River Oaks Restaurant’s Beloved Tree is Coming Down — Backstreet Cafe Has to Say Goodbye to the Camphor

Sick Tree Shaded Many, Added Charm in a Run Estimated at 86 Years

BY // 01.14.21
photography Paula Murphy

My heart stopped when I saw the boldface lettering on my email. It read From Backstreet Cafe and above that carried this message: “Let’s share the sad news first.” Sad news! I was horrified that the neighborhood restaurant favorite of almost four decades might be moving or worse yet closing.

Not so. Take a deep breath.

But a sorrowful development is underway nevertheless. Backstreet Cafe‘s beautiful camphor tree on the patio will soon be a thing of the past. Owners of the popular River Oaks area haunt, Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega, announced with no small amount of sadness on Wednesday that the camphor is quite sick. And like pet owners who finally have to put Fido down, so the couple has made the difficult decision to bring the tree down.

The arborist who delivered the bad news of the diseased tree was nevertheless impressed with this magnificent specimen, the largest he said that he has ever seen. As camphors have a lifespan of 50 to 100 years, one can only imagine the age of the giant. But it is estimated that it could be close to 86 years old as the historic house which Backstreet calls home was built in 1935.

Most camphors in the area were frozen in 1983, when Houston temps fell below freezing for 10 consecutive nights, bottoming out at 13 degrees on Christmas morning. Backstreet’s tree survived though it did suffer damage. Alas, it’s time has come.

Camphor Tree at Backstreet Cafe (Photo by Paula Murphy)
I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as the camphor tree at Backstreet Cafe. (Photo by Paula Murphy)

Time is short for selfies with the evergreen that has provided a verdant canopy for uncountable weddings, wine dinners, proposals, birthday dinners and, of course, brunch, lunch and dinner. The big girl begins coming down this Monday, January 18. Vaught and Ortego suggest that diners and friends linger on the patio long enough to hug the lovely tree, blow her a kiss, even take a selfie.

The duo says that they hope to use wood from the tree for “something or some things special for the restaurant.”

Another message to diners came via a release: “A new tree will be selected and planted soon, but we know we can never totally replace this special tree which has been part of the restaurant since it opened in 1983.”

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