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Out-Of-Towners Swooping In Where Locals Fear To Tread: Downtown's New Wave Of Restaurants

Houston Retail

About 70% of the tenants in the new Lyric Market will be from outside of Houston, U.S. Property Management President and CEO Jonathan Enav said.

After decades of shuttering businesses and crawling traffic at night and on weekends in Downtown Houston, it is easier to pitch to out-of-state restaurant owners the new direction of the market than it is to change the minds of local brands.

Enav has spent the last 18 months researching and identifying restaurants concepts to approach for the 31K SF food hall in the Theatre District. From the start, he did not limit his scope to just Houston operations.

A' La Carte Foodservice Consulting Group principal Chris Tripoli, Aces of Taste co-founder Ahrif Sarumi, US Property Management CEO Jonathan Enav, Gin Design Group founder and Creative Director Gin Braverman, Bravery Hall partner Anh Mai, Transwestern Managing Director Nick Hernandez and TAG Restaurant Group owner and chef Troy Guard discuss the culinary scene in Downtown Houston at Bisnow's Future of Downtown Houston event 2018.

“The well-known Houston operators that are fantastic and have several concepts in Houston ... [and] have been around Houston for a few decades — they probably have a scar or two about opening or probably closing a restaurant in Downtown,” Enav told the audience during Bisnow’s Future of Downtown event at The Rice Tuesday. 

Instead of relying on local concepts, he sought out the best concepts for each cuisine in the cities where the food was the most well-known. For example, he said, if he wanted a pizza concept he looked for brands in New York and Chicago.

Lyric Market will feature more than 20 chef-driven concepts; however, none of the tenants has been announced yet. For most, it will either be the first location in Houston or the first time branching out of its home state, Enav said. The hall is slated to open in the Q2 2019 at 411 Smith St.

“The Downtown we are in today is very different than the Downtown that was here 10 to 20 years ago,” Enav said. 

The investment to add more apartmentshotels and office buildings in Downtown is spurring the expansion of the food scene.

A' La Carte Foodservice Consulting Group's Chris Tripoli, Central Houston President Bob Eury, Gilbane Building Co. Business Unit leader Daniel Gilbane, Camden Property Trust Senior Vice President Laurie Baker, Savills Studley Corporate Managing Director Jim Bell and American Institute of Steel Construction Specialist Alex Morales discussed the future of Downtown Houston at The Rice.

Restaurants owners no longer have to depend solely on the lunchtime or late-night traffic but can expect more consistent business from tourists and residents that live Downtown or in the nearby neighborhoods, Bravery Hall partner Anh Mai said.

One of his other projects, Conservatory, an underground beer garden and food hall in Downtown, operates seven days a week, opens for lunch and closes late at night.  

The next step to spurring activity at all hours is to add more street-level retail, which is challenging because most office buildings were constructed in the 1980s and were designed with a massive lobby, Enav said.

With no zoning restrictions in the city, it will be up to developers and landlords to configure those spaces to reactivate the streetscape and improve walkability. But they have an extra hurdle — Enav said lenders are not willing to underwrite the costs for ground-level retail, so developers must put more cash up for those types of projects.

Despite the challenges, many on the panel seemed to believe the city was headed in the right direction. 

“Downtown is a lot more balanced now,” Mai said. “It’s a totally different ballpark.”