|May. 16th, 2006 @ 08:25 am Chron: The Austin angle has an edge in Houston|
In this past Sunday's business section, there's a piece on Houston locales that have an "Austin" feel. Among them, many 3700 residents.
May 14, 2006, 8:20PM
The Austin angle has an edge in Houston
A handful of area businesses have perfected the free-spirited feel of the Lone Star State's capital
By DAVID KAPLAN
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
Deep in the heart of Houston beats an Austin vibe.
Houston doesn't have Austin's hills and lakes, but that love of the bohemian lifestyle and outdoors mixed with a laid-back attitude found in countless bars, cafes and shops in the capital city is creeping into town.
Places like Onion Creek, Barton Springs Grill, Tacos A Go-Go and Sig's Lagoon, a music and gift store, seem more suited for Austin than a city that boasts the headquarters of more Fortune 500 companies than anyplace outside of New York.
Some Houston business owners say they intentionally shoot for an Austin feel. Others have come upon it by accident. In either case, their customers often say the place reminds them of Austin.
In Austin, a number of proprietors aim to run a business that reflects their free-spirited lifestyle: more Willie Nelson than Michael Dell.
Importing that entrepreneurial philosophy to Houston isn't a bad idea, given the vast numbers of Houstonians who have fond memories of Austin, marketing consultants say.
Of course, Houston is home to many businesses that started in Austin and expanded here: Amy's Ice Creams, Whole Foods Market, Alamo Draft House, Continental Club, Chuy's, Katz's Deli and Texadelphia, for instance.
But local entrepreneurs like Onion Creek owner Gary Mosley have shown that Austin-style businesses can originate in Houston.
Many of his patrons describe the Heights cafe as pure Austin. Onion Creek has a fireplace and cozy clubhouse ambiance. Outside is a lot of deck space.
Onion Creek is among the first places in town to host a Saturday organic farmers' market.
Houston native Mosley fell in love with Austin and surrounding Hill Country when he attended the San Marcos Baptist Academy. He'd go river rafting and notice that people around Austin "had smiles on their faces."
In contrast, Houston is a more rigid, money-driven town, said Mosley, who wore a T-shirt, a pair of shorts, sneakers and a boyish grin.
"For a town to be so close to Austin," he said, "I didn't understand why there weren't more businesses with an atmosphere and mind-set like Austin's."
He decided to create a haven from the Houston rat race: "I wanted people coming in flip-flops. All different races. People enjoying the music, just being themselves.
"A business is a reflection of the employees and ownership," he said: "Are they uptight or are they laid-back?"
The Heights is an ideal Houston spot to cultivate the Austin feel, said Mosley, who opened Onion Creek more than three years ago.
Mosley's marketing strategy is smart, said Chris Tripoli, president of A' la Carte Foodservice Consulting Group.
Any business that reminds Houstonians of Austin can have strong appeal, he said. The fast pace of Houston makes Houstonians particularly drawn to Austin's reputation for laid-back living.
Grill and chill
Barton Springs Grill in northwest Houston, too, is packed with Austin cultural references, in its name, decor, menu and slogan: "We grill, you chill." It is named after Austin's idyllic Barton Springs pool.
The interior resembles a quirky Hill Country lodge and features limestone and cedar, a big beer bottle chandelier and framed albums of Willie Nelson, the Doors and other artists.
The menu is inspired by several Austin eateries. The Austin Queso borrows from Guero's, the Marga-tini resembles a drink at Trudy's, and "TV dinners" and veggie dishes pay homage to Threadgill's.
The patio, with bright metal chairs and pink flamingos, aspires for a Shady Grove feel. Owner Bill Osterhout eventually plans to install a man-made creek outside.
Barton Springs Grill features live Texas music every night.
Osterhout has a successful track record in the industry. He was a founder of Salt Grass Steakhouse and a partner in the Mason Jar.
He got the idea for Barton Springs Grill after visiting his daughter at the University of Texas and being charmed by Austin.
"It all seemed young and fun," he recalled, "an amazing cultural mix of cowboys and college kids playing Frisbee, cool restaurants and everybody is casual, just a breath of fresh air."
In the fall of 2004, Osterhout was sitting on an old stone bench, looking down on Barton Springs while a breeze was blowing. He had an epiphany: A theme restaurateur to his core, he realized that maybe the entire Austin scene could be turned into a concept.
In April of last year, he opened Barton Springs Grill in the Spring-Cypress area. He found that the location was too much of a neighborhood spot, not urban enough. He closed it and a few weeks ago opened at U.S. 290 and FM 1960.
Barton Springs Grill was an instant hit at the new spot, he said.
Northwest Houston and countercultural Austin are not the same, he has learned. He had to scale back the Austin vibe a bit. One older female customer was offended by the profanity she heard on an Ani DiFranco song while using the restroom.
And the initial look of some members of his wait staff startled clientele. He had hired a few long-haired, heavily tattooed young men and let them wear T-shirts to work. He has since imposed a slightly stricter dress code.
The new location is doing so well that Osterhout is thinking of expanding the concept to other spots in town.
Food a go-go
The Austin persona of Tacos A Go-Go in Midtown appeared unexpectedly, and was more a product of circumstance, said Sharon Haynes, who owns the tacqueria with her husband, Chas Haynes.
The brand-new restaurant is on the same block as the Austin-born Continental Club and is virtually one of its offspring.
Tacos A Go-Go was also built by musician, Continental Club partner and former Austinite Pete Gordon and other Continental Club staffers, Sharon Haynes said, "and a lot of their personality comes through."
It was built using recycled materials and offbeat odds and ends and has a hand-made, noninstitutional feel, said Haynes, who previously co-founded two downtown restaurants, Solero and Century Diner.
Tacos A Go-Go has red metal tables and chairs, a concrete floor and brightly colored walls adorned with Spanish language posters. The interior playfully pays tribute to Mexican village streets.
Carmen Miranda in 3-D
The 3-D Carmen Miranda sign above the door of the 1929 building is like the signs along Austin's South Congress, noted Bob Schultz, a Continental Club partner. South Congress is a revitalized district housing kitschy shops.
In fact, much of the block, which includes the Continental Club, Tacos A Go-Go, Sig's Lagoon and the bar Big Top, has the feel of South Congress, Schultz said.
The funky look along 3700 Main is "the extreme opposite of the controlled suburbs," he said.
Countercultural entrepreneurs like pianist Gordon, and Sig's Lagoon owners Tomas and Jennifer Escalante see no separation between owning a business and making art, Schultz said.
Purists might say no Houston establishment can ever have an Austin soul. Joe Phillips, a young man with some perspective, gave his opinion. Phillips, a former Onion Creek manager, recently moved to Austin to become general manager of Spider House, arguably the ultimate Austin hangout. The 10-year-old vegetarian cafe and bar has a lush patio that evokes a combination of Paris and Alice in Wonderland.
"I think on certain levels you can import Austin, but you can't get 100 percent," Phillips said. Houston, Phillips maintained, is "about being a peacock and being seen." It's a more "high-dollar, high-end town, devoted to making as much money as you can," he said.
Mosley's Onion Creek was such a success that he opened a second location at Richmond and Weslayan.
He plans to sell it, though. It's harder to create an Austin vibe in a strip center, he said. His Heights location greatly benefits from being shaded by big trees.
Mosley also owns the Dry Creek, another Heights cafe.
At the Heights Onion Creek, he has loyal customers. Andrew Sheridan, for example, moved to The Woodlands but still drives to Onion Creek for its "natural kind of atmosphere, as opposed to being trendy and really built up."
Another customer, Katherine Heinrich, who was on the deck with her baby, Philip, and nine other Heights mothers and their babies on a recent afternoon, noted that she was born in Austin.
Onion Creek's "faux Austin thing," she said, in reference to signs that say "Austin City Limits" and the like, "kind of bothers me," but she had to admit that Onion Creek "hit the nail on the head. They've got a good vibe."
Mosley said his signs help make the mood.
Sig's Lagoon, near Tacos A Go-Go, features recordings by local musicians, dresses by local designer Judy Masliyah, pop culture-themed gifts and toys, soaps and lotions made locally as well as books and hot rod magazines.
Owner Tomas Escalante, who is also a vocalist with a Houston band called Clouseaux, calls the eclectic mix of merchandise "Texotica."
Sig's Lagoon makes no mention of Austin, but customers often say it reminds them of it, he said.
He doesn't like the Austin comparison: "Everything about my place is Houston, starting with its name." The place was named after the late journalist Sig Byrd, who wrote about Houston life, frequently in downtown and the east side, in the 1950s and 1960s.
Escalante said he's out to showcase the spirit of his own town: the Houston vibe, not Austin's.
When people say "Austin," Escalante said, "I think it's really more about a comfort factor. It's wherever people feel at home."