In 2018, Houston’s massive restaurant scene continued to grow and change in ways that only made this city an even better place to dine. It was a major year for openings, closings, and controversies, and it’s likely that next year will be equally packed with major news.
As we wrap up the year, take a look back at the stories that Houstonians went wild for in 2018.
The Paul Qui Saga
Even though Aqui, the first Houston restaurant from Paul Qui, opened its doors in 2017, the embattled chef remained a major topic of conversation in 2018. In February, Houston Chronicle critic Alison Cook gave the restaurant a glowing four-star review, accompanied by an essay about the internal conflict she felt in reviewing a restaurant helmed by a man accused of domestic violence. Later, members of the James Beard Award committee indicated that those accusations played a key role in Aqui being left out of the organization’s slate of nominees in 2018.
A few months later, those charges against Qui were dropped, and Aqui continued to earn praise from diners and local restaurant journalists alike. In early December, Qui announced that he would close Aqui at the end of the month, a move that surprised many dedicated Houston diners. The chef plans to make a comeback in 2019 with a new restaurant, but whether or not those domestic violence allegations have permanently soured Houstonians on Qui and his restaurants remains to be seen.
In-N-Out Will Finally Open in Houston
Houstonians went absolutely wild for the news that iconic California burger chain In-N-Out would finally open a restaurant in Space City. Of course, plenty of locals are satisfied with the numerous burger chains that have already taken up residence in the Houston area, but plenty of expats are thrilled that double-doubles and “animal-style” fries are on the way to two locations — one in Stafford, another in Katy, in 2019.
The Demise of Cherry Pie Hospitality
Once the ownership group behind much-lauded spots like State Fare, Star Fish and Pi Pizza, Cherry Pie Hospitality has disappeared from the Houston dining scene. The demise began in earnest in mid-2017, when the landlord of a space that was intended to house the first outpost of ice cream shop Lee’s Creamery sued the company for $1 million, alleging unpaid rent.
Just a few weeks later, both Star Fish and Pi Pizza were locked out of their spaces in the Heights for failing to pay rent, which the company characterized as a “banking snafu.” The restaurants re-opened a few days later, and State Fare was sold to a new operator. By the end of August, Cherry Pie Hospitality had sold the remainder of its restaurants, including Star Fish, Pi Pizza, and Lee’s Fried Chicken and Donuts, to The Pit Room owner Michael Sambrooks and his newly-formed restaurant group. Sambrooks has since hired chef Lyle Bento, formerly of Southern Goods and Underbelly Hospitality, to revamp menus at the restaurants.
El Tiempo’s Jeff Sessions Controversy
Houston Tex-Mex mainstay El Tiempo Cantina found itself in the middle of a major controversy in August, when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions (who has since resigned his post) post for a selfie with co-owner Dominic Laurenzo after dining at the restaurant. The outrage in Houston was pretty immediate, especially considering that Sessions had used part of his speech at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Houston to rail against immigrants in the most diverse city in the country.
For the most part, Houston restaurateurs stayed out of the political storm swirling around El Tiempo, with a few notable exceptions. At the peak of the controversy, Gringo’s Mexican Kitchen owner Russell Ybarra encouraged El Tiempo supporters to visit the restaurant amid calls for a boycott. At El Real in Montrose, a snarky message on the restaurant’s iconic marquee took aim at both El Tiempo and Sessions. The storm eventually blew over, but it’s likely that many local restaurant owners will think twice before posing for smiley selfies with controversial politicians in the future.
University of Houston Students’ McDonald’s Prank Goes Viral
In what may be one of the year’s most epic pranks, University of Houston students Jevh Maravilla and Christian Toledo hung a fake McDonald’s advertisement featuring themselves at a Pearland location of the burger chain. After Maravilla tweeted about the prank, it went viral on Twitter, landing the duo more than 250,000 retweets on Twitter and an appearance on Ellen, where they scored a $25,000 check each and the opportunity to star in a future advertising campaign for McDonald’s.
The duo later said that their stunt was an attempt to call attention to the lack of racial diversity in McDonald’s advertising, and the chain clearly took that to heart. In November, McDonald’s made good on its promise and released a digital video ad featuring Maravilla and Toledo promoting its new Triple Breakfast Stacks sandwiches.
Restaurateur Bruce Molzan Arrested on Child Indecency Charges
Even though restaurateur Bruce Molzan is no stranger to brushes with the law — last year, he was issued more than 200 misdemeanor citations for his role in an illegal seafood scheme — news that he’d been arrested on charges of indecency with a child in August came as a serious shock. Molzan has denied the allegations, claiming that they were an attempt to “gain leverage in a child custody matter by filing false complaints.” Harris County court records indicate that Molzan is set to appear in court on January 18 on the charges.