Restaurants / Openings

Downtown Houston Food Hall Plots to Add a Michelin-Worthy Showcase Restaurant and a Bar Superstar — the Reimagining of Finn Hall is Only Beginning

Elevating the Food Hall Craze to Another Level

BY // 03.06.20

If the initial super hype over Houston’s entry into the food hall scene has given way to something of a malaise, one downtown spot seems determined to change that. Finn Hall’s new restructured team is looking to elevate the food hall in the Bayou City.

A food hall that’s truly special? This actually could be happening.

At least if the complete larger vision plans of Lionstone Investments, Midway Companies and Finn Hall’s new culinary director David Buehrer (yes, the Greenway Coffee guy who’s way more than just a coffee guru) come to fruition. Adding three new restaurant outlets with legitimate foodie clout is an important first step. Lit Chicken, Papalo Taqueria and the already inside-food-world legendary Pho Binh will almost immediately make Finn Hall more of a destination dining spot.

But it is what is set up to follow that carries the potential to make Finn Hall a complete game changer.

First that will mean a prominent Houston bar star taking over the beverage program at this 20,000 square foot food hall in the landmark JPMorgan Chase & Co. building. Then, longer-range plans call for what will be one of the best restaurants in the entire city to take root in a prime perch.

“In a grand super vision way, there’s a great loft area upstairs that was previously operated as a cocktail bar that I think one of my personal vision goals would be to reimagine the space as like a Michelin-rated restaurant that seats 30 to 60 people per night,” Buehrer tells PaperCity. “Kind of reservation only for the downtown patron. And for the Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan types, when they come down for the power meetings, they can make a reservation with one of the most notable chefs in town.

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“To achieve that vision, we have to have the rest of the hall set. One step at a time, but the end goal would be to have just a James Beard worthy food hall. Not just a James Beard nominated chef.”

Buehrer’s enthusiasm for Finn Hall and the showcase restaurant that could take it to another level practically leaps across the white conference table we’re sitting around. The table happens to be in another prominent Houston tower — billionaire Tilman Fertitta’s Post Oak Hotel complex. This is not David Buehrer’s usual surroundings by any means, but the somewhat maverick restaurateur with the tattoos and casual style has turned into something of an unlikely food hall whisperer for major corporations.

Buehrer helped bring Feges BBQ, Rice Box and burger-chan into Greenway Plaza’s more modest food hall, giving the space some much needed legitimacy. Now, he’s raising the bar at Finn Hall, which already boasts one of more stunning and architecturally significant settings in the city. This is part of the the former Gulf Building and former home of Houston’s legendary Sakowitz department store. The historic landmark dates back to 1929 and is considered one of the greatest examples of Art Deco architecture in America.

Finn Hall always had the grand showcase setting. Now, it’s getting more food worthy of being shown off — with even bigger moves to come.

“We’re not done,” Miranda Cartwright, senior property manager at Midway, tells PaperCity. “How do we evolve? How do we elevate? How do we stay ahead of the game?

“This is just phase one.”

The very next phase will revolve around bringing in that bar star who will be charged with making Finn Hall’s wine and cocktail program world class.

“Up front, we’re going to have one outstanding bartender,” Buehrer says. “That is the goal. We’re working towards that plan already. It’s going to be someone who’s notable who’s made a name outside of the bars they’ve already worked at.”

Finn Hall isn’t swinging f0r singles anymore — this food hall’s aiming for home runs.

No Ordinary Restaurants

The results of phase one are certainly a promising start. Lit Chicken comes from Ross Coleman and James Haywood, two chefs who received James Beard semifinalist nods for their work at the unfortunately shuttered Kitchen 713. These two are not just going to do another chicken spot.

Papalo Taqueria will definitely not be just another taco spot. Instead Stephanie Velazquez and Nicolas Vera, who’ve worked for Chris Shepherd’s Underbelly Hospitality group and at Hugo Ortega’s Xochi, are going to be milling their own corn for their carefully thought-out interior Mexican cuisine tacos.

“They’re going to have different varieties of corn for different tacos, which I think is super cool,” Buehrer details. “It’s really beautiful on one regard as far as color, but also it’s intentional in flavor which I think is super awesome.”

Did we mention David Buehrer is beyond excited? Yes, this is turning into a food hall that real foodies rather than Instagram shot seekers will be pumped about.

Which brings us t0 Pho Binh — and its big move into the heart of the nation’s fourth largest city.

“Pho Binh is basically the best pho in the country,” Buehrer says. “It’s been talked about not only in Houston, but you can find articles in The New York Times about them. And in GQ (magazine) about them. They’ve been featured in (celebrity super chef) David Chang’s shows and articles.

“They’re just the place to get Vietnamese noodle soup in the country.”

Lionstone Investments’ Hunain Dada, Midway Companies’ Miranda Cartwright,& Culinary Director David Buehrer at Finn Hall; Photo Courtesy of Julie Soefer Photography
Lionstone Investments’ Hunain Dada, Midway Companies’ Miranda Cartwright,and culinary director David Buehrer at Finn Hall. (Photo by Julie Soefer Photography)

In a way, this is what Lionstone Investments and Midway — the powers behind the building — envisioned almost from the beginning. A food hall that’s several steps above. But they had to go about things in a completely different and creative way to get there. Gone are the short-term (12 months or less) leases that create such uncertainty, replaced by longterm deals. Jettisoned is the original middle-man food hall operator, Oz Rey LLC. Also exiting is the customary food hall business model that David Chang (and other prominent national food voices) have railed against.

Now instead of paying the food hall traditional 30 percent-plus percentage of gross sales for their lease, Finn Hall’s current restaurant — which include Craft Burger of Chopped fame and Low Tide — and future restaurant tenants only will have to pay 20 percent. While this might not mean much to diners, it can make the difference between thriving and shuttering for the food spots themselves.

It turns out that a more exciting food hall may be a more humane one, too. One where the offerings are not changing every six months — or just when you found your favorite lunch spot.

“Longterm people like to eat at the same places a lot of the time,” says Hunain Dada, Lionstone’s real estate portfolio management director.

Dada admits that the short-term lease model may be largely driven by uncertainty on both sides of the food hall equation. This reimagined Finn Hall is removing that uncertainty. Sitting in a sparkling conference room in a showcase Houston tower, Dada, Cartwright and Buehrer may seem like an unlikely trio. Dada in a hip, expensive sports coat, Cartwright in something of a traditional power suit and Buehrer wearing a jacket that can best be described as cafe ready. Dada and Cartwright have brought business cards and fancy folders to this meeting. Buehrer’s brought a steaming pot of coffee, “the good stuff” and an overwhelming variety of donuts from his Morningstar shop.

Maybe this is how you change the food world. You bring all these different worlds together — and dream beyond damn big. One thing’s certain. Finn Hall is certainly going for it now.

A food hall that’s actually bold? Imagine that.

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