Tuesday’s date night, and the two of you are having a perfectly pleasant time at one of the city’s exciting new eateries. The food, while far from life-changing, is delectable. The service is fine, the atmosphere too. “I’d almost forgotten what dinner without a screaming toddler is like,” jokes one of you. You both laugh.
The check comes. $89.73.
Now, this is not a jaw-dropping amount; no one’s running for the defibrillator. You won’t land in the poorhouse because of $89.73 or spiral downward toward insolvency. Still, what was a happy experience just a few minutes ago now seems distinctly less so. Eighty-nine bucks? you think. For a couple of entrées and apps on a Tuesday night? We only got one cocktail between us!
The self-scrutiny continues.
I could have bought a 20 megapixel camera for 89 bucks! I could have landscaped the back deck. I could have flown to New Orleans on Southwest. Hell, we could have BOTH flown there on Spirit.
In short, you feel a little fleeced.
And yes, before you ask, I am one of those curmudgeonly Houstonians with a quaint, anachronistic attachment to good, cheap food, as ambivalent about our city’s robust economy as those folks who wax nostalgic about $650 rents, and just as grating. Still, reasonably priced meals were never just a perk of life in the Bayou City. They were part of our birthright, and on those rare occasions when meals were unreasonable, you could bet your life that the night would be unforgettable.
Not so in these twilight go-go days, when a $28 or $30 entrée portends little beyond a hefty tab. And you can’t blame the kitchens, at least not in most cases. No amount of artisanal smarts or tenacious sourcing or culinary wizardry can justify the price that a margherita pizza commands in some of our finer establishments (average cost of ingredients: $3 and change). And while there are several plausible explanations for the inflated numbers proliferating on today’s menus, one thing’s for certain: they’re creating expectations almost impossible to meet.
Which is too bad, because there are lots of restaurants that we might fall in love with otherwise. Take Davis Street at Hermann Park, where we spent the aforementioned $89.73. It’s a solid eatery—thanks to chef Javani King—that’s turning out a number of dishes of which the kitchen should be justifiably proud. Cleverly designed and amusingly decorated in splashes of lime green (even the chandeliers are green), Davis Street sits, as the name implies, astride the city’s proudest park. Of course, it also sits in the 77004 zip code, where the median household income was just under $33,000 a year, last we checked. As for how many of those households are coming to Davis Street, well, let’s just say that a plate of four delicious if matchbox-sized chicken spring rolls costs more than many area residents make in an hour.
But perhaps the restaurant has its sights set on the other side of the park, or maybe the residents of the high-rise in whose shadow it sits. In any case, the place hasn’t really caught on since opening earlier this year, which is odd when you consider that the whole city has apparently decided that Davis Street’s crispy Thai shrimp is an appetizer for the ages. I wholeheartedly agree, incidentally. These are shrimp to savor, to man the barricades for, to dream about later, as fresh as you’ll find on any menu and bathed in a sweet and salty sauce that’s positively addictive. A triple award winner at the Rodeo’s recent Best Bites competition, the Thai shrimp is just one of chef King’s impressive achievements. Others include a grilled double-cut pork chop bathed in a mustard reduction, a salad of pears and fried goat cheese that’s almost too beautiful to eat and a bowl of pappardelle in cream sauce tossed with chicken and shrimp. An open-faced fried crab sandwich with bacon and avocado on Texas toast was a bit too greasy even for this avowed cholesterophile, as was the Monte Cristo sandwich, its crêpe exterior fried to within an inch of its life.
Just so we’re clear, Davis Street is far from the most expensive restaurant in town, and its proprietors are free to charge whatever the market will bear. Still, there are strong indications that that market is bearing less than it did just a few months ago, a development that may mean gloomy days ahead for some of the town’s eateries. Let’s hope that chef King’s domain is not among them, if only because a maudlin atmosphere would seriously clash with Davis Street’s color scheme.