Houston Heights Delights
Four miles northwest of downtown Houston, an historic neighborhood ushers in modern surprises
After countless trips to Houston to visit family, tour museums, and check out the city’s ever-growing supply of excellent restaurants, I’d somehow missed visiting the Houston Heights neighborhood. Until I read an in-depth walking-tour story about the Heights in a national travel magazine, I hadn’t realized the treasures awaiting in this richly historic district only four miles northwest of downtown Houston.
Established in the 1890s as one of Houston’s first suburbs, the Heights has undergone dramatic (and sometimes controversial) change in re-cent years, with widespread restoration of its Victorian mansions and Craftsman bungalows taking place alongside new residential construction and restaurants, shops, and galleries.
And so it was appropriate that I began my exploration of the Heights with lunch at a two-year-old grocery, deli, and charcuterie called Revival Market, which represents the innovative spirit found in the neighborhood.
The neighborhood has completely changed in the past three years. Now there’s a good blend of arts, interesting food, history and grit.
My banh mi sandwich—an interpretation of the classic Vietnamese French-bread sandwich invigorated with local cucumbers, carrots, and summer sausage—owes its complexity to chef Ryan Pera and fellow co-owner (and trained butcher) Morgan Weber, who seek out locally sourced meats, breads, and produce for the market’s menu and shelves. The two recently announced plans to open an Italian restaurant nearby, complete with a garden that will provide both locations with as much produce as they can coax from the ground.
Sitting on Revival Market’s narrow, plant-lined patio—gazing at the pedestrian, bicycle, and motor traffic zipping past on stately Heights Boulevard—I wondered what had brought this resurgent vibrancy to the Heights.
“The landscape of the neighborhood has completely changed in the past three years, and now there’s a good blend of arts, interesting food, history, and grit,” Pera offered. “It’s a testament to an urbanism that’s given the Heights its own personality. The neighborhood has a commitment to preservation and a small-town feel.”
That cozy-community feel couldn’t be more palpable than during the holiday season. Much of the credit for the seasonal sentiment in the Heights goes to Carols by Candlelight, the annual holiday homes tour that invites residents and visitors to wander through private homes and admire architecture, interior design, and holiday décor in various interpretations.
The variety of homes provides its own intrigue for design fans. On one end of the spectrum is the Wise-McCollum Home, a Craftsman bungalow on West 24th Street, which dates to around 1915 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Representing the Heights’ modern transformation is the Ross-Reuter home on West 15th Street, a tree-framed residence with stained concrete floors and exposed ductwork. Nearby, on East 8 Street, a new cottage called the Reed House features reclaimed wood from a demolition site nearby and a door salvaged post-Katrina from New Orleans’ Mercy Hospital.
This year’s holiday homes tour brings the extra attraction of local gourmet food trucks, which will be parked at the tour’s headquarters, the 1914 Houston Heights City Hall & Fire Station. Shuttle buses cart tour visitors from one home to the next, and carolers sing at each site and at tour headquarters. Even if you’re not a homes-tour type, the event provides a festive opportunity to explore the Heights, as shops, boutiques, coffeehouses, art galleries, and studios extend their hours to welcome extra visitors.
But there’s no reason to wait for a special occasion to explore the Heights. From my home base at Sara’s Bed and Breakfast Inn—a handsome, renovated Victorian home that provides posh accommodations in three suites and eight rooms—I found myself within walking distance of many enticements here.
Each morning brings a hearty breakfast for guests, complete with juices, coffee and tea, fruit and yogurt, hot and cold cereals, pastries, waffles, and eggs cooked to order. A basket of area restaurant menus gives guests ideas about where to eat when roaming the district, too.
To really get acquainted with the Heights, I found that a full two days are ideal. It can be devoured in bite-size pieces, of course, with plentiful stops for sustenance between antiques shops, boutiques, galleries, and strolling the side streets.
West 19th Street, the primary shopping drag, pulls in plenty of traffic with shops specializing in antiques, home furnishings, and art. At Gen’s Antiques, five dealers offer treasures such as 1950s jukeboxes, Mid-Century sofas, vintage linens and light fixtures, and paintings by local artists. Nearby, at a narrow boutique called The Lift, I discovered brightly hued writing papers, greeting cards, artful jewelry, and books on art, design, and pop culture. Next door at Eclectic Home, I took in walls hung with glass pieces inspired by Dale Chihuly, dining tables crafted from Indian rosewood, and crystal chandeliers.
Nineteenth Street also hosts one of my favorite Heights art spaces, Gallery M Squared, which occupies the former Heights Theater, a movie house that opened in 1929. With exposed brick walls, the gallery exhibits work by established and emerging painters, sculptors, printmakers, and other artists, some of whom incorporate music and video. Shows change fairly often, and this place can be counted on to deliver intrigue and whimsy.
The Houston Heights’ many homegrown, locally owned boutiques and restaurants have kept chain enterprises at bay.
On East 11th Street, about a 10-minute walk from Sara’s, awaits Redbud Gallery, where owner Gus Kopriva—well-known in the community of Houston’s visual artists, writers, and musicians who call the Heights home—seeks out unusual fare to fill his monthly exhibits. I was taken with a recent exhibit of documentary photography and with the sculpture outside, the latter created by Houston artist James Ciosek using debris from Hurricane Ike. If you catch Kopriva on-site, ask if you can see his personal collection of work by Rembrandt, Rauschenberg, Ruscha, and Man Ray. He happily obliged when I stopped in.
Independent films have enjoyed a following in the Heights since 1998, when a nonprofit film space called the Aurora Picture Show opened in a 1920s church building on Aurora Street. Aurora has since moved on to the Rice neighborhood, but in 2010, new resident and film enthusiast Cressandra Thibodeaux reopened the theater as 14 Pews. The filmhouse presents a regular bill of art-house flicks, augmented with arts and music events, lectures on art and film topics, and film festivals. Clearly, these are movies made to make you think, such as the recent showing of Somewhere Between, a documentary about Chinese adoptees in today’s America.
Also housed in a former church building, the acclaimed Opera in the Heights stages its productions to a house of only 314 guests, and the audience feels as though it’s part of the action. The current season, lasting until early May, celebrates Shakespeare in operatic form, with Otello, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Macbeth, and Falstaff.
When it comes to dining, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather explore than the Heights, where homegrown, individually owned operations have kept chain restaurants at bay.
One of my favorites is Down House, a restaurant, bar, and coffeehouse named for the estate of Charles Darwin that somehow evokes both a bohemian and sophisticated vibe simultaneously. Open for three meals daily, Down House offers beverages ranging from specialty coffees to tequila drinks, plus a dozen Texas craft beers on tap. For brunch, I can recommend the spicy braised pork hash with home fries, crumbled feta, tomatoes, and jalapeños, with fried eggs on top. Among clever touches: The checks are presented inside books by Charles Darwin.
A 15-minute stroll from Sara’s, Zelko Bistro proved to be remarkable on several levels. After earning stripes at Brennan’s and other local restaurants, chef and co-owner Jamie Zelko restored a 1920s bungalow for her own little place. Since opening in 2010, she’s earned acclaim for both her food and for the sustainability of her restaurant practices, which includes sourcing local ingredients. Tucked into a cozy banquette nook, I savored each bite of her cooked-in-a-can meatloaf, which was served with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach. Creamy tres leches cake was the perfect ending.
My weekend in the Heights ended before I was ready. But before heading home to Fort Worth, I stopped by Revival Market to pick up jars of housemade barbecue sauce, ketchup, and pickled jalapeños and carrots—some to give to friends and others to enjoy myself. I want to keep tasting the Heights, and to remember how refreshing it is to find a small-town sensibility in the middle of a huge city.
From the December 2012 issue.