Downtown Houston gets a Makeover


Houston Downtown is hopping at night, with a lively, revitalized theater district that is anchored by Bayou Place: A Cordish Company Development.

FIVE years ago, or even two, taking visitors for a night on the town would have been to court absurdity, unless your goal was to get them home early. Downtown Houston was place where well-dressed people worked in their tunnel-connected, air-conditioned cocoons until about 5:30 P.M. and then beat feet back to the suburbs, leaving behind a dark, empty grid of glass canyons.

But downtown Houston – at least the north end of it, spreading out from Bayou Place, and its adjacent Theater District toward the renovated Rice Hotel and easing onward toward the baseball stadium that will replace the Astrodome next season – is a very different place now.

It’s practically, almost … well why not say it?

It’s cool.

"Most of the people who haven’t been downtown for a year almost don’t recognize it," said Rasheed Rafaey, owner of Tasca, one of the popular new restaurants in the northern end of downtown, which is known inevitably, as NO Do. "You had zero street traffic a year and a half ago after 6 P.M."

The amazingly rapid resurgence of downtown is only one of the major changes that have overtaken the nation’s fourth largest city and perhaps is unlikeliest tourist destination. Kemah Boardwalk, a new waterfront development on Galveston Bay about a half-hour’s drive southeast of downtown, has provided another fresh destination, especially for families. And the city’s justly celebrated cultural scene continues to grow, with recent additions to the Menil Collection and several other Houston museums, as well as a major wing about to be finished at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Initially, the biggest beneficiary of the city’s downtown revival was the Theater District, the half-dozen blocks around Jones Plaza at the corner of Texas and Louisiana Avenues. The urban square is itself scheduled to be renovated and re-landscaped soon. The plaza is surrounded on three sides by the city’s premier performing arts centers: Jesse Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, home of the Houston Symphony, the concrete castle of the Alley Theater Company, the city’s most prominent theatrical group, and the towering, red brick Wortham Center, home to the Houston Opera, the Houston Ballet and other companies.

Before downtown’s renaissance, it was not uncommon for people to come here for performances, then get out immediately. But after Bayou Place, a combination of movie theaters, restaurants and sidewalk cafes, was opened in the former convention center on Jones Plaza a couple of years ago, more and more theatergoers began to arrive early for a drink or dinner, or stay after the show, and the whole plaza area shifted into a nighttime bustle.

The Angelika Film Center and Cafe anchors the southeast corner of Bayou Place, with an eight screen movie complex offering art films and high end commercial fare (an offshoot of the Angelika in lower Manhattan in New York) and a popular lobby cafe offering pastas, sandwiches, a particularly delicious curried chicken salad and numerous wines by the glass.

On Bayou Place’s northeast corner is the Sake Lounge, an almost instant hit when it opened a couple of years ago, with its combination of high tech decor, sidewalk cafe tables and whimsical Japanese fare (the spider roll is a sushi-style hand roll made with soft-shell crabs).

And there are others. Mingalone’s Italian Bar and Grill is on Bayou Place’s northern side, Slick Willie’s pool parlor is upstairs, and it was announced recently that the Hard Rock Cafe was thinking of moving from southwest Houston to Bayou Place. Those looking for something more casual can try another popular downtown spot, the Cabo Mix Mex Grill, just a couple of blocks east of Jones Plaza, which offers a lot of the usual grilled meats and Tex Mex fare to a sometimes overly convivial crowd.

The appearance in the last year or so of dozens of new housing units, many of them New York style lofts in previously empty vintage buildings, as well as luxury condominium projects like the renovation of the former Rice Hotel on Texas Avenue three blocks east of Jones Plaza, added something that downtown Houston has been missing for generations- a stable residential base to help support the restaurants and shops.

More are on the way. Six new downtown condo and loft projects with nearly 400 units are expected to open in the next year or so. Within a few blocks of the Theater District, where once was darkness, are about a dozen restaurants and bars, including the Hogg Grill, stately cafe serving traditional steak-and-chops fare, and Sambucca, a Mediterranean restaurant and jazz club in the former Rice Hotel.

The Houston Downtown Management District counts 29 restaurants and nightclubs that have opened in the last couple of years in downtown Houston and 16 more set to open in the next few months.

Only a handful of these offer fast-food fare, and an astonishing number are stylish, high end restaurants, like Tasca.

Mr. Rafaey, who is also chairman of the Retail and Club Subcommittee of the downtown historical district, remembers how difficult it was for him to find investors in his planned downtown restaurant in early 1997. Bayou Place was in the works, along with the renovation of the Rice Hotel, but the announcement had not yet been made that the Houston Astros would move to a new downtown stadium for the 2000 season.

Night-life expansion in Houston is the downtown area – which is something of a godsend to residents playing host to out-of-town visitors. The pleasures of life in Houston – and they are many – tend to revolve more around its neighborhoods and rich restaurant and night-life scene. Houston has no Liberty Bell, no Statue of Liberty, not even an Alamo, so it used to be a bit of a chore to figure out what to do with visitors. The monolithic and crenellated glass towers have always been a strong lure, but until recently they offered only an empty promise.

With downtown resurgent, Houston has begun to feel – both for residents and for visitors – more like a city in the round.

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