Out to Lunch
There are some restaurants in Houston open only for lunch. You may leave with a box of tarts, or the chair you were sitting on.
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In the scramble for the attention of Houston’s ever-increasing number of our appetites by its ever-increasing number of restaurants, there is a genre of restaurant that seems to be steadily, if unobtrusively, gaining a foothold. It serves lunch only.
Restaurants that fall into this category survive for one of two reasons: Low overhead (cafeteria-style manned by volunteers for a good cause or cafeteria-style with high volume) or something else to sell (antiques, clothes, gifts, take-out food, etc.) They are appealing because they are “in,” attractive, convenient, or economical, and sometimes even because they have good food. For the sake of expediency we have considered them by price (what it takes to get you out).
$4 AND UP
THE BROWNSTONE: 2738 Virginia (528-2844), Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. Valet parking
Currently the place in which to see, be seen and even eat (if you have a reservation) is the Brownstone. Actually a renovated brownbrick, it is in a section of town fast being reclaimed by architects’ offices and townhouses. The Brownstone’s front rooms, which formerly housed Wilds and Canon Design shop, are salesrooms devoted to a collection of distinctive antiques and au courant accessories (it’s the natural look this year: mounted antelope horns, pheasant feathers en vase, compotes of bleached seashells, and pots of bromeliads, orchids, and dracaenas). At the back of the building is an attractive, spacious dining area which accommodates a jam of well-coiffed, well-dressed, well-heeled ladies (and some equally spiffy gentlemen) who are probably not on their lunch hours.
For a fixed price of $3.75 (plus tax and service) you may choose from among three entrees. The selection 40 TEXAS MONTHLY Photography by Nicki Parker changes from day to day. Our favorite, to date, is the flounder with artichoke hearts and Mornay sauce. Veal-stuffed zucchini, shrimp-stuffed bell pepper, and sweet and sour meatballs have also been successful choices. Each entree is accompanied by a vegetable (often exceptionally good) and a fruit salad. A salad plate is usually one of the three offerings and we have found the chicken salad-stuffed tomato on a king size bed of assorted lettuce leaves to be as tasty as it is spectacular. Dessert is extra and the cheesecake with blueberry sauce, the fruit crisp, and the coconut ice cream sundae have each been worth the added price and calories.
Incidentally, this is obviously an equal employment opportunity endeavor. On our last visit our car was parked by a cute young woman in a fur coat and our table was served by a cute young man in a beard.
THE ANT AND THE GRASSHOPPER: 303 Jackson (Addicks exit on IH 10) (493-2253), Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
The Ant and the Grasshopper is also a combination antique shop and lunch room and it offers you not only the food on your table but the table and chairs as well. Quaint surroundings, attractive hostesses in long skirts, and personal touches make this luncheon spot popular with ladies in the Memorial (and maybe even the San Antonio) area.
Unless you make an advance request for a special dish you are served a pot luck lunch consisting of a hot entree, a fruit salad, fresh bread, a dessert, and a glass of house wine. On Monday the fare is usually quiche, while Tuesday through Friday feature dishes such as chicken “Alabam,” ham Mornay, or seafood casserole. The fixed price is $2.75 on Monday and $3.75 the rest of the week.
Ever attractive, the Ant and the Grasshopper has not always lived up to the menu’s boasts of “artists” in the kitchen and the “finest available ingredients.” However, we are delighted to report that the quality of the food had, on our last visit, improved markedly. The homemade cinnamon bread came to our table directly from the oven. The quiche, served with crisp bacon on top and sausage on the side, was as fresh, interesting, and tasty as promised. The fruit salad served with it made a nice foil. Even the bread pudding was good for bread pudding. We commend the notable improvement here and hope that it is maintained.
ESP (ST. JAMES RESTAURANT): 1885 St. James Place (626-4393), Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. Valet parking
The feminine leg of the St. James Restaurant, ESP is a courtyard surrounded by a multi-level collection of boutiques. Skylighting, tiled floors, Schumacher print table skirts in earthy colors, greenery, and the attractive merchandise itself make ESP visually appealing. When it opened a year or so ago, ESP was the rage. Innovative luncheon treats, mostly in the salad realm, featured splendid assortments of fresh sprouts, water cress, raw mushrooms, and even artichoke mousse. A self-served chef salad in a goblet was one of our favorites. Even the more standard hot entrees were served with verve. Recently, however, ESP seems to have gone through the change of life. The once princely menu is now a frog and is used both at ESP and at The Court of St. James next door-they share a kitchen. Luncheon specials are mundane (scallops in a white sauce flanked with canned kernel corn) and the chef’s salad with its strips of rubbery American cheese was hardly worth the $3.75 tariff.
Fortunately, there may yet be a happy ending. A new manager, Robert Lloret (formerly of Brennan’s), is taking the reins as we write and we understand that there will be a new menu for ESP. Hopefully the frog will again become a prince.
ANDRE’S: 2515 River Oaks Blvd (at Westheimer) (524-3863), Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Andre’s does double duty as a restaurant and a patisserie. With a central kitchen, it offers both an extensive bakery counter laden with breads, candies, chocolates, and pastries and a small cozy tearoom. Its popularity at noon is based upon three factors: freshly prepared food, surroundings made cheerful with Swiss canton flags and wooden settles, and luncheon prices still at a pre-Phase I level. (Maybe they don’t have phases in Switzerland.) For $2.42 (tax included) you have a choice of three entrees served with salad, bread, beverage, and dessert. Quiche is usually one of the choices and if you find it to your liking, which you will, you can purchase a whole one to take home. (With salad it makes an ideal “busy day” supper.) Cheese crouton, a hunk of crusty bread with melted cheese, is another pleasant entree. Even a green pepper stuffed with ground meat has been good.
Dessert is the real treat here. You take your choice from the waitress’ pastry tray. There are cakes, tarts, tortes, etc. Our favorite is the Linzer-torte, and somehow we always give in to it.
You pay your check at the pastry counter. This is a cagey maneuver on the management’s part as you inevitably fall prey to the luscious merchandise and go home with several bags and boxes under your arm.
OLD EUROPE: 5418 Bellfort (721-0345), Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.
The Old Europe began life several years ago as a gift shop, and has, in the last year, added a tearoom which has gone almost unnoticed save by a fortunate few. Located across from Westbury Square, the tearoom is so tiny (it has five tables for two) that its staff of proprietress, cook, baker, dishwasher, waitress, cashier, and saleslady is actually one lovely German lady, Sigrid Schreiber. Her menu features soups, sandwiches, salads, entrees, cheeses, and desserts each of which is executed with flair, care, and quality ingredients. Even gazpacho, hardly standard Deutsche fare, is exquisitely seasoned and garnished. Her quiche made with Gruyere and Emmanthaler is not the usual stiff cheese pie, but a moist, rich, creamy delight. It is served with a salad of choice greens in an herb dressing and is given color with a bit of grated egg. The homemade dessert du jour features Linzertorte on Monday, strudel on Tuesday, etc. You’ll find yourself going every day just to see if the next can be as good as the last. There are a variety of coffees available to add to your enjoyment: German filter, Greek mocha, espresso, Viennese, etc. If sweets aren’t for you, try the cheeses: Brie with horseradish cream and cantaloupe, or Gorgonzola with banana.
We hate to be too effusive in our praise of the Old Europe, not because we fear that Ms. Schreiber won’t live up to our touts but because we hate to see her establishment overrun and perhaps pushed too rapidly beyond her capacities. Therefore, we ask that you go in small groups and give her name only to your most discriminating friends.
SCHWARTZBERG’S: 2617 Chenevert (222-1772), Monday through Saturday 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
Among the most economical restaurants in every way is Schwartzberg’s Not much has been spent on the building itself either inside or out and you won’t have to spend much on the food. Here in seen-better-days surroundings you join a host of regulars who have been coming to Schwartzberg’s since Montrose was suburbia.
To participate you must first get in the line that is forming in front of the meat counter and moving along slowly toward the steam table. As you move forward, make your selection from a huge blackboard menu. Having reached the steam table, give your order to the butcher-baker-sandwich maker, and then abandon your food to the system while you find a table. Big Brother (or is it Sister) knows, and the waitress miraculously puts the right plate before the right mouth regardless of numbers in the party, table changes, or musical chairs. Not being regulars, we were agape when a waitress returned to us a ball point pen that we had left on our table several weeks earlier.
The food here leans to kosher with small unfortunate sorties into Creole. The knackwurst and sauerkraut, the pea soup, and the duck are all worth your gastronomic attention.
AUTRY HOUSE: 6265 Main (in the Esplanade) (524-3168), Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m
Autry House is salvation for those in the Medical Center-Rice area. Stranded between Main and Fannin and looking like a stuccoed wing of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Autry House hosts an amazing variety of neighborhood folks: doctors, nurses, cleric Montessori teachers, Rice professors and students, zoo personnel, businesmen, and hungry local housewives. Line up for soup, simple meat dishes, vegtables, desserts, coffee, and tea. Then take your tray to a table in the high ceilmged dining area. (A stage, choir loft, and theatrical lights attest to Autry House’s “other” life as Roger Glade’s weekend Playwrights’ Showcase.) The fare is basic, but you won’t find a thriftier, more cosmopolitan spot on the Fannm-Main esplanade.
MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS: 1001 Bissonnet (526-1361), Sunday through Saturday noon-2 p.m.
The Museum of Fine Arts’ new addition by Mies van der Rohe includes a small, pleasant tearoom. Here in a magnificent building housing the great names in art, you can enjoy a sandwich or cup of soup while perhaps rubbing shoulders with visiting museum directors and artists.
Lunch is served through a window and has a homemade appearance and taste. Pea soup has been exceptional and the chicken salad sandwich has had more chicken than salad. Our only negative message to the management is that they have missed a golden opportunity in the naming of the dishes. How about Chillida chili, Audubon chicken salad della Robbia fruit salad, or Giuseppe Arcimboldo vegetable soup?