Lee Ellis (Photo by Jack Thompson)
Lee Ellis at Ellis Motel, with Elvira. (Photo by Jack Thompson)
Lee Ellis and Elvira on the porch of Ellis Motel. (Photo by Jack Thompson)
Best known for his exalted Henkel Square concepts Ellis Motel Emporium & Lounge and Round Top Smokehouse, Lee Ellis was easy to spot. On weekends, he could often be found behind the smokehouse cash wrap with his signature long white beard and daily uniform of denim overalls, custom-designed trucker hat, and oversized black frames. He died Monday at age 63.
It spoke volumes that Ellis — who helped create the recipes and develop the menus and did the cooking — also took customers’ orders. He is the mastermind behind the untouchably cool design and merchandise inside Ellis Motel, which is not a hotel at all but a beloved local watering hole. Located in a restored circa-1800s farmhouse next door to the smokehouse, the bar interior embodies Ellis’ rebellious spirit. (It should come as no surprise that his first foray into entrepreneurship was a roller skate rental shop on Montrose Boulevard in Houston.)
Ellis and his black-and-white spaniel Elvira would often hold court atop barstools inside the Ellis Motel during breaks from feeding the smokehouse crowds.
Not unlike the bark on his expertly prepared brisket, Ellis’s hard exterior seemed a safeguard for a tender, creative soul who was also the driving force behind countless extraordinary restaurants in Houston and Austin. Lee’s Fried Chicken & Donuts, State Fare Kitchen & Bar, Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette, BRC, Petite Sweets, and Pi Pizza were all originally developed through Ellis’ partnerships with F.E.E.D TX and Cherry Pie Hospitality.
Those who have followed Ellis’ career fondly recall the energy and excitement his enterprises brought to town.
“Lee Ellis was a visionary, more than just an entrepreneur,” says PaperCity editor at large Laurann Claridge, who wrote about Ellis’ culinary enterprises for the magazine and counted him as a friend. “He was the consummate concept king who gave Houston some of the most original and exciting nightclubs, restaurants, bakeries and retail spaces the city has ever seen.
“For all his ventures in the world of hospitality, he culled together talented collaborators from every sector and brought out the best in each of them.”
“His energy was boundless,” Claridge continues. “You couldn’t help but see how inspired he was by the process of creating something completely new and different. Although his concepts elevated casual dining and drinking, the fare he conjured was always approachable and fun. Lee was a one-of-a-kind talent whom we will miss dearly.”
Ellis parted ways with both F.E.E.D TX and Cherry Pie in recent years in favor of new ventures and greener pastures in Round Top. He and his wife, Melissa Savarino Ellis, found home in the quiet, rolling hills and together managed and grew their multiple businesses, which will continue to delight and inspire locals and tourists alike.