The question of whether Houston can truly be a world-class city is an old one. For decades it has given local think tanks something to talk about when they aren’t agonizing over traffic, and proved a reliable conversation-starter at dull dinner parties. Depending on how late the hour and/or how much wine is left in the bottle, someone will invariably start things off humbly: this city still has a long way to go. Someone else will counter that Houston has its own unique vibe, to which the humble type will respond that a unique vibe does not a great city make. This typically causes much of the table to turn against him. It is assumed that he wants Houston to become like some other city, that he is a closet Yankee. Furthermore, can’t a city be great without a tram system? and who needs walkable streets when you have the Galleria? Can’t we be great in our own way? Perhaps so, says the poor man who started this ruckus, but there are a few absolutes. Such as? He thinks for a moment.
No city can be great unless you can find hot bread in the morning. The table falls silent. The argument has been won.
Weights + Measures
2808 Caroline St.
Darkness. Cold. A light rain. It is 6:20 on a Sunday morning. I drive down wide, empty streets south of downtown with the wipers on interval. Except for me and every parent with a two-month-old, the entire city is asleep. Oh, wait. No, it isn’t. There’s life off in the distance, a beacon of red signage on the Caroline Street horizon. I wheel into a space at Weights + Measures, dart across the parking lot, and stop short at the door, overcome by what lies before me: every light inside the 5,000-square-foot former warehouse is illuminated, each of the dozen morning-shift staffers is busily prepping for the brunch service that begins at 7 a.m., and—hallelujah—the bakers have been up for hours.
Thick waves of oven aromas greet me, as does the machine-gun patter of a bread-slicing machine, as does—best of all—a bounty of baked goods. There are blueberry muffins too hot to hold in your hand and great spirals of pastry filled with cinnamon and pecans. I see row after row of softball-size donuts coated in the shiniest of chocolate ganaches, finely turned croissants, danishes in three flavors, and loaf after loaf after loaf—pumpernickels, baguettes, artisanal you-name-its. It is the Slow Dough Bake Shop, the transfixing first retail outpost for the beloved bread company, and only one-third of the goings on at Weights + Measures, but I leave feeling confident that I’ve caught a glimpse of Houston’s future.
It is 8:30 on a Friday evening. I discover that entering W+M via a different door means entering a different W+M altogether. I am in a bar, a few hundred feet from the bake shop but miles away in every other respect. Where Slow Dough is timeless, the Love & Squalor bar is clearly a period piece, that period being the 1970s, judging by the degree of respect afforded shag carpet (it’s on the wall, not the floor). This strikes me as odd for a bar that is named for a heartbreakingly beautiful J.D. Salinger story set in the ’40s, but all right. They had D-Day and Tareytons and teenage girls both beautiful and British, we have Black Friday and e-cigarettes and roving packs of patrons forever in search of the Next Big Thing. Sometimes life just doesn’t seem fair.
The description of the piña colada on the cocktail menu is so cute that I break my rule never to order drinks with cute descriptions and get one. The bartender puts on quite an act while making it, furiously straining the milky mixture and adorning the glass with toasted coconut. The scene captivates everyone seated at the bar, which is a lot of people, as it is a long, curvy, wonderful bar. The drink finally arrives after several minutes of effort and though it does not taste very good—not by comparison to the Tom Collins, that is—I feel proud for making a contribution to the evening’s entertainment. Then again, everyone would probably be having a ball anyway, I think, surveying several clusters of patrons sitting on low-back sofas and whooping it up—to use a phrase that predates both the ’70s and Salinger—as their drinks sit parked on occasional tables. I conclude that there is a cheerfulness and joie de vivre to the bar that will delight every patron who does not come expecting squalor.
Between Love & Squalor, or rather between Love & Squalor and the Slow Dough Bake Shop, squats the largest undertaking of the three, W+M’s restaurant. It is noon on Saturday and my brunch party is greeted by a hostess who informs us that there will be a 30-minute wait. This passes quickly, owing to the availability of lattes and the like at a freestanding coffee bar, that and the voyeuristic thrill afforded by watching W+M bakers rolling out donuts in a glass-walled room nearby.
No city can be great unless you can find hot bread in the morning.
Indeed, much of the fun at this 150-seat eatery comes in the watching. There’s the large, open kitchen, for starters, where someone always seems to be stretching and shaping thin-crust pizza dough till it’s nearly transparent, and someone else is fetching carafes of juice from the vintage orange icebox. Salumi hangs curing in yet another glass room, and jars of pickled vegetables sit on shelves throughout the dining room.
As for the food, you can’t go wrong ordering anything with bread, for obvious reasons. The avocado toast merits special mention, served with eggs, a lively harissa paste, and a healthy tranche of ciabatta. But the cake donuts and fried chicken, plated as little sandwiches and drizzled with syrup, are almost as good. Even a lowly hamburger, you will note, can be transformed by a pillowy, fresh sesame seed bun.
When night falls, the French toast–eating toddlers with iPads make way for medium-cool patrons with smartwatches and expensive eyewear. Often enough they come seeking W+M’s pizza and do not leave disappointed. Of the six listed on the menu, the roasted carrot and cheddar is perhaps the most inspired, but the pepperoni is no slouch either, served with house-made mozzarella atop a richly flavorful crust. Diners would do well not to overlook the selection of bready appetizers, however. Whether your taste is for peas, parmesan, and parsley whirled into a paste, or a spread of chopped chicken liver, you will be content, and not only because both come with a good supply of Slow Dough toast.
W+M’s restaurant is not without its problems (the scallops served over pappardelle at dinner were inedibly salty), and the W+M complex as a whole seems to flummox patrons who, having invariably entered via the wrong door, stand confusedly or wander idly through the dining room, creating odd traffic patterns and the occasional collision with someone carrying donuts. Otherwise, however, Weights + Measures lives up to its bold concept, a crazy idea that just might work.