How Is That Place Still Open?

They've been around forever. The food is blah or worse. Nobody's ever in there. What gives?

By John Lomax September 26, 2013


Yesterday we brought you a list of 12 of Houston’s most jinxed restaurant locations. While some places have been able to reverse the curse, others seem likely to remain a Bermuda Triangle for all restaurateurs, no matter how talented the chefs and no matter how well their food was received.

Today we flip the script and bring you a list of seven restaurants that somehow remain open year after year despite zero buzz, very low traffic, and often abysmal reviews.

I crowd-sourced the question on my Facebook page and got scores of replies. Some mentioned Mai’s and Andy’s, late-night mainstays in Midtown and the Heights, respectively, but that isn’t what I was looking for.

For one thing, those restaurants draw crowds. While Mai’s is far from the best Vietnamese even in its own small area of town, and its snarling waitstaff is legend, and the old-school Tex-Mex at Andy’s isn’t even enjoyable from a nostalgic standpoint, it’s easy to see why those places remain in business. (The same goes for Chapultepec.)

In a word: drunks. People who are out and hungry in the wee hours. (A couple of people also threw in La Tapatia on lower Richmond. I disagree, and vehemently, though I miss its humbler late ‘90s configuration.)

No—we were looking for long-lived places that are nearly always empty, places which are frequently reviled, or places which merely have a sky-high “Meh Factor.”

So here we go with some of Houston’s most tenacious dining spots, the “How is that place still open?” list. 

  1. Julia’s Bistro has been on a plum corner (Alabama at Main) for over a decade now and while it was never regarded as a bad restaurant, it lacked buzz and until recently you rarely saw the place more than a quarter full. It kinda had a “Nighthawks at the Diner” feel, if that painting portrayed a white-tablecloth restaurant… Houstonia food editor Robb Walsh went recently and said new owner Marcus Davis of Breakfast Klub renown has bought the place and it is now reenergized, but how it made it this far remains a mystery.
  2. The first of my own personal choices is Pepino’s Italian Restaurant (1421 Richmond.) My young son, ex-wife, and I came in there starving after a road-trip one evening many years ago and had the worst dining experience of our lives. The service was comically bad—wrong orders, eternal waits.The food was terrible once it finally arrived. I’ve never seen a group of diners come closer to a full-on customer revolt as I did that night, nor a closer true-life resemblance to the dining room in Fawlty Towers. Ray Redding calls it “horrible and horribly overpriced,” and Yelpers were not kind. More than half of the 29 reviews were one- or two-stars, and one, Jackie V.,  chimed in with this gem: “DON'T EAT HERE if you are a self respecting human being with morals. Just don't.” 
  3. I have also never been able to figure out how Bambolino’s (1525 Westheimer) has been able to slang sub-standard slices of utterly generic pizza from not one but two different prime Montrose locations for lo these many years. When the Montrose Boulevard one closed, I thought it was gone for good, but then it reappeared on Lower Westheimer. WTF? Well, the buildings are cool and the frozen lemonade was good the one time I went.
  4. Of the Happy All Café (1343 Yale), area resident Wade Williams had this to say: “Everyone eats there exactly once.” ‘Nuff said.
  5. Christie’s Seafood and Steaks (6029 Westheimer). Oh how the mighty have fallen. As a kid I enjoyed little more than a Shirley Temple alongside a fried seafood platter at the long-gone South Main outpost of this venerable, now greatly diminished local seafood institution. (Once a small chain, this location is all that remains.) Late last year my in-laws took my wife there for her birthday and only a few tables were occupied, all but one with senior citizens. The sole exception was a very Pulp Fiction, Mid-Westheimer-style fortysomething couple who ran out on the check with the manager in hot pursuit. The food was nowhere what it once was, though the prices are higher than ever. It’s the H-Town seafood version of the last day’s of Felix Mexican Restaurant. Facebook friend Militia Tiamat has an interesting array of views about Christie’s, to say the least. First there’s the unintentional VIP treatment the oft-empty, fadingly genteel restaurant offers. “Oh they have nice fancy white table cloths,” she enthuses.  “I like to pretend I am a superstar there, like I am Mariah Carey and I just reserve the whole restaurant. “
    She then diagnoses some of what ails it. “I’ll tell you why no one goes to Christie's. They don't serve any MF mash potatoes with the steak. I mean what kind of cretin has potatoes au gratin with a ribeye? What are we like Betty Crocker now?” (The rest of her opinion is unprintable on this or any other blog.) 
  6. Heading back to the Heights, there’s La Carreta (208 E. 20th). I’ve lived fairly close by for years and have never been inside the aging building. I’ve never seen more than a couple of cars in the parking lot. Nobody has ever told me I should try the place. It’s got a decent location, though it’s in the dry section of the Heights. What gives? Well, apparently it’s just not very good. One Facebook friend likens their Tex-Mex to “school food,” while others were a little kinder. “Filler food for cheap,” said one, though she noted that there was “never a crowd.”  Apparently nothing on the menu is more than $8. (A Yelper recommended that only runaways should be desperate enough to eat here.) Williams lives nearby and says he’s eaten there five or six times and has invariably been the only customer. “I thought there were other customers until one got up and took my order,” he writes. “It is the same vintage as Mi Sombrero (3401 N. Shepherd) but nowhere near the same league. They close at eight, so they don’t seem terribly ambitious.” 
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