The attractions of Understory are myriad: The hall, which opened in August, offers connections to five downtown tunnels, stalls from tried-and-true Houston chefs, and a sprawling space to hang out in, whether you’re popping in for lunch or joining the late-night theater crowd.
“We see ourselves as being a hub for the downtown community,” says Ben Llana, vice president of development of Skanska, the development firm that owns Bank of America Tower, which houses Understory. “We have people using the space throughout the day—they grab a coffee, or don’t grab a coffee, maybe use the wi-fi.”
The hall’s centerpiece is its massive set of marble steps with wooden benches, which invite patrons to relax and have a bite or a drink. At their foot is a bar, Silver Lining, that’s quite popular come happy hour. Evenings bring live music and trivia nights, and over in the “living room,” you’ll find ping-pong tables and lounge seating.
As for the food? You’ll likely recognize the vendors—think popular names like Ninfa’s and Boomtown Coffee. There are a few spaces yet to be occupied, though they’re being filled quickly: Farro, a healthy-eating wrap and bowl concept from Mona’s Sidney Degaine, debuts this month, and beloved bakery Common Bond is set to open soon, too.
My day downstairs
It’s a gorgeous Friday morning in Houston, a limitless blue sky stretching overhead. I watch the sun beam its rays through the high windows above Understory, where I’ll be spending the next 10 hours eating, drinking, even meeting some new friends.
Drawn by the scent of percolating bacon grease, I post up to Mama Ninfa’s Tacos y Tortas, where downtown’s denizens—not all of them employed in the Bank of America Tower, by the way—grab breakfast tacos before heading into the office.
I get an iced coffee from Boomtown to go with my chorizo-egg-jalapeño, and look around for the most important thing in the world: an outlet for my laptop. There’s nowhere to plug in by the tables in the main dining area, but I find a few attached to the booths next to Silver Lining, plus a couple by the wide platforms up the grand stairs. I set up at a booth and get to work.
The morning’s soundtrack, I notice, is hits by Fleetwood Mac, Supertramp, Don Henley, and Pink Floyd. No deep cuts. I move to the grand stairs for a change of pace.
The place starts to fill up. Tower worker Hailey Prestidge, eating a tuna aioli bowl from Seaside Poke, says she often visits Understory for lunch. “I like that there’s a bunch of different options for whatever you’re feeling,” she says.
The lines for Mona Fresh Italian Food stretch into one of the tunnels. As I bite into a delicious spam burger from Flip ‘n Patties, I chat with a pair of old friends who both work downtown but haven’t seen each other for a few years. They’re reconnecting over tasty-looking Mona pasta bowls.
Trying to work, I find myself getting sleepy from all the food—or maybe sitting underground for four hours. I decide to take a walk through the tunnels.
After a half-hour I’m completely energized. Exploring the tunnels during a Friday lunch break is a revelation. This should be on every Houstonian’s bucket list. I start texting co-workers about this, then wonder if I should write a romantic comedy about a pair of Houstonians who fall in love in the tunnels.
Back at the stairs, the wi-fi signal is poor, so I head over to my booth. I get a tuna aioli bowl from Seaside Poke, and it’s pretty, but I only eat a handful of bites. I still have half the food hall to go, so I’m trying to pace myself.
Ping-pong time! The folks from wind farm company EDP Renewables have arrived, and they’ve drawn up a bracket for a tournament whose $5 entry fee goes to charity. “It’s a good wind-down for the week,” says organizer Karan Parmar. Over the next two hours, I keep an eye on the game as Friday vibes begin to spread throughout the hall.
On Fridays Understory features live music. Tonight it’s flutist Cloris Grimes, who plays a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.”
I wrap up my work and grab a seat at Silver Lining, where I sip a glass of cabernet and watch workers gossip and flirt with each other. Patron Caroline Marcom tells me she’s here for the first time, waiting for her sister. “It’d be a good place to meet someone for lunch or happy hour,” she says. “I’ll be back.”
Grimes is now on tenor sax, blazing through Al Jarreau and Steely Dan, and I’m feeling cozy. The couple next to me are enjoying drinks and deciding what to get for dinner before heading over to the Hobby Center. I recommend Mona.
We’re all eating Mona pasta bowls and loving life.
My friends leave, so I order one last beer and some sweet potato fries from East Hampton Sandwich Co. while I sneak in a little more work on the stairs. A security guard stops and says hello, and I tell her about my day. Thinking about the ping-pong players and the tunnel hoppers and the happy-hour drinkers, I realize it’s been wonderful. Now, time to write that rom-com.
- Address: 800 Capitol St.
- Hours: 7 a.m.–10 p.m. Mon–Thurs; 7 a.m.–midnight Fri; 8 a.m.–midnight Sat; 8 a.m.–10 p.m. Sun
- Kid-Friendly? Yes, but you rarely see them.
- Parking: Bank of America Tower garage; on street metered until 6 p.m.
- Seating: Dining tables, counter and bar seats, stairs; no outdoor seating