Restaurants / Closings

Houston Breakfast Institution Closes After 35 Years and Its Owner Wonders If Instagram’s to Blame

Do Millennials Just Hate Diners?

BY // 12.13.18

For more than 30 years, Fountain View Cafe owner Steve Drayer fried up 15 pounds of bacon every weekday morning, and double that on the weekends.  Regulars ate it up alongside hearty portions of perfectly crisp pancakes.

There was only one hitch — Drayer was frying up the bacon, but he wasn’t quite bringing it home.

After 35 years of breakfast bliss, Fountain View Cafe has closed. It’s a sad story, but simple. Business slowed down. The restaurant was ahead of its time, opening up decades before the burst of brunch spots such as Le Peep and Snooze took Space City by storm. This breakfast mecca came on the scene before brunch was even a thing.

Fountain View Cafe was honest, straightforward, driven by a blend of heartland cooking and easy conversation.

“I should have called it the Fountain View Diner. That’s what I was trying to be, the Fountain View Diner. Really good food, healthy portions, inexpensive. Everyday Americana food,” Drayer tells PaperCity.

With a focus on the most important meal of the day. “It’s always been my favorite meal. That’s been why I’ve had such a zealous love for it,” Drayer laughs.

Over the years, Drayer developed quite the menu, a mixture of his grandmother’s Swedish-style pancakes — they were lacy and thin enough to mistake for a crepe, but still packed a punch— and homestyle fare and comfort food like beef stroganoff and chicken fried steak.

“People would rave about the spaghetti and meat sauce. As simple as can be,” Drayer says.

That goes along with his entire philosophy in the kitchen. Drayer doesn’t really even call it cooking. “Turning groceries into food, that’s what I did for a living,” he says.

And now, he’s taking it to the next level.

“I’m going to write The Fountain View Cafe Cookbook. Each chapter will have a little story to start the chapter off. It’s not going to be all-inclusive,” Drayer notes. “There are hundreds of different recipes. That would really fill that book up.”

Hakeem Loved It, Millennials… Not So Much

The new cookbook will be cold comfort for former customers. Drayer’s personal touch was always part of the draw.

“Each morning, it was what story is going to unfold for me today? What story am I going to get to share today? You can ask any of my regulars. I’m rather chatty,” Drayer laughs.  “Every now and then someone would show a picture of their grandchild and tell me the story of a vacation they’d just been on.

“Something that made it personal — a couple hundred little stories every day.”

Loyal Fountain View customers would come in early and come their whole lives long,

“I’d be looking at somebody who I knew when they were in high school, and I’d ask, ‘How old are you?’ ‘I’m 33,’ ” Drayer laughs. “ ‘What do you do?’ ‘I’m a lawyer.’ Surprises like that.”

And others would come and go, moving away from Houston only to stop by Fountain View on a trip home.

“Then out of the blue they’d come back, say ‘This is the first place we wanted to stop,’ ” Drayer says. “That always really made me smile. It tickled me pink. Sometimes I hadn’t seen them for years, and they were thinking about me. I guess I was doing something right.”

If you’ll miss the cafe, you aren’t alone. And now, you know who to blame for Fountain View’s closing: that one generation that just can’t see the long view.

“I don’t believe I was marketing to millennials well,” Drayer tells PaperCity. Fountain View Cafe was as old school as it gets, not about Instagram-worthy backdrops.

But that’s not what the twentysomethings want — at least in the eyes of this old school breakfast maestro. “Millennials don’t really get in to diners,” Drayer says.

He was tipped off a while ago by a negative online review. The dish in question? The grilled Greek chicken salad. Apparently, it wasn’t fresh. Drayer didn’t buy it, and decided to sort this one out for himself.

“I said ‘Make one up for me.’ They did it. I took a picture of it and put it up on the Internet. ‘What’s not fresh about this,’ ” Drayer asked the Internet.

The response was a weird one. “I used iceberg lettuce. It’s not hip, slick and cool like arugula or something like that. That’s where I’m losing my audience,” Drayer says.

Loyal Fountain View customers have never come for the arugula. They came out for breakfast combos, for the rotating selection of soups.

No three men could stop Hakeem Olajuwon in the NBA Finals.

Or even plain old oatmeal, if they happened to be a basketball superstar. “Hakeem Olajuwan, he was a regular for quite a few years,” Drayer says of the Houston Rockets legend, laughing.

Fountain View Cafe was a comfortable place, the kind of place where this center didn’t have to feel so front-and-center. Except for during the championship seasons, maybe.

“Full-grown men would be acting like boys, grabbing the sports section and asking him to autograph it for them. He was always very gracious and would stop to chat with people. They wouldn’t let him finish his oatmeal,” Drayer says. “Like most people, he just wanted to sit down and have something to eat.”

And Fountain View was the place to do just that. But now, it’s gone.

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