They aren’t new, but they are one of the city’s most fascinating destinations, only well-known to area office-dwellers. And the Downtown Tunnels—roughly six miles of paths and plazas, every inch of them air-conditioned—offer such an impressive, and impressively weird, array of shopping, services, and dining options that it seems somehow unfair that their subterranean charms be off-limits to everyone else. We recently spent an afternoon exploring just a portion of this world unto itself—and chatting with its denizens—so that we could share a few of our most intriguing discoveries in these pages. Don’t take our word for it, though. Hop on the nearest escalator and see for yourself.
Check It Out
In the bustling third-floor food court of ❶ The Shops at Houston Center near a picturesque balcony overlooking Toyota Center, rests a curious sort of vending machine. Operated by the Houston Public Library, the Booklink interactive kiosk dispenses books, DVDs, CDs, and, ingeniously, mobile wi-fi hot spots. It’s just the thing to help pass the time while waiting to see one of the health-care providers scattered throughout the tunnels—dentists, chiropractors, the Kelsey-Seybold Clinic—but do bring a library card.
As the 25-year manager of Red’s Barber & Style Shop underneath ❷ First City Tower, Ron Gongora supervises six employees skilled in the tonsorial arts, be that a simple men's razor cut ($25) or full-beard shave ($40); Red’s also handles nails, wigs, and “prom hair.” Gongora estimates that between 100,000 and 150,000 people work within a two-block radius of his shop. The foot traffic is so heavy, a brand-new barber might grow a respectable client base within just six months. “Anywhere else it would take five or six years,” he says.
“Everybody knows everybody [here] in one way or the other,” says 9th Cavalry Leather Works proprietor Jefferson Besiant III. “It’s very connected.” He charges $12 for a shoeshine—$13 for boots—at his stand near ❸ McKinney Place Garage, where he enjoys working at his own pace. Tuesday is busiest, he notes, because people use Monday to catch up on work they didn’t do Friday. His trade name salutes the historic African-American army regiment known as the Buffalo Soldiers; he’s adopted them as heroes, Besiant says, “because of what they did for America and did not get credit for.”
Stop and Shop
All manner of fancy stuff is for sale in the tunnels—jewelry, perfume, floral arrangements, bespoke menswear from R. Rose Clothier. We also found an oversize Texas Longhorns inflatable chair for $10 at Tunnel Newsstand underneath the ❹ Bank of America tower. On the fourth level of Houston Center, one-stop H-Town souvenir shop Funatics’ sizable inventory overflows into several window cases. Choice items include a Houston Strong beer koozie ($5.99), Space Explorer playset ($27.99), and a Cooperstown Collection ’80s Astros batting-practice jersey ($90).
The amount of culinary choices in the Tunnels verges on overwhelming. Fall back on Chick-fil-A, Alonti Café, or La Dolce Vita if you must, but don’t overlook outposts of H-Town staples like Beck’s Prime, Tacos A Go-Go, and Treebeards. The single most intriguing menu we saw, though, belonged to Deli Deluxe in ❺ Cullen Center, whose 75-plus offerings include Mayan Migas ($5.29), Lobster Avocado Salad ($9.99), a Catfish Po’Boy ($8.99), and Paneer Tikka Masala ($8.49).
Instagrammable moments are in somewhat short supply underground—the lighting is, um, rather dim—but a few spots deserve a double take. In the Downtown Loop tunnel, neon halos crown a row of lacquered pillars across from the Beck’s Prime, each one painted a different color of the rainbow. Meanwhile the lobby of the ❻ KBR Tower doubles as an airy art gallery, and the elongated escalator connecting the tunnels to Houston Center is by itself worth a trip downtown. It’s probably as close as Houston will ever get to a London Underground station. Go ahead, ride it twice.