Downtown Houston

March 1, 2003 by  
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Dive Into Downtown

Once again, downtown Houston is simply the place to be for wining and dining, clubbing and lounging, hanging around and stepping out. Downtown is the “spot” for, well, anything you want to do, but only after one serious, year-long roller coaster ride.

The downtown renaissance hit its stride mid-2000, attracting the entire population of the city for dining, concerts, street festivals, bar-hopping and dwelling. It was then dealt a few hobbling, but not crippling, blows. In addition to a slowing economy and Tropical Storm Allison’s soggy visit in the summer of 2001, downtown streets were, well, ripped up. The sidewalks that had been teeming with diners and partiers were blocked by piles of dirt and broken pieces of former street, as the city updated its aging downtown utilities, put down the MetroRail, expanded the George R. Brown Convention Center and installed a new home for the Houston Rockets.

The roller coaster ride is nearly over, and downtown Houston is back – bigger, better and stronger than before. In fact, it’s bionic.

At the top of the list and rapidly becoming the city’s premier destination is one of downtown’s only new hotspots, M Bar. Located in the historic Citizens Bank building on Main Street at Preston, M Bar is simply the city’s most sophisticated hangout. It is the creation of downtown reveller Joe R. Martin, co-founder of PDQ.net and, most recently, eCitySuites, and architect Isaac Preminger, creator of the most exciting and unique interiors of Houston’s night life, including The Fish (formerly Blowfish), VII, Spy, Grasshopper and the new La Strada in Montrose, opening in 2003, among others. This is the second project on which Martin and Preminger have joined forces. They first teamed up in 1999 to create the modern interiors of eCitySuites, high-tech executive office suites located on the West Loop near the Galleria. Their efforts were well appreciated – the Houston Chronicle awarded Preminger and eCitySuites first place in commercial corporate design for the city in 2000.

Martin and Preminger have seemingly done it again, this time combining Preminger’s talent for design with Martin’s talent for having a good time. Martin is the creator of the Race Car Club, downtown’s most fashionable, festive and highly anticipated annual party and named Inside Houston’s “Best Downtown Party” last year. The culmination is M Bar, a nighttime spot different from any other in Houston. It is part swanky lounge, with a dozen plush custom-made sitting areas hidden among sheer floor-to-ceiling drapes, including a massive faux-fur bed laden with over-sized cushions for the ultimate lounge experience. It is also part dance club, with two intimate dance floors and disc jockeys spinning until closing time. It is also definitely part pure spectacle, with unscheduled performances by Houston’s most cutting-edge artists surprising M Bar?s patrons throughout the night. Catherine Burnside and her electric violin played along to DJ Sean Carnahan’s tracks one night and cellist Derek Menchan another. London’s modern artist David Hardacker painted from atop one of the bars.

In addition to stylistic and artistic ambitions, M Bar raises the bar for Houston’s night life amenities. It features bottle service, hors d’oevres from neighboring restaurants and one of the city’s few caviar menus. M Bar is Houston’s newest jewel in a crown that needed some new sparkle.

At the top of the “still hot” list are David Edwards’ Mercury Room and Boaka Bar. Mercury Room has been one of Houston’s premier clubs since it opened in 1999, being named one of the “top nightclubs in America” in Playboy’s May 2000 issue and the “best chic and chichi bar” by HoustonCitySearch. Boaka Bar, adjacent to Mercury Room, is a smaller venue but just as stylish as its big brother, with ornate gold-leaf frames, a dramatic centerpiece chandelier and sweeping colonial-style staircases straight out of “Gone With the Wind.” Mercury Room and Boaka Bar are two of the very few downtown clubs to have weathered the construction storm. Their survival is Darwinism at work – the fittest have survived and, now that the crowds are returning to downtown, are deservedly destined to flourish.

Gourmet dining has never been a problem in downtown Houston. It perhaps became a tad more difficult for a while, but some of downtown’s best eateries are open and ready to turn on your taste buds. St. Pete’s Dancing Marlin, on Main Street, serves up casual comfort seafood, including some of downtown’s only raw oysters, in a sports-bar atmosphere. St. Pete’s owners, brothers Pete and John Zotos, tip their hats to their Greek heritage with authentic Greek salad and baklava also on the menu.

Saba Bluewater Grill continues to be one of downtown’s most visually spectacular restaurants. At the center of this hip eatery is a 500-gallon saltwater tank, which is not only stunning to watch but also a sort of homage to its coastal cuisine. Named after an island off the coast of St. Thomas, Saba serves Yucatan and Pacific Rim cuisine with Asian and Latin influences and an upscale late-night attitude. Saba’s concept is to offer a large variety of smaller portions, in addition to full-sized meals, to accommodate the diner with a long night to go.

Arturo Boada’s international menu at Solero has been winning awards and tantalizing the palates of Houstonians for years now. Recently, Solero has done what we probably all wanted it to do all along. On Friday and Saturday nights, after the kitchen has closed, the tables are pulled out, the music is turned up and Solero is transformed into an impromptu dance club until late in the evening. Another great spot for dancing the night away or just mingling is TOC.

And finally, the newest addition to the Landry’s restaurant empire, the Aquarium. In fact, the Aquarium is such a massive project that it is as much a town in and of itself as it is an addition to downtown. Located along Buffalo Bayou, the Aquarium is a $38 million, aquatic-themed entertainment center accommodating up to 3,000 people, with a seafood restaurant, a 200,000-gallon shark tank, a ballroom, a 90-foot Ferris wheel and a train that will circle the five-acre area. Landry’s president and CEO, Tilman Fertitta, is truly a visionary. His new Aquarium has changed the Houston skyline forever.

Two years ago, Houstonians turned downtown into the city’s entertainment mecca. They were then driven away by bulldozers, street closures and traffic and have been adrift ever since, waiting to return and pick up where they left off. Well, it’s official. You can go back now. Downtown Houston is not only open for business; it’s chomping at the bit.

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