Houston’s Late Night Restaurant Scene Grows Up — the Joys of a 10:15 pm Weeknight Dinner Reservation
The Bayou City is Sleeping a Little Less Thanks to Ambitious ChefsBY Chris Baldwin
Theodore Rex will be returning after Littlefoot's pop-up restaurant run.
The Tomato Toast at Theodore Rex is a memorable dish.
Squable isn't afraid to keep late hours.
The Blue Ribbon became a legend by serving gourmet meals until 4 am.
Ben Berg's B.B. Lemon was inspired by the restaurants he went to during his childhood in New York.
Justin Yu's Theodore Rex is earning as much credit as Oxheart.
Walking into Theodore Rex for a 10 pm reservation on a Monday, a little more than a week after having sat down for a 10:15 pm Wednesday night dinner at Squable, reveals a surprising new truth about the Houston restaurant scene. The Bayou City’s almost quietly become much more late night dining friendly.
Houston is now a place where you can get much more than a decent meal after 10 pm. In the case of Theodore Rex, you can get the best meal in the city.
There are plenty of early risers and social snobs — who consider anything else besides a 7 pm reservation some type of insult — who don’t care about this late restaurant universe. But it’s the sign of a world class city, too.
If you put away your tablecloths at 9:30 pm on weeknights, you might as well be Tulsa.
The fourth largest city in America deserves a robust late night dining scene. There’s just something a little magic about being able to start a great meal when many are tucking themselves into bed. My wife and I will always remember when we went to Bouley in New York for a 10:30 pm reservation on a weekday, thinking we were cutting it close, only to later see a French couple get seated at 11:30 pm.
When the couple went on to order the full tasting menu, the maitre d’ never even batted an eye. Now, that’s honoring late night dining.
But nothing beats the Blue Ribbon in New York, the place in SoHo where you can get a gourmet meal until 4 am. When we lived in the area, my wife and became late night semi regulars, eating at 2 am in a packed room, near everyone from Plaxico Burress, the former New York Giants star receiver who’d go on to infamously accidentally shoot himself in a nightclub, to John Cusack.
Maybe, it’s the fact I came into journalism as a sports writer where your work day often would not end till after midnight, but I’ve always loved a good late night restaurant. When I worked at a newspaper on the Jersey Shore right out of school, a few friends and I would think nothing of making the hour drive into New York at 12:30 am in order to enjoy some Korean barbecue.
Houston may not quite embrace this level of ultra late night-ness yet (sorry, Katz’s and Mai’s are not enough). But being able to eat at restaurants like Theodore Rex, Nancy’s Hustle and Squable at 10 and even later represents significant progress.
It is probably no coincidence that Justin Yu is the chef at Theodore Rex and one of the main partners at Squable (with Mark Clayton and bread wizard Drew Gimma as the chefs). On my late night Monday at Theodore Rex, Yu stayed around until after the last diner left. He wasn’t handing anything off to anyone because the hour was growing late.
The perfectionist chef just kept working.
This reminded of that long ago night at Bouley when David Bouley himself emerged from the kitchen after midnight and went around the room to warmly greet the remaining diners, including that French couple still early into their tasting menu.
Late Night Chefs
Late night dining only truly works when the best chefs in the city embrace it. That means not treating a 10 pm closing time like it means the last reservation needs to be seated at 9:30 or even 9:15. That means not running out of popular dishes because you didn’t plan well for your later reservations. And no relying on a “limited menu” that’s basically little more than burgers and fries.
There is a whole different mindset to doing late night dining right.
It’s refreshing to see some of Houston’s best chefs jumping into it. This is not the type of thing that wins you James Beard Awards. Self-important food critics do not care about it. (Coincidently, I found out that a Houston food critic was at Theodore Rex earlier the night of my 10 pm reservation.) For already in-demand restaurants like Theodore Rex, it probably does not even boost the bottom line all that much.
It does make Houston an even more interesting, cosmopolitan place. As the city becomes even more international and ever more significant on the global map, it’s refreshing to see it make a little late night leap too.
New York transplant turned Bayou City restaurant tycoon Benjamin Berg is another proponent of this new Houston late night reality. His B.B. Lemons are open till midnight during the week.
Many Houston diners seem to be embracing these type of hours. Squable was still packed when we walked in for our 10:15 reservation — and several tables still had people drinking wine after we left.
Being part of the late show is its own pleasure.