From tapas to charcuterie and signature cocktails to Texas-inspired brunch dishes, Cy-Fair has seen more innovative dining options open in recent months, as leaders in the industry have noted more diners choosing unique restaurants over chains.
“Right now, there’s a lot of emphasis on convenient but healthy and quality local food,” said Jonathan Horowitz, CEO of Legacy Restaurants and president of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association. “And then on the other side, there’s still a desire for innovation—what we call ‘foodie’ type of food—with higher-end and more chef-driven restaurants.”
The Greater Houston area’s strong business climate allows young chefs to move in and try unique ideas—whether it is a gourmet grilled cheese shop or a food truck, Horowitz said.
He said several big players in Houston’s food industry are migrating out to the suburbs. Frio Hill Country Grill, The Cheese Bar, 21st Amendment Lounge and Murdoch’s Backyard Pub are just a few of the many new restaurants that have opened in the last year in Cy-Fair.
“For a long time, the suburbs were just known as ‘chain purgatory’ where that was really the only option,” Horowitz said. “I think restaurateurs have seen an opportunity to get out and start tapping that market a little more. They’ve seen consumers be more willing to try new places and potentially pay a little more to have those different experiences.”
Leslie Martone, president of the Cy-Fair Houston Chamber of Commerce, said the foodie scene can thrive in Cy-Fair because it has people of all ages and income levels. There is a balance of young families and millennials, she said.
“[Appealing food options] keep all types of people local and spending money in the community,” she said.
According to the Texas Restaurant Association, Texans spent $52.4 billion on dining out at 43,500 locations in 2016.
Residents who eat local face less traffic and spend less money than they would if they were to drive into the city, Martone said. Additionally, keeping their money in Cy-Fair helps boost the local economy.
However, because there is so much competition, successfully launching a new concept is no easy task, she said.
“Between high rent, overhead costs of ingredients and staff, you have to charge an arm and a leg to make anything,” Martone said. “Just being a unique restaurant or offering something unique doesn’t make a restaurateur successful. You must provide stellar service, be the talk of the town and be a sharp businessperson.”
While many restaurateurs have found success in the Greater Houston area, others fail for reasons ranging from choosing a weak location to underestimating the amount of money and time it takes to run a business, Horowitz said.
“It’s a difficult and risky idea to open a restaurant because a lot of great chefs don’t necessarily know much about running a business,” he said. “That’s actually the most important part—knowing the nuts and bolts of finances, legal issues and labor. It’s not enough just to serve great food because the competition is very strong.”
Troy Boyce moved to Fairfield from Pittsburgh about four years ago. He missed the adrenaline of working in the restaurant industry after a decade of working for Outback Steakhouse, so he decided to take a risk when the company he worked for went under.
When Boyce moved to Texas, he said there was nothing like The Cheese Bar, the gourmet cheese shop he opened with his wife last April in the Boardwalk at Towne Lake.
Since then, he has focused on high-quality cheeses and charcuterie, or cold cooked meats. Alongside sandwiches that feature ingredients such as turkey, brie and apple or fig, chevre and prosciutto, sides on the menu include beer cheese soup, salads and award-winning macaroni and cheese.
“If you want potato chips, go to Subway,” Boyce said. “I’m using $40 per pound meats, so I’m not going to be putting 25-cent potato chips on the same plate.”
He said he believes chain restaurants are starting to close their doors because they stopped caring about the quality of the product and hire managers who are more concerned with money than with the food.
In addition to quality ingredients, Boyce focuses on his customers, making a point to personally greet as many as possible.
“I like being out here talking with the guests and making them family,” he said. “This is a place where people can come hang out, enjoy some good wine, good food, great music and the ambience. We’re building emotional equity.”
Keeping up with trends
Boyce said when he moved to Texas, he had to drive to The Heights to find good cheese.
“If it’s not Tex-Mex or barbecue or Whataburger or Chick-fil-A, it’s nothing,” Boyce said of his impression of the food scene when he first arrived. “Now we’re getting a lot more people looking for mom and pop shops. The chains are going away.”
While his goal has been to eventually open five locations across Houston, Boyce said he was surprised he was able to sign a lease for a second in Katy during his first year of business. The Boardwalk location will also soon expand into the neighboring suite to nearly double the seating space.
Boyce said he thinks Houston is about five years behind the rest of the U.S. when it comes to the foodie revolution. However, Horowitz said in the last three or four years, Houstonians have caught up to and, in some ways, surpassed other markets.
“Houston is a very international and cosmopolitan city,” he said. “With industries like oil and gas, medical and technology, we have people from literally all over the world. They want those innovative, excellent dining experiences that they’ve had all over the world.”
The same is true for the local bar scene, 21st Amendment Lounge owner Andy Adams said. He opened the lounge on Telge Road in December.
Adams said there has long been a perception that Houston waits to catch up with other metropolises after seeing what might be “cool” there. Fifteen years ago, for instance, there were no wine bars around Houston, and now there are dozens, including Flying Vine Wine Bar & Bistro in the Boardwalk at Towne Lake, which opened in late 2016.
“That was always the reputation that Houston was behind New York [City] and L.A. and Chicago,” he said. “That is true to a degree, but I don’t know so much anymore. I think our craft cocktails and bartenders in the city right now are some of the best in the nation.”
Since opening, Adams said he buys local products as often as possible. Bearded Fox Brewing Co. opened around the corner on Spring Cypress Road in February, and now its beer is on the menu at 21st Amendment.
“I don’t think Jack Daniels or Crown [Royal] or any of those guys need our money,” he said. “I can call my friends at Bearded Fox, and by that evening we’re pouring the beer we tasted that morning. That’s what I like about the whole local thing.”
Having run The Corkscrew Wine Bar and Washington Avenue Drinkery in Houston, Adams said he wanted to bring a unique concept to the suburbs. The 21-and-older establishment, which hosts brunch and live music on the weekends, moves away from the family environment found at most local eateries.
Along with an extensive wine list and local craft beer selections, the kitchen serves up tapas-style dishes and pizzas, he said.
Although the team spent time crafting the list of cocktails, new drinks are frequently based on what ingredients are in the market that day.
“Drinks can only be as good as the ingredients,” he said. “I think you have a smarter, more educated consumer searching for more eclectic and esoteric ingredients, asking for things that are out of the norm.”
At Frio Hill Country Grill, which opened in January, operators Travis Adair and Anthony Wegmann along with Chef Cody Hix crafted a menu of Texas-inspired dishes. The restaurant is situated in a 110-year-old home on the 5-acre plot of land off Mueschke Road.
The trio collaborated by sharing comfort food from family recipes and adding their own flavors. Hix added Hatch chile and smoked Gouda to Wegmann’s stuffed chicken and smoked brisket to the fried macaroni and cheese.
“It’s all fresh and as locally sourced as we can get it,” Adair said. “We’re talking about expanding that and curing our own meats, growing herbs on-site and things of that nature.”
Instead of viewing each other as competition, many Cy-Fair restaurateurs said they are glad to see the foodie scene grow and others find success.
“I like that it’s growing, and people’s palettes seem to be expanding,” said Sarah Franke, co-owner of Murdoch’s Backyard Pub, which opened on Mueschke Road last March. “One of the great things about so many different restaurants opening up is that people are opening their minds more and trying new things.”