When Pier 6 Seafood chef Joe Cervantez first learned about Prestige Oysters’s plans to open a new restaurant in San Leon, he had to look the small fishing village up on a map.
“I’d never heard of it before,” the Pearland native says. “I was thinking it was near Matagorda Bay or somewhere on the other end, like by Freeport.”
The unincorporated community of San Leon, home to a population of about 5,000, is barely a blip on the map of Texas. It occupies roughly 5 square miles at the end of a tiny peninsula that juts into Galveston Bay, about 10 miles southwest of Kemah. There are no grocery stores, only a few restaurants, and barely a waterfront, a small strip of sand the locals call Mooner Beach.
Now, with the recent opening of Pier 6, the little village is poised to become a true weekend hot spot. At least that’s the hope driving Raz Halili, whose family owns Prestige Oysters, one of the Gulf Coast’s largest oyster purveyors. After two decades in the oyster harvesting business, the Halilis are hoping to turn their seafood expertise into a waterfront restaurant serving up fresh-caught fish and coastal vacation vibes.
In the 19th century, Eagle Point, at the northeast end of San Leon, was a stronghold for Jean Lafitte, the privateer who controlled much of the Texas Gulf. That pirate ethos still permeates the community, which for years was known as the birthplace of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club, an organization that has earned a fearsome reputation and classification as an “organized crime syndicate” by law enforcement agencies since its founding in 1966.
These days, the town is more likely to be overrun with weekend joyriders than fearsome gangsters. At Gilhooley’s, an oyster restaurant that’s been open since 1987, there are still remnants of that biker spirit. There’s a sign announcing the establishment’s “no children under 18 rule,” designated motorcycle parking, and a bar where indoor smoking is still allowed. San Leon’s sporadically published newspaper, the SeaBreeze News, calls the town “a small drinking community with a large fishing problem.” In 1985, San Leon locals had the opportunity to incorporate into a proper city, but the residents roundly rejected the proposal by a margin of 75 percent.
In 2008, San Leon was all but decimated by Hurricane Ike. A few years before, Texas’s first rum distillery, Railean, had been established there. After rebuilding, the distillery became a second hangout for day-trip visitors to Gilhooley’s, which helped bolster San Leon’s image as a laid-back waterfront destination.
The house where Raz Halili grew up still stands right next to the waterfront warehouse that now houses Prestige Oysters. The business is a quintessential American success story: Raz’s father, Johnny Halili, emigrated to the United States from Kosovo in the 1970s, first working odd jobs in Chicago before moving south to work as a deckhand on an oyster boat. He eventually saved up to buy his own boat, then met and married an East Texas waitress named Lisa. In 2001, the couple founded Prestige Oysters.
Mountains of spent shells line the parking lot of the Prestige warehouse. Johnny Halili’s first vessel, the Lady Katherine, is now a fleet of 100 boats, a few of which are docked outside the warehouse, just yards from Mooner Beach (which is also covered with spent oyster shells).
Prestige’s open-deck boats trawl the Texas and Louisiana coast, including a series of oyster beds just half a mile from the company’s headquarters. Oysters are pulled fresh from the sea with a dredge, then sorted on large metal tables before being bagged and tagged with the date and bed location for sale onshore. Old shells and broken oysters are thrown back overboard, where they become part of the reef that gives life to the next harvest. During a peak season, the boats can be loaded so full of oyster sacks there’s barely room for anything else.
In 2010, Prestige installed a high-pressure system for pasteurizing oysters, as well as a cryogenic system for flash freezing. In 2013, the company acquired Joey’s Oyster Company in Amite, Louisiana, giving its fleet a second home base for processing and pasteurizing the bivalves. The company’s clients are wide-ranging, including restaurant groups like Landry’s and Red Lobster and major grocers like Central Market and Walmart. Between Texas and Louisiana, Prestige operates more than 40,000 acres of public and private oyster leases, making it one of the country’s largest wholesale oyster distributors.
And Raz, who is now in his 30s, has grown up in the middle of all of it. Without any outside investment, he said, the company was able to grow so large “through decades of blood, sweat and tears.”
“I’ve worked on the fisherman side, growing up on the dockside as a kid, doing all those aspects of the offshore industry,” he says. After returning from college, he started managing Prestige’s business operations, allowing his parents to take a step back. Soon after, he started thinking about opening a restaurant.
“I’ve been in a lot of kitchens, and I’ve seen a lot of cool concepts around the country,” he says. “I wanted to take advantage of the bounty that’s right here in the Gulf.”
From the beginning, Halili knew that opening such a place in a tiny community like San Leon would be a gamble. It needed to be more than a restaurant. It needed to be a destination.
Since opening its doors last October, Pier 6 has been consistently busy, with reservations sometimes hard to come by. On a recent visit to San Leon, the buzz was palpable. Kelly Railean, owner of the distillery, was asking nearly every customer if they’d had a chance to check out the restaurant. And at San Leon Beach Pub, the cozy dive next to Mooner Beach, the regulars at the bar were doing the same.
Halili’s vision for Pier 6 is sweeping. The restaurant itself is gorgeous, an open industrial space with lots of glass that looks out onto the water. The covered patio features rattan swings and views of the nearby Fred Hartman Bridge. There are two bars, one inside and one outside, where diners can watch as their oysters are shucked. The industrial feel is offset by clean white lines and lots of plants, plus decorative knotwork and Instagram-worthy neon signs. You’d hardly know it used to be a Bubba’s Shrimp Palace.
Right outside the restaurant, Halili is building a dock in the hopes of drawing boaters from Kemah and nearby communities. He’s also planning events to draw more folks to San Leon throughout the year, including live music on the patio and an annual fishing tournament. “If you’re a boater anywhere from Clear Lake to Galveston, there aren’t a lot of places to go on your boat — and no one really wants to burn all the gas going to Galveston,” he says.
Halili’s projects extend beyond the restaurant. A few blocks away, on the same north shore of the peninsula, he has built a cluster of charming bungalows — an investment of $1.5 million — that will serve as short-term rentals on platforms like Airbnb for visitors to San Leon.
“We’ve had a lot of out-of-towners come in — from San Antonio, Fort Worth,” Halili says. “They want to come back and make a weekend out of it. And even if it’s Houstonians or people from Galveston — they want to come and enjoy a long day on the patio, they want to have some cocktails, and no one wants to drive back.”
Halili’s first big success, before the restaurant was even open, was landing Joe Cervantez.
Then the executive chef of vaunted Houston restaurant Brennan’s, Cervantez already knew about Prestige Oysters, and he decided to visit San Leon early on just out of curiosity. He and Halili quickly hit it off, and Cervantez enjoyed the proximity to fresh seafood that an opportunity like Pier 6 offered. The meeting was especially opportune considering that, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Cervantez was reevaluating his priorities and trying to decide whether or not Brennan’s was where he wanted to be.
He also thought about lessons he’d learned as an executive chef under Ronnie Killen, who transformed the suburb of Pearland into a bonafide dining destination thanks to his barbecue, burger, and steak restaurants. “I always went back to when Killen started a steakhouse in Pearland, a place that, at the time, no one really talked about going to at all,” he says.
After a few more meetings, Halili asked Cervantez what it would take to bring him on board full-time. Cervantez decided to make the leap.
“I was thinking, What is it that I really want to do? I saw that it could be a really fun gig — either it could work out or it could flop. But I liked his energy, the way he was explaining the details and how he took no shortcuts. I believed in it,” Cervantez says. “If I wanted to start fresh somewhere, there was no better time than now. It was definitely a risk, and I knew that.”
Halili gave Carvantez free rein in developing the menu, which the chef built with an eye toward simplicity. One section consists of wood-grilled fish, a throwback to his work with Killen. Other dishes are more playful — a blue crab grilled cheese, potato salad loaded with chunks of lobster, and a fried red snapper filet with a potato crust. There are locally caught oysters, of course, with a 50-cent special on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Time will tell whether or not Halili’s big gamble on San Leon will pan out, but it’s already attracting people who are willing to make the drive to take in the waterfront views while eating fresh oysters.
On a recent visit to the restaurant, two couples were sitting at the bar, talking about how they’d heard about Pier 6. One couple, from Spring, was celebrating their wedding anniversary. The other, an older couple, had driven from Sugar Land, a trip that took them 90 minutes one way. The Sugar Land couple were longtime fans of Brennan’s and had heard about chef Cervantez’s move. This was the fourth or fifth time they’d made the drive to San Leon to eat at his new restaurant.
“Who’d have thought a place like this would open here?” the older woman said to the Spring couple. “It just goes to show: If you have a place, people will come.”