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Restaurants / Bars

Houston’s New Church of Beer Aims to Compete With NASA and Other Tourist Hotspots

Saint Arnold Reaches for the Sky With New Garden, Chapels and Serious Food

BY // 07.27.18

If you worship at the altar of all things craft beer, you’re in luck. After more than 20 years of blood, sweat and brainstorming, the Saint Arnold Beer Garden & Restaurant is finally here.

And it’s as much about elevated beer and food as it is about an elevated setting.

The brew haven and restaurant at 2000 Lyons (right next door to the brewery) is open for lunch and dinner in a a variety of landscapes: a covered, air-conditioned restaurant, a dissolving metal building and a patio.

All three have striking views. Indoors, beer lovers are treated to six distinct chapels painted by six different Houston artists. And for the two outside, the Houston skyline is quite the looker.

Taking it all in, you can sip on craft brews and either snack on shareables, called “divide and conquer,” which include the chicken curry melt dip, or entrees such as Texas Hot Fried Chicken with duck fat sauce, all from executive chef Ryan Savoie.

Founder Brock Wagner has had the patience of a saint — Arnold, no less — during the last two decades or so. The beer garden has been in the back of his mind since he opened the oldest craft brewery in Texas back in 1994. Saint Arnold was the only brewery on the block, and regulations weren’t exactly in its favor.

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It was a different world. The brewery couldn’t sell its beer onsite, and those laws didn’t start changing until the mid-2000s. And when they ultimately did, thanks to Wagner and others, up-and-comers had the leg up. Those new on the beer scene built indoor/outdoor spaces.

Saint Arnold didn’t have that treasured outdoor space. Until now.

“The dream I thought was a pipe dream in 1994 turned into where we’re sitting right now,” Wagner tells PaperCity. “I have sat down and had a pint sitting in a rocking chair on the deck here looking at my fountain and the view of downtown, which is pretty amazing.

“It felt pretty darn good.”

But it didn’t happen overnight. The property the beer garden and restaurant are built on was purchased in 2013. Then there was the business of uniting the brewery and the new spot into one big beer-centric block. So, they hopped to it.

Saint Arnold purchased the street between the two, which runs just a few blocks, for about $100,000. The utilities came closer to $1 million. Wagner will tell you without hesitation that it was all worth it.

Today, Wagner is perched on a bar stool near the bar at a high table under the canopy of the dissolving metal building. From his vantage point, he’s got a prime view of that fountain — a kinetic sculpture crafted from the top of a beer kettle, naturally— the picnic tables, the bocce ball courts and yes, that city skyline.

“I’m excited this Friday to see how the fireworks are from Minute Maid,” Wagner says, grinning in his orange and navy Astros cap. He wants to clear up one thing.

Its breezy as all get out at the beer garden, and the “big ass fans” don’t hurt, he insists.

“People who aren’t from Houston think nobody wants to be outside in Houston, especially in summer. No! People in Houston actually like being outside. Weather here is actually great 10 months of the year,” Wagner says.

“People are shocked at how comfortable it is here.”

Wagner’s ambitions for the beer garden and restaurant are two-fold. First, he wants it to be the place you go to hang out and kick back. That leads into the second — he wants the place to be the hang out, the ultimate Houston destination.

“My real goal is for this to be a place when people come to Houston, rather than saying let’s go to The Galleria or go to NASA, they come here,” Wagner says.

You can just hang out and drink Saint Arnold’s regular beers, its seasonal pours and even some upcoming exclusives. Of course, members of the Saint Arnold Society are granted one free pint each day, served in their very own engraved pewter mug.

Already, roughly 170 people have signed up for the $1,000 membership. That’s been a strong enough showing for Saint Arnold to open it up for more applicants.

“The whole vibe should be this is a comfortable place to hang out and drink beer. If you happen to order food, you’ll be blown away,” Wagner notes.

He heaps praise on the fried pickled green tomatoes and the hefty, house-cured meat and cheese plate for starters. Each and every menu item, from entrees to salads, comes with a suggested beer pairing. The queso is even made with Santo.

“Then we have these kick-ass entrees,” Wagner says.

Think Red Snapper with Thai Red Curry and Chinese broccoli, fresh gulf shrimp risotto with bacon lardons and herbed arugula puree and Pappardelle with a smoky tomato pesto, to name a few. And the pasta and bread is all from scratch, including the pizza crusts.

“The pizza is — oh my god, the pizza is so good. I could just eat the Margherita everyday. Some pizza you eat the main part and leave the crust. Not this crust. I live for the crust,” Wagner laughs.

saint arnold pizza
The pizza crust is made from scratch.

It all fits in with the ambitious, forward-thinking design. The edgy architecture came from humble beginnings, Wagner toying with a set of Legos and some inspired, on-the-fly calculations.

“Each nub was 10 foot by 10 foot, so it worked out almost exactly to this property. I played with different buildings, different placements. Imagined how everything would flow,” Wagner says.

The two critical criteria: a building that would mesh with and amplify the industrial vibe of the neighborhood, and a set-up that preserved the skyline sights.

“I’m very interested in how you build buildings and communities that encourage people to interact with each other, and when people actually interact with the architecture,” Wagner says.

With the help of architect Natalye Appel & Associates — Appel is a friend of Wagner’s  and fellow Rice University graduate — Wagner incorporated the desired church theme into the industrial framework. How better to honor the patron saint?

“I said ‘Let’s do a big metal building, a dissolving metal building and put a cupola on top for lighting,’ ” Wagner says. “To make it like church lighting coming from up above, get this natural lighting.”

They brought in OJB Landscape Architecture to create the open, communal atmosphere full of seating options and greenery.

Going to the Beer Chapel

Inside, the church motif truly comes to life with the half-dozen chapels that each hand-picked Houston artist transformed.

“I wanted six chapels. It had to be six different ones. Each different chapel that you sit in will have a completely different immersive experience,” Wagner says. “One thing I want people to do here, every time you come here I want you to experience the place differently. You’ll keep coming back.”

With all six vivid chapels vying for your attention, it might be hard to pick a seat. Each artist put their own flair, their own spin on the Saint Arnold theme.

Selecting the artists was second nature, given Saint Arnold’s longtime involvement in the art community. Many of their colorful craft beer cans were collaborations with some of Space City’s most prominent creatives.

“We used artists that we already had relationships with for five of them, and one of the artists was a friend of the other artists,” Wagner says.

Aerosol Warefare mastermind GONZO247 can claim credit for the Art Car IPA label, a bold, cartoon-esque version of the saint with splashes of red and yellow, and graffiti-style lettering, a token of his gritty, urban aesthetic. You can thank Carlos Hernandez for the graphic, striking Day of the Dead Santo label.

But labels weren’t the only blank canvases offered up to these artists. Robynn Sanders is responsible for the Technicolor, turned-out art car caddy parked in the beer garden’s shade.

saint arnold car closeup
Robynn Sanders painted the Saint Arnold art car and one of the chapels.

The chapels range from Renaissance-inspired to the iconic, literally, courtesy of Greek Orthodox painter Nick Papas, with a figure lit with a gold halo, beseeching on their knees. Matthew Schott and Jeff Szymanski painted the last two.

While Wagner wants guests to have a whole new experience each time they visit, the tie-in to the brewery that started it all is essential.

“It was important to me when we built this place that it was very Saint Arnold,” he says. “When I go to a lot of other breweries, you could change the name outside the brewery and it could just be Joe Schmoe’s brewery now.”

The floor of the restaurant is red, just like the tile upstairs in the brewery. The bars share a similar design, wood with little arches in them. The same picnic tables appear, and the wood wrapped around the columns is even the same.

“We tried to really bring the same feeling while creating an entirely new experience.” Wagner takes a second, looking across the garden.

“You couldn’t put another brewery name on this place,” he says. “This is Saint Arnold.”

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