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Restaurants / Closings

From Break-Ins to Secret Meals and All That Wine — the Real History of Ibiza, a Midtown Pioneer

With an Impactful Closure Beckoning, Two Houston Restaurant Tycoons Look Back on Their City Changing Original

BY // 08.07.19

When Charles Clark and Grant Cooper opened Ibiza on Louisiana Street 19 odd years ago, everyone thought they were insane — and with good reason. Midtown was not what you’d call a dining destination. Not at all.

“It wasn’t the most desirable neighborhood. Everybody in the business, even the wine reps, they thought we were crazy. But Charles and I really believed in what we were going to do, and we just did it,” Cooper laughs.

“Everybody thought we were crazy going into that area. But we knew Louisiana was going to be amazing. The street, Downtown — going up to 59. Spec’s across the street, it’s considered a landmark for wine. We knew that would be a key thing for us,” Clark tells PaperCity.

Convenience aside, it was what you’d call an uphill battle at first for the Mediterranean-centric tapas bar with a lengthy list of wines at surprisingly affordable prices.

 “There was a funeral home across the street,” Clark remembers. “All the businesses that were open had metal shutters that you could slide over your doors. We looked into buying them, but we couldn’t afford them. Oh God. We started getting broken into once a week.”

The culprits never made off with much more than a bottle of wine, but it was stressful for the duo. But Ibiza truly took off, earning throngs of regulars. Thanks to Ibiza’s Midtown mania, Clark and Cooper would go on to found Clark Cooper Concepts and launch Brasserie 19, The Dunlavy and Punk’s Simple Southern Foods.

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The pioneering pair is now shutting down Ibiza in February, the restaurant that started it all, but their Midtown legacy will live on.

“Slowly but surely, businesses started coming in around us. Break-ins stopped happening, and there was more movement in Midtown. The police were there more,” Clark chuckles.

Cooper pegs 2004 or 2005 as the time places truly started taking root in Midtown. “I think it was after the first three or four years that we started seeing a shift,” he notes.

“Midtown grew and morphed into something bigger, into what it is today. And now there’s a Starbucks across the street. You know it’s different when there’s a Starbucks there,” Cooper laughs.

Midtown now boasts a dizzying array of bars and gastropubs, but Cooper’s proud that Ibiza is the OG.

“Honestly, I really don’t know that there’s really a better restaurant in Midtown than Ibiza to this day,” he says. “But there are a lot of developments, mixed-use developments and a lot of construction coming up. There’ll be more change over the next three or four years that’ll bring more restaurants and more chef-driven-type restaurants.”

Europe Meets Houston

The chef-driven Ibiza’s dishes were inspired by Clark’s time in Marbella, Spain. Clark is an avid traveler with a long history of backpacking and taking in the sights, sounds — and especially eats — of Europe.

“When I lived in southern Spain, that’s when I truly got inspired,” he says. “Nobody was doing any kind of Spanish cuisine in Houston then, not really. I wanted to do more modern things, that was my thing, get out in Spain and travel all the way up to Barcelona through Madrid and pick out some of the cool tapas, some of the fish with different presentation and different styles of cooking they were doing.”

Cooper actually grew up abroad, surrounded by a rich love of wine and food.

“I grew up in Europe — I drank my first glass of wine when I was about 12 years old. It was a different approach. Charles and I kind of bonded on that idea,” Cooper says. “We wanted to go places with great ambience, great food and where we could bring our own wine — we just thought wine prices were overpriced at essentially every restaurant. We kind of jumped off that idea and expanded off of it by providing our own wine list and marked it just above retail.”

Houston’s Ibiza is still a theater of a restaurant, putting on worthy shows nightly until February.

At Ibiza, wine is about approachability and accessibility. “It’s not making wine pretentious. Just respect, enjoy it,” Cooper says. A bottle you’d spend $50 on somewhere else would only set you back under $30 at Ibiza.

But while Clark and Cooper are known for sharing excellent wine deals, it was the two of them that got the greatest-ever deal in Ibiza history.

“It was a Tuesday night or a Wednesday night, a weeknight, and some guys pulled up at around 10 pm, after we closed. There were about eight of them. They get out, they’re well-dressed-type guys,” Clark says.

“Slowly but surely, businesses started coming in around us. Break-ins stopped happening, and there was more movement in Midtown. The police were there more,” Clark chuckles.

They asked if they could get anything to eat, and Clark and Cooper obliged, turning the music back on and setting them up out on the patio.

“They stayed till 1 o’clock in the morning, and we had the best time,” he laughs. At one point, the bodyguard got up and drove off in the Suburban, leaving the other seven men behind. Clark and Cooper had no clue what was going, but the bodyguard returned a half hour later and took the head honcho aside.

“He comes over and says ‘Charles, Grant, come over here.’ And hands us each a bottle of wine and says thank you both for treating me with respect. You made our night, thank you so much. We look down, and it’s two bottles of $3,000-a-bottle wine,” Clark laughs. “He became kind of a regular. He loved Ibiza. He was just one of the prime examples of all the good friends we made.”

Another — a couple who arrived to Ibiza to take in a pre-show meal, only to find their car had died at the valet. Clark lent them his beat-up old Volvo station wagon. They made it to the show, brought it back, and the rest is history.

“They came back at 10 o’clock that night and hugged us. And to this day, they’re still one of our best customers. They’ve been great customers for the last 15 or 16 years,” Clark notes.

And after Clark appeared on Iron Chef in 2007, Houstonian Joe Sutton delivered a special surprise for the chef. Sutton paid a visit to Ibiza and took a wine glass, tapping it ever so lightly until the entire restaurant quieted down.

“He said, ‘I just want to say thank you to chef Charles Clark for competing in Iron Chef and representing Houston so well,’ ” Clark notes. And then, the surprise — a whopping replica of Clark’s signature 100-pound halibut.

The memories multiplied over the nearly two decades, leaving too many to count.

“Ibiza is personal. It’s our baby. It’s what got us on the map,” Clark says.

It’s bittersweet, but there’s no going back. There will be no Ibiza 2.0 restaurant.

“You can’t just duplicate something that’s been around 20 years in another location. It just changes the mojo. It’s just different,” Cooper says. “Concepts — iconic concepts — where they change locations, just down the street even, it’s just a different feel. That’s what makes our place so different, so special. People can walk in and sit in the same chair they did 10 years ago.

“The same people can go in blindfolded and find the exact chair where they sit every time.”

But that’s not to say another new restaurant isn’t on the horizon. “We’re open to everything, we’re just not sitting here saying we’re going to move Ibiza somewhere or do another Ibiza,” Cooper insists.

“It could be the life blood of Ibiza. It could be inspired by Ibiza, but it probably won’t be called Ibiza. I want it to have its own identity,” Clark says. “We’ll always leave that open — you never know what comes up.”

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