As per usual, Benjamin Berg is going mildly crazy as a restaurant he's opening is just hours from letting people through the front door.
"It's the last-minute mechanical issues that pop up," he says. "I think the menu is cool, service is going better than expected, and the place looks phenomenal. But how am I gonna get the hood (vents) to work?"
The place he's opening is well-known to just about any Houston foodie. Robert Del Grande essentially became the city's first modern-day culinary star after taking the reins at Café Annie, which opened in 1980. There, he turned a fine French restaurant into a temple for what would later be branded farm-to-table cuisine, earning him Houston's first James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest in 1992.
But while Annie remained an institution, it moved to Post Oak Boulevard in 1989, re-branded a decade later, and soon found itself just one of many Houston restaurants foodies might consider destinations. These days, with names like Chris Shepherd, Justin Yu, Hugo Ortega, their disciples, and other young, emboldened chefs leading the charge in town, it's easy to forget about Annie. That might be why, earlier this year, Del Grande partnered with restaurateur Benjamin Berg to completely re-imagine one of the city's most famous restaurants. This week, it'll open as the Annie Cafe & Bar.
But why Berg? Why a New Yorker whose first move in Houston seven years ago was to open B&B Butchers, a steakhouse? Berg will answer that.
"You couldn't do this restaurant without Robert. It would have nothing to do with Annie anymore," says Berg. "But I think we're on the same page here about respecting the past and what it means to people, and what Robert's meant to Houston and chefs and everything. But it's also identifying that we gotta keep evolving."
In this sense, Berg is like a passionate archaeologist determined to reinvigorate Café Annie's past and bring it into the future. Berg loves the legacy and history of great restaurants and hospitality venues—he collects furniture and items discarded from famous, shuttered spots. He has a thing for matchbooks, which restaurants used to provide when cigarette and cigar smoking was expected after dinner. (If you don't have a B.B. Lemon matchbook, have you really eaten there?) He even modeled B.B. Lemon after a favorite New York eatery, J.G. Melon.
"We're trying to move it away from ... a celebration place," says Berg about the Annie. "I think the vibe is way more relaxed. I'm not putting the servers in ties. There are big palms in the dining room, with other greenery, and low couches
"It adds to a way more casual feel, yet the food is sophisticated and it looks well-plated."
Del Grande is still running the kitchen as executive chef, and his most famous dishes (wood-grilled rabbit, coffee-crusted filet mignon, Texas quail, tortilla soup) are still there, and entrees include game meats and seafood. But Berg and Del Grande, with the help of Berg's brother and B.B. Italia chef Daniel Berg, and new operating partner Sam Governale (also of Emmaline), have updated the menu with more casual fare like a 30-count burger made of Texas wagyu (they'll only make 30 per night), and daily specials (baby back ribs on Wednesday, fried chicken and biscuits on Sunday).
Kara Slife has been installed as the beverage director at the Annie, and she'll roll out about a dozen or so original cocktails. Sommelier Bridget Paliwoda has developed a wine list with bottles starting at $39. Weekend brunch and happy hour menus will also begin.
"It's just big pressure for everybody, because this restaurant has meant so much to everybody for so long," says Berg.
That won't be the end of things at the property. Part of the reason Berg has partnered with Governale is the two will be opening a new concept on the first floor, under the Annie Café & Bar. That has yet to be announced, but since it's Berg, one might imagine more big plans, and plenty more mildly crazy build-out days.