In an article this morning about the recent closure of The Burger Guys' downtown location, a Culture Map headline asks: "Another good downtown restaurant suddenly closes: Can only the Chipotles thrive?"
The answer, of course, is no. Plenty of terrific, non-chain downtown restaurants have been thriving for years, from upscale—see: Vic & Anthony's, Quattro, The Grove—to down home—see: Hubcap Grill, Irma's, Bombay Pizza. It's even possible for unusual concepts to thrive, such as Oxheart (the Warehouse District is still technically downtown) or an entirely open-air Niko Niko's (who'd have thought an un-air-conditioned restaurant would make it in the central business district?).
And if you head downtown on a Friday or Saturday night, you'll see a city center that's finally in an upswing once again after years of dormancy—especially in the Market Square section of town. The beautiful corner patio at Batanga is perpetually packed; people spill out of Hearsay Gastro Lounge at all hours; La Carafe's dual patios are draped with people kicked back in lawn chairs; even newcomers such as Fusion Taco are drawing crowds, hungry before or after shows at the nearby Theater District or prepping their stomachs for a night of cocktails at fellow newcomer bars OKRA Charity Saloon, The Pastry War, Bad News Bar, or Clutch City Squire.
I found myself spending the second Saturday night in a row at Goro & Gun this past weekend, eager to head back and try the other half of executive chef JD Woodward's new menu after my girlfriend and I fairly demolished a line-up of dishes the previous weekend: sweetbreads in a sweet-and-spicy General Tso's sauce, spring rolls stuffed with unagi (barbecued eel), beef carpaccio, vegetable tempura, and tiny dessert rangoons stuffed with cheesecake instead of cream cheese.
As it has worked through staff changes and a less-than-glowing public reaction to its ramen—Goro & Gun's signature dish when the restaurant opened in late March—the menu has changed to more thoroughly reflect the idea that Goro is not solely a ramen shop (nor was it ever meant to be), but rather a modern interpretation of Japanese food through a distinctly Houston lens.
This is why you'll find dishes such as Woodward's "Japanese hot pockets," inari skins (those little tofu pockets normally filled with rice at sushi restaurants) stuffed with grits, tempura-battered-and-fried, then topped with a gleeful handful of bonito flakes and squiggles of tangy Kewpie mayo and teriyaki sauce. Or shrimp and grits topped with roasted corn, thinly sliced shisito peppers, and pickled red onions. Or Japanese fried chicken served over buttery miso rice. Or fried Texas okra tossed with pickled raisins and rice wine vinegar.
Bartender Alex Gregg—who makes the meanest Southside in town, in addition to a new lineup of cocktails he's experimenting with (ask for the one with orange-infused vodka and cream soda that tastes like an adult Dreamsicle)—told me that Goro & Gun's hours aren't that of a normal restaurant, at least while downtown settles into the rythym of hosting the kinds of crowds it hasn't seen in years. It's busy from 5 to 7 p.m.—roughly happy hour time, when office workers pack the place—and then again from 8:30 p.m. onward, and only seems to get busier as the hour gets later.
When I stopped by at 8 p.m., Goro was half full. By the time I left at 11 p.m., it was standing room only, and the slammed kitchen was turning out Japanese hot pockets and bowls of lobster ramen like a well-oiled machine.
As I headed out the door to leave, I saw a queue of people patiently waiting for admission to Bad News Bar (the capacity is currently capped at 33 while it works out some issues with the Fire Marshall) and ran into some friends leaving The Pastry War, who reported the line at the bar was three deep. A pack of punks was milling outside of Notsuoh as always, while a more yuppie crowd was making its way in and out of the Charity Saloon. And despite the late hour, Batanga's patio was still packed.
Sure, Chipotles will always thrive downtown, as long as there are office workers with tight schedules who need quick and easy meals. For now, though, a new scene is blossoming downtown. And as new places open every day—from the popular new bear/leather bar Eagle Houston on Milam to the upcoming El Big Bad that will bring two stories of elevated Tex-Mex to the corner of Prairie and Travis—you certainly can't say downtown has a failure to thrive.