Until I visited the new incarnation of La Griglia, the popular Italian restaurant that has been around since 1991, I had completely forgotten about something that used to be intrinsic to understanding Houston. Once upon a time (starting when I moved here in the metazoic year of 1976) the past was a country no respectable Houstonian would bother to visit. Nostalgia was for chumps; sentimentality for suckers. Back then and in many ensuing decades, the future was all: from NASA, to Philip Johnson’s skyscrapers, to Enron until it went south, to the oil business that became the energy business, to mayors who were not straight, white, and/or male. Maybe it was because we were so afraid of being labeled “backward” that we had such fervor about always moving forward. Even so, nothing prepared me for the outpouring of grief—the kind of mourning usually reserved for the death of a revered world leader or a beloved golden retriever—that has attended one restaurant’s move just over a mile northeast last month.
While OpenTable currently hosts some ecstatic reviews about the new spot, the uncharacteristic carping about the good old days is emblematic of the loss. “They no longer mix the herb and olive oil at your table, they still offer baskets of pizza bread but eliminated the slices of tasty breads and replaced that with rock hard rolls. . . . they no longer give diners an assortment of Italian cookies which always sent us home smiling,” wrote one self-proclaimed frequent diner. “It’s like a death in the family. Your friend is gone,” a friend who’s a regular told me bluntly. “I just can’t go. Too painful,” grieved another.
Initially, these sentiments are tough to grasp. The new location has an inviting, Mediterranean-ochre facade, jolly striped awnings, and abundant landscaping. The interior sports a bar with sexy banquettes, a richly paneled main dining room with shimmery marble floors, and the pretty all-weather terrace features an already famous retractable roof. Sure, pulling into the valet parking site right off busy West Dallas Street is death-defying, but otherwise the place seems in line with other dining rooms around town that have upped their games post-COVID.
But La Griglia was never just any restaurant. Previously, it sat a couple blocks from the intersection of West Gray and North Shepherd, close to the end of the chichi River Oaks Shopping Center and the beginning of gilded Inwood Drive. (Or the other way around if you prefer.) The late, beloved restaurateur Tony Vallone opened it as a more accessible spin-off of his eponymous and, well, far tonier, place in the Galleria area.
Tony’s circa 1972 was Vallone’s idea of a classic French restaurant crossed with Manhattan’s “21,” a base for New York City’s power brokers at the time. In typical Houston fashion, the Italian American, whose forebearers were associated with the local mob, invented the place to see and be seen. It was where local celebrities took bigger celebrities—Lynn Wyatt brought Princess Grace and Mick Jagger, oil heir Baron Enrico “Ricky” di Portonova and his wife, Sandra, hosted movie star Ernest Borgnine and his skin-care mogul wife. Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Collins, and Ivana Trump showed up at the tables of major local players in a symbiotic ritual of social advancement, previously known as showing off.
For its time, Tony’s was considered the best restaurant in Texas. The food was always good—Texas Monthly’s Patricia Sharpe gave it our highest rating back in the day—but to the regulars what mattered far more was the service, which was bespoke to say the least. Vallone served salmon from someplace most diners had never heard of along with the 1980s equivalent of Wagyu, but it was more important that Mr. or Mrs. Bigshot got what they wanted when they wanted it. That could mean an omelet made with American cheese at 3 a.m., or the di Portonovas’ famous caviar and pasta—spaghetti al caviale—tossed tableside for all to see. The staff not only knew your name, but how you liked your drink mixed and steak cooked, and to seat you far from your ex. And if you were really lucky, you’d land a mention in the society column of the Houston Chronicle’s Maxine Mesinger, who supposedly put away many a gratis meal at Tony’s. (Like everyone who mattered, the perpetually blonde, whiskey-voiced Mesinger had her own table.)
But the hoi polloi were generally excluded from Tony’s, partly because of the pricey menu and partly because the incessantly vigilant Vallone made the red-rope arbiters of Manhattan clubs look like church supper greeters. Who wanted to spend a fortune on a special-occasion dinner only to be reminded you were nobody, sitting in the back room known to cognoscenti as “Siberia”?
La Griglia, then, was a democratic alternative, reflective of nineties Houston, which was more global, diverse, casual, and secure enough to dispense with old-world formality. The place certainly attracted the typical Tony’s crowd, including ladies who lunch (PaperCity society writer Shelby Hodge remains the focus of much genuflection). But in the era of power lunching, a new crowd joined the society types. “It was the lunchtime temple of see-and-be-seen for socialites, judges, lobbyists, and high-profile business types even up until its final day,” Hodge told me. (The pre- and post-indicted came, too. There was a spot called the “indictment table.”) At times, La Griglia could feel like it contained a mash-up of wealthy golfers from the River Oaks Country Club, downtown business types from the Coronado Club, and those who either were or hoped to be city hall denizens, along with the patients from a society cosmetic surgeon’s waiting room. Those were the folks whose palm prints and footprints were embedded near the entrance, Walk of Fame–style. In the valet lot out front, Mercedes, Bentleys, and Ferraris squatted a mere ten or so feet from the entrance.
But unlike Tony’s, the masses were also welcome here: prom dates, graduation celebrants, bridesmaid brunchers, baby shower attendees, retirees-to-be—anyone and everyone got what felt like special treatment here. Instead of Tony’s plush carpet, claret walls, and the kind of soft lighting designed to roll back the decades, La Griglia had raucous caricatures painted on its soaring walls, columns with unruly mosaics, an open kitchen (before it was a cliché), and a wildly disorienting carpet (after a few drinks, especially). And yes, there was the treasured bread basket that included free pizza slices prepared in an on-site pizza oven (before that, too, became a cliché). Half a dozen cookies—including biscotti striped in Neapolitan hues—were also gratis before the actual (often sumptuous) dessert selections were presented. The customer-is-always-right service that was so crucial to Tony’s applied to everyone here. You didn’t need an invitation or a seven-figure income to join the party.
How was the food? Good enough. Vallone, who had started his career with a far homier Italian joint, gussied up the old Italian family recipes he’d loved for the new place. New, improved versions of those dishes were rechristened on the menu under sections called “Pasta,” “Pesce” and “Pranzo.” Still, the regulars knew what was printed there was irrelevant. Most of them seemed to want something more curated, often related to their weight-watching, as it does with people intent on keeping up appearances. So, if you wanted, say, Trout Shelby (named after you-know-who) but you wanted it without black olives but on a bed of wilted but not-too-wilted spinach, and maybe a small side of pasta with a little less butter and garlic and just a pinch of red pepper—well, of course!
Then came 2003, when Vallone divested himself from almost all the restaurants he’d created over the years, keeping but one, Tony’s. He sold La Griglia to billionaire Tilman Fertitta, a Houston/Galveston homeboy also of Italian extraction, who was then gobbling up restaurants and casinos for his Fertitta Entertainment chain like a wildcatter on Adderall. A partial list of his domain today includes the Rainforest Cafe, Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, Morton’s The Steakhouse, the Kemah Boardwalk, Golden Nugget Casinos, and the Houston Rockets. Fertitta’s website describes him as “a world leader in the dining, hospitality, entertainment, and gaming industries.” Needless to say, the sale terrified the regulars at La Griglia, who feared Fertitta might bring about something that used to be a welcome occurrence in Houston: change.
Maybe he was too busy with ever more acquisitions or starring in his own reality show, Billion Dollar Buyer, or writing Shut Up and Listen! Hard Business Truths That Will Help You Succeed, but for a long time Fertitta left La Griglia alone, much to the relief of those who took solace there in an ever-shifting, more-chastened Houston, in which change is scarier than it used to be. (See: collapse of Enron, oil glut circa 2010, Hurricane Ike, Hurricane Harvey, and so on.) That is, until it was announced just before the restaurant’s cherished annual Halloween bacchanal this year (featuring DJs, costumed local celebs, and lots of alcohol) that La Griglia would be closing and reopening closer to downtown, a smidge farther from River Oaks. (The stated reason for the move was a disagreement over the lease, which was correct, but more specifically, there was such bad blood between Fertitta and the former owner of the shopping center that, when a new company took over in 2022, moving on seemed like the best idea for everyone involved—except maybe the regulars.)
The move was reported by no fewer than three local publications. There was a lot of gushing and gawking over the new place: the James Beard Award–winning chef brought in from NYC to revamp the menu, the marble staircase at the entrance, the servers in tuxedo shirts, the captains in dinner jackets, the $1 million patio. The main dining room telegraphs the hard-edged elegance of an Upper East Side CEO canteen, with those spanking white floors, glossy paneled walls, and mirrored light fixtures that could pass for art deco drones. There’s more: three private dining rooms of varying sizes occupy the upper floors. (“Where Tilman goes to fire a head coach,” cracked attorney and La Griglia regular Brian Wice.) The zany murals back at the old place have been replaced with framed photographs of sixties movie stars.
The food? Oh, right. The menu is still Italian-ish, but there’s little old-fashioned red sauce to be had, except for chef Mark Ladner’s special red clam sauce that goes with the extravagant frutti di mare dish. The menu changes are consistent with the servers’ wardrobe upgrades: of course, there is pricey Wagyu from a local ranch, burrata sourced from Puglia, a new dish called “Hanging Hen” that involves the carving of a whole chicken at the table. (Tableside drama, circa Tony’s 1980, is ostensibly a thing again.) Some of the old favorites remain, but they aren’t the same, which accounts for much of the recent grousing. The sautéed spinach that used to accompany your entrée for free is now a $12 side dish. On a recent visit, the formerly abundant pizza slices in that bread basket had been reduced to . . . three.
The old “ask and you shall receive” ethos seems to have diminished as well. Maybe it’s just a matter of adjusting to the new digs, but when my friend requested all biscotti on the once-free, now-$18 plate of Italian cookies, our server looked stricken. He would have to ask the manager, he said. (At that point we declined, putting him out of his misery.) That menu prices are not posted on the restaurant’s website is an unfortunate reminder that if you have to ask . . .
None of this is accidental, of course. “We wanted for all the Houstonians who spend the summer in Italy and Europe to be able to get that back in Houston,” Fertitta told Hodge in an interview. More to the point, Brandon Busch, a La Griglia senior executive, told Eric Sandler of CultureMap that it was time to undo twenty years of making “everything a little more casual.” Hence, the white tablecloths, white-jacketed servers, and the sign at the entrance announcing the dress code. (Another nostalgic nod to the old Tony’s, where Vallone kept extra ties for the inappropriately dressed.)
Indeed, the new La Griglia is clearly directed at a crowd with much, much more disposable income. In fact, the place is kind of a luxury three-fer, with the banqueted bar dividing the lush outdoor terrace and the more minimal (but certainly not spare) dining room inside. All of that abundance inspired two of my lunch guests, on separate days, to ask whether this La Griglia felt more like New York or L.A. The correct answer, to me, is that it’s most like Houston today.
Not to be a wet blanket, but the division between rich and poor is growing here as much as we like to claim we offer opportunity for all; the city is second only to Detroit in the number of newly poor neighborhoods. Maybe that’s why the new La Griglia reminds me most of Fertitta’s super-ritzy Post Oak Hotel, where maybe you can shell out for a special-occasion brunch once a year at the Bloom & Bee, splurge on a cocktail at the H Bar in hopes of “meeting” a pro athlete, or ogle the Rolls Royces offered for sale in an alcove just down the hall from the lobby. It’s fun for a while, but sooner or later the nose-pressed-against-the-glass feeling sets in.
Maybe you’d be more comfortable at one of Fertitta’s more egalitarian amusement parks or casinos. That’s the reason the regulars at the old La Griglia—those not-so-rich ones who once felt welcome there—were so bereft. They know this party is not for them.
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