A particular kind of self-confidence radiates from the diners at Tony’s, a self-satisfaction that, if you’ve been in Houston long enough, reads as vestigial. It’s visible in the way the men conspicuously palm fat tips to the tuxedoed maître d’, and the way the women, just slightly overdressed in tight, sparkly ensembles, promenade to the ladies room. Unlike so many of the hot new restaurants in town, where spareness rules, Tony’s still hums to the tune of excess. The china sparkles; the wine goblets glisten; the over-the-top chandelier illuminates a seemingly infinite number of captains, waiters, and busboys folding napkins, whisking chairs, pouring wine, and just generally fussing over customers in a way that doesn’t much happen anymore.
Once, Houstonians needed Tony’s to tell themselves that they’d made it, that they were rich enough and sophisticated enough to deserve a restaurant that the owner, Tony Vallone, had created in the mid-sixties with the fanciest, most exclusive New York restaurants in mind. But while he dreamed of a place that featured the best of “21,” Lutèce, and La Caravelle, his clientele converted Tony’s into a private carnival that perfectly reflected the mood of oil-boom Houston, circa 1976-1981. Lynn Wyatt sat front and center with her houseguest of the week, Princess Grace or Mick Jagger or Bill Blass. Developer Harold Farb eschewed beef Stroganoff for chicken-fried steak. Cullen Oil heir Baron Enrico di Portanova tossed his own pasta with tin after tin of beluga. And almost every night, Houston Chronicle society reporter Maxine Mesinger held court at her regular spot in the front of the dining room, spinning a glamorous world of “bigwigs” and “celebs” and “swankiendas” for those who could never afford Tony’s prices. Maxine spoke in a whiskey-and-cigarettes growl and had an unfailing eye for social foibles, but you’d never have known it from reading her column. Everyone wanted to be a part of that particular Houston, Miss Moonlight included.
The frenzy—or the fantasy, as it was not called at the time—was all predicated on the notion that the price of a barrel of oil, $34.65 in January 1981, would never go down. But, of course, it did, to $9 a barrel by July 1986. That the boom was followed by a devastating economic collapse now seems more important to Houston history than the battle of San Jacinto or the construction of the Astrodome. The bust gave lie to the myth that Houstonians had a lock on the future, and the Houston that came out of those hard times, it’s said repeatedly, is more circumspect and more chastened. (Or, as the New York Times wrote around that time, “a more sober, modest, and mature city with lowered expectations.”)
Almost twenty years later, oil is at $27, and gas sells for about $1.50 a gallon, but caution is a part of the Houston gestalt. A lot of the celebrated eccentrics are gone: Maxine and Baron Ricky died in the past year or so; Farb, who is again big in commercial real estate, is divorced from his former wife, Carolyn, and married to a society realtor who lacks his passion for spectacle. Tony’s, like Houston, is the same only different: On a recent summer night, the old guard was there but not in the old numbers. The fabled dessert cart was lighter on quintuple-layered confections. Ties are no longer required. In place of Maxine, there was Shelby Hodge, the Chronicle’s dependably sedate replacement. And at Lynn Wyatt’s fabled Station One were two chic African American couples who seemed to know everyone in the place. “Things are better,” Vallone told me a few days later. “There’s a lot of money in this town none of us know. New money. Younger money.” He paused. “It’s wonderful.”
That pause had a lot in common with a scene I’d witnessed that same night, when I’d spied a wiry, wizened diner whose face, even behind thick glasses, was unmistakable. At 92, Michel Halbouty was having dinner with his third wife, Billye, who, in her seventies, looked almost girlish in a smart pink suit. Few paid the couple any mind. There he was, the last living wildcatter, and no one had a clue. If you were looking for a way to contrast Houston then with Houston now, that pretty much said it all.
“In 1931 there were thirty-eight major oil companies,” Halbouty said. “Today we have four.” Behind his glasses, his eyes went flinty, and the corners of his mouth tightened; even his four raised fingers looked vexed.
Just as his office in the Halbouty Center across from the Galleria is a time capsule of oilman chic—the autographed pictures of Reagan and Bush I, the dashing Gittings portrait, the Italian mosaics copied from French Impressionists—Halbouty still sounds like a wildcatter. In the space of an hour, he barked, snapped, and whelped about our continued dependence on foreign oil, our need to drill in Alaska, and the majors’ insensitivity to their most loyal employees. (“The geoscientists are the most important element for the welfare of the world. Without them, nothing of any value would be found.”) Twenty years ago, everyone in town was saying these things. Now Halbouty is the only one.
His story remains a great romance: The son of poor Lebanese immigrants, he put himself through Texas A&M University, got bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology and petroleum engineering, and fell in love with what he calls “the intrigue of a challenge in the earth.” Halbouty loved the chase so much that he lost two fortunes and in the process molded himself into the archetypal oilman: shrewd, wily, a man whose word was his bond, an eternal optimist hooked on risk. “I could have retired completely when I was thirty-nine,” Halbouty said. “Hell, I had no more intention of retiring than the man in the moon.”
That admission sent him bounding into an outer office for a framed photograph of himself in 1946: He still wore his Army jacket; his first wife was in denim capris and a T-shirt. The slightly dazed young couple