting that the staff at Coltivare tries to keep the lines of communication open with its neighbors to head off major issues before they boil over.
Despite these challenges, growth in the Heights shows no signs of slowing down. Helen in the Heights and King’s BierHaus just kicked open the doors in the neighborhood, Dish Society is headed there in the coming months, and soon Shade will be reborn as Alice Blue. Considering the rapid change that Houston’s restaurant scene has seen in recent years, though, who knows how long the magic is going to last?