Three years ago, Free Press Houston publisher Omar Afra purchased Fitzgerald's, the timeworn concert venue on the corner of White Oak and Studewood that—back in 2010—had seen better days. Afra, best known these days for putting on the annual Free Press Summer Fest concert festival, fixed the old girl up and made her attractive once again, turning her into one of Houston's musical cornerstones and guaranteeing a crowd at the venue nearly every night.
2802 White Oak
Not long after, the rest of White Oak followed suit. Prior to 2010, the street was quiet in the evenings save a leisurely crowd at Onion Creek and the longtime patrons at bars such as Beer Island or the Heights Sports and Social Lounge. And then a new slate of bars and restaurants started filing in, built from the ground up—like D'Amico's—or filling in vacant spots, like Christian's Tailgate and Salé-Sucré. Soon, the corner of White Oak and Studewood was packed every evening; the Heights had its own mini-entertainment district, complete with a popular live music venue and pedestrian-friendly drinking and dining.
Some spots, however, just weren't built for that crowd. D'Amico's, which was always more of a family-friendly restaurant, was one of them. Owner Nash D'Amico made the decision to close the Heights location of his family restaurant less than two years after it opened, citing concerns over both parking and the occasionally rowdy crowd in the area. His original Rice Village remains open, as it has for over a decade, but D'Amico's partners had other—better—plans for the space.
D'Amico's partners, Hospitality USA, opened City Oven in the former D'Amico's spot just a couple of short weeks ago. HUSA is well known for operating bars such as Sherlock's, Baker St. Pub, Watson's House of Ales, and another newcomer—Local Pour, which opened in River Oaks earlier this year. If anyone can handle the crowds and the party atmosphere on White Oak, it's HUSA and City Oven.
The new restaurant specializes in pizza, sandwiches, meatballs, and beer—hearty, simple fare that's served in a space much more suited to its location. The dining room is a mix of long tables ideal for ravenous groups, booths for more private meals, pub-style tables for casual dining, a long bar for drinking, and even a cozy couch area for sprawling out with friends. A large, elevated patio wraps around two sides of the restaurant, affording views onto the nightly frenzy below.
On a recent weekend afternoon, City Oven was pleasantly packed when I visited with a friend for a late lunch. Although the walls are covered with posters from local artist Carlos Hernandez, stickers from local arts organizations and craft breweries, and a giant homage to the cherry-red Heights Theater sign, there was a distinctly Austin vibe to the pizza joint—call in the inescapable influence of Onion Creek just down the street—but it was an inoffensive one. City Oven reminds me pleasantly of Pinthouse Pizza in our state's capital, minus the beer brewed on site. It's a take-all-comers sort of place, where you're not surprised to see an older, gray-haired couple chowing down on meatball sandwiches next to a table of punks splitting pizzas; you could say the same about City Oven.
Most importantly, the food was delicious. We split a meat lovers's pizza laden with smoky hunks of bacon and soft meatballs among the pepperoni and ham, and tried our best to eat a meatball sub without knives and forks. (We failed, and attacked the giant sandwich with cutlery more successfully.) We crunched our way through a salmon and shrimp ceviche served with freshly fried tortilla chips, and washed it all down with pints of Brooklyn Lager and Ballast Point Sculpin.
I can see City Oven fitting plenty of different functions: a post-work happy hour spot (especially considering it offers very long happy hours every day), a place for grub and beer either before or after a show at Fitz, a laid-back date night destination, or even a place to take the kids for a few slices—just as long as you get there before the crowds start flowing in and out of Fitzgerald's for the night. The intersection of White Oak and Studemont is only going to get busier—especially once The El, a new cantina from Pink's Pizza owner Ken Bridge, opens its doors next year—and City Oven is the perfect new addition to this wild and wooly corner of the Heights.