Restaurants / Openings

Houston’s First Chef Hall Takes Root in a Daring Downtown High-Rise: Hines Shuns the Boring Restaurant Way to Go Bold

BY // 12.06.17

High-rise restaurants tend to be more conservative than a bad movie preacher. You’ll get a tired chain steakhouse that’s everywhere or an expensive concept that worked in another city. Safe and steady rules.

But Hines is taking a completely different approach with its new Aris Market Square high-rise downtown. It’s going with something different, something daring, something local, something that self-respecting foodies would actually put on their radars. A massive 9,100 square-foot street-level space in the 32-story Aris tower will become Bravery Chef Hall, a unique take on the food hall craze that hasn’t really been done before.

Especially not in Houston.

“We think it’s the first truly chef driven food hall,” Lian Nguyen tells PaperCity.

“A lot of places talk about being chef driven,” Anh Mai adds. “It’s something to say. But this is the rare concept that actually is chef driven.”

Anh Mai and Lian Nguyen are the restauranteur team behind Bravery Chef Hall and they’re Houston food hall pioneers already. They’re also the owners of Conservatory, the underground food hall downtown that essentially started the food hall trend as far as Houston is concerned. Their new venture — which will be anchored around a wine bar from sommelier/restauranteur Shepard Ross, who will also manage the overall day-to-day operations at Bravery  — has been a vision for a while.

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“To be honest, Anh approached me about it almost a year ago,” says Gary Ly, one of the five chefs who will have their own open kitchen in Bravery. “I just had to wrap my head around it.”

PaperCity talked to Mai, Nguyen and Ly on the side on the first day that Aris and the new food hall space was opened up to the general Houston media. (For PaperCity‘s exclusive first look at the new high-rise from early October, click here.) The more Mai, Nguyen and Ly talk, the more it becomes apparent that this is a true passion project.

Whether it’s the start of another new trend in Houston will be determined by how well it all works.

For Hines betting on something distinctive fits in with a new building that’s obsessed with melding into a historic neighborhood and trying new things (it turned an odd-shaped extra space formed by weird neighboring lot sizes into a New Orleans-style garden courtyard for residents).

“From the first time we sat down with Anh and Lian, we knew this was the one,” says Hines director David Haltom, who shepherded Aris Market Square to completion. “They just had a vision that no one else had for the space.

“But we still did our due diligence and talked to almost everyone. But we just kept coming back to them.”

Mai and Nguyen’s sense of restaurant and family is apparent. Mai brought his 19-month-old daughter on the media tour — holding her on his hip for most of the way — and the young pro didn’t even cry once.

Chef Land

The idea behind Bravery Chef Hall is simple: Eliminate the clutter. There will be no front of house. None of the massive startup overhead that typically comes with a new chef opening his or her first restaurant (a figure that usually runs between $400,000 and a million by Ross’ estimation). Instead, it’s just five different chefs, each cooking at their own kitchen arranged around the massive space. (There were also be dessert and coffee stations as well as the wine bar in the middle).

Diners can either sit around the open kitchen of their choice or order and take their food to one of the tables arranged around the room or on the patio outside. You’ll be able to go with friends, each order a different style of cuisine and still eat together at the same table. Or order dishes from different kitchens and create your own multiple chef tasting menu.

The chefs are front and center, interacting with customers, cooking in view of everyone.

Bravery Chef Hall is taking over a huge space on the ground floor of Hines’ Aris Market Square high-rise.

For Ly, who worked under Chris Shepherd at Underbelly for the past four years, this is his first chance to craft his own menu and let his creativity flow. That’s a life changer for a chef who has been cooking in professional kitchens for 12 years.

“Every young cook has the goal of becoming a chef and getting to open their own restaurant,” Ly says. “Nobody says, ‘I just want to cook in somebody else’s kitchen for my whole life.’ Everyone knows what the goal is and this can maybe help fast track that.”

David Guerrero, the chef/owner of Andes Cafe, and Ben McPherson, who launched fast casual chicken spot Krisp Bird & Batter, have also been signed on. Two more chefs will be added to Bravery Chef Hall’s roster before its projected summer 2018 opening.

With another food hall headed into the new JP Morgan Chase Building at 712 Main and early plans for what would be a fourth downtown food hall on Smith Street, Bravery will need its young chefs to stand out and form a must-eat epicenter. For Ly that means turning out traditional French and American food with Asian ingredients and influences (his meatloaf is already drawing some early fellow chef buzz).

Power to the chefs? Ross sees this as the next natural concept in Houston food.

“I feel like Houston is at a big turning point,” Ross says. “We’re coming out of Harvey, we got the Astros win and oil is relatively stable.”

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