The announcement was made last spring with much fanfare: Come October, the Hilton Americas lobby not only would be home to the largest Starbucks in the state of Texas, but would also be one of the first locations to offer Starbucks Evenings, which feature wine, craft beer and appetizers such as cheese plates after 4 p.m.
“Houston to get a monster-sized new Starbucks with special evening service perks: A tourist draw?” crowed CultureMap. The Houston Business Journal, the Chronicle and Eater all chimed in, seemingly over the moon about the addition of 4,000 square feet of space in which to enjoy their triple, venti, nonfat, no-foam lattes. But the store’s opening came and went last fall without a peep from local media. Curious, we decided to head over and take in the hustle and bustle of the new downtown hot spot ourselves.
The location is certainly grand. With a lobby filled with Venetian glass chandeliers, stunning mosaic tile floors, and multiple restaurants and bars—including a newish Pappasito’s—the Hilton Americas is the Carnegie Hall of downtown hotels, and it’s often teeming with people. Yet the coffee shop, surprisingly difficult to find in its corner of the lobby, was empty on a Thursday at 3:30 p.m., its four employees keeping themselves occupied by chatting as they refilled syrup bottles and restocked napkins.
It didn’t look like the space was anywhere near 4,000 square feet, but we left that mystery aside, ordering a goat cheese and artichoke flatbread and sitting down to wait for the crowds. A couple of hours passed, during which time fewer than 20 customers came in for coffee or a dessert, most taking their items to go. We wandered back over to the counter. “It’s usually quiet like this,” an employee said, handing over a free sample of Frappuccino left over from a previous order. “We only have a lot of people if there’s an event going on in the area.”
Wiping down the counter, another barista mentioned the bit of trivia that had brought us here: that this was, in fact, Texas’s largest Starbucks. Deciding to confess our confusion, we asked where the coffee shop ended and the lobby began. Turns out, it’s nearly impossible to tell, as the shop’s dark-brown couches and wood furniture blend in with the lobby furniture.
“It’s from one door of the hotel to the other door,” explained the barista, motioning to a distant point in the lobby. We walked over, trying to determine the shop’s exact boundaries. The hotel’s front desk receptionist finally clarified things, for the most part. “As you can tell, their furniture doesn’t match our seating,” she said, pointing to the multicolored striped couches in front of her. “They have dark couches, and we have patterned ones.” Ah!
Finally, we called it a day, determined to venture back on another occasion to take in the late-night scene. But when we showed up a few days later, things were quiet once more, with only the intermittent customer stopping in for coffee—we never did see anyone order wine. There was way more action at the lively lobby bar.
All the time we’d been spending at the Starbucks, we noticed, was starting to make us feel strangely pensive, maybe even a little existential. We wondered: Was the construction of the Starbucks necessary? Would a kiosk have sufficed? Were those tables and chairs near the escalator part of Starbucks or part of the lobby?
Wandering aimlessly, we struck up a conversation with an interior designer waiting to meet a colleague. Never mind the fact that she was sitting in the largest Starbucks in the state; she didn’t even know she was sitting in a Starbucks. Informed of these facts, her eyes widened in surprise. “The one in Times Square is huge,” she said. “This one doesn’t seem that big to me.”