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UberEats expands

Good news for those of you who like having food delivered.

Uber

A larger section of metro Houston now can use Uber’s meal delivery service seven days a week and with more dining options through a new app.

A new UberEats app, separate from the Uber ride-sharing app meal ordering customers have used, launches Tuesday.

“Houstonians have embraced UberEats, but we also know that with a separate app, we are able to give users a better experience,” said Sarah Groen, general manager for UberEats Houston.

As of the app’s launch, 100 restaurants are participating. More are being added to the list, Groen said.

The service’s operation hours have been extended beyond midday weekdays to daily between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Users will be able to browse menus and order food from participating restaurants, and track drivers bringing their food. The service area has expanded beyond downtown and Midtown, and now includes the Galleria area, The Heights, Montrose, Rice Village, West University and Upper Kirby.

Those areas have shown large demand for UberEats, where the company has received many requests from people asking for service, Groen said. In January, the company did test runs in the new areas and registered high demand.

See here for the background. I’m still not the kind of person who likes to order food for delivery, so I’m still not in their market. But if you are, and you live in these areas, then these are good days for you. The Houston Business Journal and the Houston Press, both of which have maps of the expanded service area, have more.

UberEats

Some new food delivery options, at least for some people.

Uber

Uber will expand its presence in Houston this week with the local launch of its meal-delivery service, UberEats.

Beginning Thursday, Houston becomes the second city in Texas and the 10th in North America where Uber drivers will deliver meals. Customers in downtown and Midtown can use the Uber app to select from a list of 60 participating restaurants and place orders, said Sarah Groen, general manager of UberEats Houston.

After customers order and pay through the app, the company says an Uber driver will arrive with the food – already in the car in temperature-controlled containers – within 10 minutes.

“We keep that geography fairly small to make sure we can deliver on that promise of 10 minutes or less,” Groen said.

[…]

Several app-based and online food delivery services already operate in Houston and for longer hours. They include GrubHub, Favor and DoorDash.

Groen said Uber Eats differs because of its changing menus. Some participating chefs are creating specific meals for UberEats.

I have no feel for how big a market there may be for something like this. We cook or we eat out – even when we order a pizza, from Pink’s here in the Heights, I pick it up. If you’re the sort of person that is into this sort of thing, then this is good news for you. We’ll see if there are enough such people to make this a success.

Food trucks arrive downtown

Welcome.

Houston’s foodie community rejoiced Friday as Mayor Annise Parker welcomed propane-fueled food trucks downtown after a years-long ban, but more plans to loosen the city’s mobile unit rules are not likely to meet the same fanfare at City Council in the coming months.

Parker bypassed council to remove the restriction on propane-fueled food trucks downtown, citing a fire marshal opinion that tanks weighing up to 60 pounds are safe.

“It may not seem like the most important issue the city could address,” said Parker, standing in front of a colorful food truck, The Modular, across from City Hall on Friday. “But believe me, if you invest in a food truck, you want to serve great food to Houstonians, this absolutely makes a difference.”

Two other industry changes on Parker’ food trucks agenda – letting the trucks use tables and chairs and removing 60-foot spacing requirements between mobile units – need to go through council members, whose opinions on food trucks vary by district.

[…]

Council Member Brenda Stardig has proved a particularly vocal critic, calling for more food truck inspectors.

“I’m not against food trucks,” Stardig said. “There are some really cool ones. But some of the ones that historically we’ve had in District A, they set up shop permanently. Until we have the ability to have more inspectors, less regulation and opening it to a broader market is a concern.”

Council Member Robert Gallegos also said he would like to ramp up enforcement before loosening the rules. Gallegos’ district runs from downtown to the East End.

“I’m not opposed to food trucks,” he said. “But I’m not talking about food trucks outside of bars on Washington Avenue. I’m talking about little hole-in-the-wall cantinas and whether the trucks there are going to be regulated. That’s a problem to me.”

See here for the background. CMs Stardig and Gallegos have valid concerns, and the city says they are working to address those concerns. It should be noted that the city has more food truck inspectors per capita (three for 800 trucks, or one for every 267) than it does restaurant inspectors (30 for 13,000, or one for every 433). I hope we can agree on what needs to be done to address the issues that have been raised so we can move forward on this.

No more wobbly tables!

I love this story.

A Houston businessman has an idea that could rid the world of having to use drink coasters and napkins to stabilize restaurant tables.

Steve Christian, owner of Houston burger institution Christian’s Tailgate Bar and Grill, believes so strongly in his invention that he sold interest in two of his restaurants, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, and is auditioning to get on an ABC reality show to make it succeed.

He says his patented device simply eliminates wobbly tables. It’s a catchy claim for something that costs around $20.

“Something I built in my garage outlasted everything else on the market,” Christian said of his Table Jack.

The invention, now being sold online, is already used at a number of Houston-area restaurants, including El Real Tex-Mex Cafe in the heart of Montrose and Mi Luna in Rice Village. The jack is also in use at a number of national restaurant chains, listed on the device’s official website.

[…]

The genesis of the Table Jack came when he opened his Midtown bar in the late ’90s and found that the flooring made tables unsteady. It took eight years and seven or so prototypes to get the jack that he has on the market today. The first jack debuted in Midtown in late 2008.

The device requires the installation of three glides to the bottom of three of the feet of a pedestal table. A small jack with a foot pedal is installed on the fourth foot. It allows for the table’s level to be adjusted as needed by stabilizing the three glides.

“I’ve probably spent thousands of hours engineering the jack,” Christian said. “And that number probably doesn’t do it justice.”

This is one of those “Why didn’t anyone think of this before?” stories. As someone who is easily annoyed by wobbly tables, I think this is a great idea. I hope he sells a billion of them.

No kids allowed

I don’t have a problem with this.

Chef Aquiles Chavez said his decision to ban young children from his restaurant during the evening hours was not easy. And the decision wasn’t shared by his wife.

On Monday, La Fisheria, the seafood restaurant helmed by the Mexican reality TV star and chef, announced via Facebook that it is requiring guests be 9 or older when dining after 7 p.m.

The post was simple:

“After 7 p.m., people over 8 years old only. We are a family-friendly restaurant, and we also respect all of our customers, so we introduce this new policy to the restaurant. Thanks for your understanding.”

The decision to implement the policy was not.

“It was hard,” Chavez said on Tuesday. “Two of my kids are under this age, and my partner has young kids.”

The reality is that many of his customers have complained about unruly children in the dining room. It’s a Catch-22 for restaurateurs. Do you pull customers aside when children become a distraction? Or do you, as La Fisheria has chosen, keep the distractions at bay by barring youngsters altogether?

“One woman recently said, ‘I leave my children with a babysitter so I can have a romantic dinner, yet you have children running around here,’ ” Chavez said. “We had a tough decision.”

Chef Aquiles Chavez says he was getting complaints from patrons, “and you can’t tell customers’ kids to be quiet.”

Chavez said his wife didn’t approve the evening ban on children.

“My wife said, ‘Aquiles, I don’t like this.’ ”

“Customers don’t like screaming kids,” Chavez said, “and you can’t tell customers’ kids to be quiet.”

It’s a perfectly reasonable business decision, especially at a higher-end eatery, where customers will have different expectations for their experience than they would at a more family-oriented place. There are tons of good family-friendly places to eat in the area, and it’s not like kids can never eat at La Fisheria, they just have to do so earlier in the day. Which, speaking as the parent of a nine-year-old and a six-year-old, would seem like the thing one would generally prefer to do, but every family’s situation is different and I’m not going to judge. If someone were pushing for a citywide ordinance to require all restaurants to adhere to a similar policy, or if there were no other good options, then I’d be concerned. But this, this is no big deal.

You can see La Fisheria’s Facebook post announcing the policy and which has drawn over 600 comments and over 60 shares so far, here; there’s another 100+ comments on the 29-95 version of the story. I will note that it’s perfectly fine in general to bring kids to nice restaurants. It’s good to give kids experience eating in places where their best manners are expected. They like doing grownup things once in awhile, and in my observation they tend to want to live up to your expectations for them. We took the girls to Artisans last month and they did fine. It helps to establish beforehand that the rules are different than they would be at, say, Berryhill, and it helps if they aren’t already starving when you arrive and don’t get too bored while waiting, but that’s just common sense. I’m actually a little surprised that this was a problem at all at La Fisheria – I honestly can’t recall ever having a meal interrupted or ruined by an unruly child. But clearly it was an issue at La Fisheria, and they took the action they believed they needed to deal with it. I’m curious to know if you have any experiences with obnoxious kids – or really, the parents who are unable or unwilling to handle them – at restaurants. Please share them in the comments if you do. CultureMap has more.

Collecting compost from restaurants

The city of Austin takes another step on its path towards zero waste.

Austin restaurants and other food businesses will have to compost food scraps starting in 2016, under new rules the City Council OK’d Thursday.

Food service businesses — including fast-food chains, caterers, cafeterias and bars — that are bigger than 5,000 square feet will be required to separate out organic and compostable materials from other trash and have them picked up by private haulers.

Smaller food businesses will have to comply starting in 2017.

Food trailers will be exempt for now, because the city needs to spend more time developing rules unique to them, said Bob Gedert, director of Austin Resource Recovery, the city of Austin’s trash and recycling department.

Under the rules passed Thursday, large food service businesses also will have to recycle several materials, including paper, plastics and aluminum, starting next year. Smaller food businesses will have to comply later.

The new rules aim to help the city meet its so-called zero waste goal of dramatically reducing the trash sent to landfills by 2040, Gedert said.

Food scraps and other compostable goods make up 40 to 50 percent of the trash that restaurants generate, Gedert said. Keeping those goods out of the landfill will go a long way toward achieving zero waste, Gedert said.

The policy passed Thursday builds on rules that the city enacted last fall, when it began requiring large apartment properties and office buildings to recycle more materials.

[…]

Don “Skeeter” Miller, co-owner of County Line restaurants and president of the Greater Austin Restaurant Association, said the membership was initially skeptical of the compost rules but is now mostly supportive, mainly because the rules won’t take effect for a few years.

Austin already has a pilot program for curbside composting for residences. Restaurants are obviously a big source of food waste, so bringing them into the picture ought to make a significant difference. Here in Houston, the One Bin For All plan will deal with compostable refuse, but that is just for residences. Going back through my archives, it’s not clear to me if “residences” means just the places currently covered by city of Houston trash pickup or if it also includes apartments, but in either case it does not include businesses, particularly restaurants. I would like to see Houston extend its vision to include businesses and office buildings as well. One thing at a time, I understand, I’m just noting this for the record. I wish Austin all the best in this effort.

City proposes bike parking alternatives

Nice.

Public House on White Oak

Bicycle advocates are cheering a city proposal that would give businesses an incentive to offer bike parking and would require some properties to provide it for the first time, saying the ideas mark a cultural shift in Houston.

“This is a first for Houston and a sign of how our city is evolving,” Mayor Annise Parker said. “It recognizes the popularity of cycling and gives a nod to the fact that there are other modes of transportation besides automobiles.”

The bike-related ideas are included in a proposed rewrite of the city’s off-street parking ordinance, largely untouched since it was passed in 1989. The proposal is expected to go before City Council soon. Debate over the rewrite mainly has focused on its impact on bars and restaurants, many of which would be required to provide more parking.

The city initially had exempted only freestanding restaurants and bars smaller than 2,000 square feet from the higher parking requirements; independent restaurateurs wanted all establishments smaller than 4,500 square feet to be exempt. The sides appear to have reached an agreement that would exempt all restaurants smaller than 3,000 square feet and all bars smaller than 2,500 square feet.

[…]

Under the proposed revisions, new retail, commercial and office buildings 5,000 square feet or larger would need to provide one bike parking space, with another bike space required for every additional 25,000 square feet, up to a maximum of six spaces.

The ordinance also would allow any property, other than single-family homes, to reduce required car parking by up to 10 percent by trading one car space for four bike spaces. A 10,000-square-foot retail business, for instance, could drop its required 40 car spaces to 36 by increasing its bike parking from the required one space to 17.

As you know, I wholeheartedly approve of this. I wouldn’t mind seeing more flexibility on trading car spaces for bike spaces, but the fact that it’s happening at all is a big deal. Even better, the group that has been agitating the most forcefully for this sort of accommodation supports the proposal.

Brian Crimmins, chief of staff in the city Planning Department, also noted that the ability of any business (except single-family homes) to trade up to 10 percent of its required parking for additional bike parking spaces would still apply to all restaurants and bars (even those exempt from the higher parking requirements). That would allow these businesses to drop their car parking to essentially match OKRA’s proposal, he said.

In an email to top city staffers confirming the agreed changes, OKRA president Bobby Heugel said his group plans to vocally support the ordinance if it moves forward as negotiated.

“The manner in which our views were received and incorporated into Chapter 26 is exciting and encouraging as OKRA is new to the local political process,” he wrote. “It’s nice to know that participation can make a difference, and that the sharing of perspectives can result in policies in which a variety of stakeholders concerns(‘) are represented.”

You can see some more detail about the proposals as well as the full text of what the city has out forward and what OKRA had countered with.

The Chron editorializes in favor of the new approach, also with a desire to see it go farther.

We’re pleased that the new regulations include cutouts that allow different neighborhoods to create systems that are right for them. Among the added flexibility – such as reducing parking requirements for historic districts, letting bicycle parking replace a certain number of car spots and allowing shared parking lots – are Special Parking Areas. These would allow management entities to set their own parking management plan – with approval from City Hall.

This flexibility makes the proposed changes a vast improvement over the previous regulations, and the folks at City Hall say they’re trying to engage business owners so they can take advantage of the new rules on day one. City Hall could show more good faith by adopting recommendations by OKRA – the Organized Kollaboration of Restaurant Affairs – to allow more types of bars to be exempted from the higher parking minimums.

Residents worried about parking overflow can protect their neighborhoods by applying for permit parking on their streets, as many cocktail fans have learned while chasing down a tow truck.

But there is a price for living in walkable, dynamic neighborhoods, and it includes folks parking in front of your house. That is a price inner-loop Houstonians should be happy to pay.

Agreed.

The off-street parking debate

I believe the new offstreet parking requirements that have been proposed and are being debated are at least as big a deal as the Chapter 42 revisions. We really need to get this right.

Public House on White Oak

Under the new rules, some eateries – dessert shops, carryout restaurants – would need less parking, but requirements on most restaurants would go from eight spaces per 1,000 square feet of floor area to 10, with most bars going from 10 spaces to 14.

The revisions also would allow neighborhoods to create special parking areas tailored to their needs, reduce parking requirements for historic buildings, allow the substitution of bike parking for car spaces, loosen rules on how close lots must be to a building’s front door and make it easier for businesses to share parking.

As Houston seeks greater density in other initiatives, Councilman Ed Gonzalez said, the city must ensure the best use of its land.

“We’re still going with the basis that we’re going to be a car-dependent community going forward,” Gonzalez said. “What about the pedestrian? How can we better align transit to meet the needs of certain neighborhoods? We should be creating conditions to create more small businesses and more jobs, not more parking lots.”

That is an argument Bobby Heugel, the force behind several nationally acclaimed Houston restaurants and bars, has been making since 2011. He helped form OKRA, an Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs, to advocate for the next wave of independent restaurateurs, who he says would be barred from the market by the proposed parking changes.

[…]

The city proposes exempting freestanding restaurants and bars smaller than 2,000 square feet from the higher parking requirements; OKRA wants the threshold set at 4,500 square feet, regardless of whether a business is freestanding. City officials say they are willing to reconsider both points.

“The only opponents we have are city officials who incorrectly interpret residential concerns,” Heugel said.

As I said before, I have some sympathy for neighborhood residents who are tired of dealing with packed streets full of overflow parkers from nearby eateries and drinkeries, but any solution that requires more paved-over spaces or that discourages future innovation and growth in Houston’s dynamic food scene is a non-starter. The problem is that there’s been a lot of growth in many established inner core neighborhoods, with a lot more residents crowded onto the original plats and new businesses moving in to formerly abandoned spaces, but without a corresponding amount of growth in transit infrastructure. The influx of people and businesses is great and desperately needed, but the huge increase in vehicular traffic and demand for parking in places that were never built to handle it isn’t. As with other places that are dealing with more traffic than they can bear, providing viable non-car alternatives has to be a key component of the solution. Allowing food and drink establishments to trade bike parking for car parking is good, but the ultimate answer is bigger than anything the bars and restaurants themselves can do. Still, we need to remember that a lot of these new places, and a lot of the planned new places, are intended to be part of the neighborhood, and for the neighborhood. Their customer bases for the most part don’t need to drive and park to get there. The off-street parking regulations need to allow them to fulfill that vision. If we’re treating a neighborhood coffee house the same way as a franchise restaurant that fronts a highway, we’re doing it wrong.

You simply must see us this year

The New York Times commands you.

Houston is probably best known as the Texan center for energy and industry, but it’s making a bid to be the state’s cultural and culinary capital as well. The Houston Museum District is a formidable coterie of institutions that includes the Rothko Chapel, the Museum of African American Culture, which made its debut last February; and the Asia Society Texas Center, which opened in a stunning Yoshio Taniguchi-designed building in April. And last summer, the Houston Museum of Natural Science opened a 30,000-square-foot hall of paleontology in a new $85 million wing. Meanwhile, the city’s dining scene is also heating up, with three of the city’s newest restaurants — Oxheart, Underbelly and Uchi — placing on national best-new-restaurant lists.

Our fair city is number 7 on their list of 46 places to visit in 2013, one of only four places in the continental United States. So what are you waiting for? Hair Balls has more.

On the Parking Benefit District

A proposed ordinance to create a parking benefit district in the Washington Avenue corridor was on Council’s agenda this week, but it was tagged and will wait a week while everyone gets up to speed on it.

CM Ellen Cohen

District C Council member Ellen Cohen says the city has been working with business owners to come up with a plan to test having parking meters,not only better regulate the constant influx of traffic, but:

“To deal with the issues of parking, increased crime, of safety, and neighbors live several streets off, and they walk in the evenings to restaurants and other services there. It’s a great place, but we want to make sure that it works, and so we’re gonna give it an 18 month trial and see how it goes.”

Mayor Annise Parker says contrary to some belief, they’re not creating an entertainment district.

“We’re trying to create a tool, so we can better manage the intersection between the businesses and the neighborhoods, and the public that needs to travel these major thoroughfares. I do hope that taking some of the lessons learned from creation of this parking benefit district will have 18 months to prove itself. We are not trying to create a one-size-fits-all model of this is what a parking benefit district looks like.”

Jane West is president of the Washington Avenue Coalition. She says money generated from parking meters will go to things like more sidewalks, better lighting and overall improved safety.

“This is a rare example of where members of our residential community, our business community and our development community have come together in a consensus opinion, for a proposal before city council. We’re disappointed that is wasn’t vote on this week, but we anticipate a favorable vote next week.”

See here for some background. I think this is an idea that makes a lot of sense. It’s based on the simple principle that parking is a valuable commodity, and it seeks to leverage that commodity and invest the revenue it generates back into the district. If you’ve ever tried to walk along Washington Avenue, you know how badly the infrastructure there needs work. Anyway, courtesy of CM Cohen’s office, here are some documents to help familiarize yourself with this proposal:

The PBD FAQ and flyer, plus the full presentation put together by the city. Be sure to at least read this document.

The left and right halves of the map of the area in question.

We’ll see what Council does with this, but I fully expect it to pass. What do you think about the idea?

Washington Avenue parking

The city of Houston has been trying to tackle the problem of insufficient parking in the busy Washington Avenue entertainment corridor.

What to do about Washington Avenue is Houston’s latest public policy discussion of what government’s role should be in growing business, in helping a fledgling business strip turn into a destination district.

The players all seem to want the same thing: Turnover at the restaurant tables, safe revelry in bars and clubs, pedestrians strolling a well-kept avenue and sprinkling their cash at the storefronts. All the while, people should be able to sleep through it two blocks away.

The city’s parking czar is rolling out plans for what he calls a parking benefit district, which would include residential parking permits to protect nearby homes, better lighting and security, and spruced-up sidewalks. It would be paid for by charging for spaces along the curb.

Don Pagel, whose official title is deputy director of Houston’s Department of Administration and Regulatory Affairs, says the avenue’s very success threatens to undermine its future. It is a Yogi Berra philosophy summed up in the Yankee legend’s oft-quoted remark that a New York restaurant “is so crowded nobody goes there anymore.”

Parking is a commodity, Pagel said, just like groceries or furniture, and should be priced accordingly to derive the maximum economic benefit. In practice, this means it should cost more when it is scarce. Charging for parking will not only bring in money that can be reinvested into the neighborhood, Pagel said, but it will ensure that the folks who have money to spend will get the premium spots at the curb. Someone who tries to avoid a $2 parking charge, Pagel suggests, is unlikely to spend $50 on dinner.

“Folks with the most money have the least amount of patience,” Pagel said. They will make one pass along Washington, he speculated, and if they don’t find a space they’ll move on to Montrose or Midtown.

I’m not particularly thrilled about residential parking permits, but everything else sounds pretty good. It’s particularly encouraging to hear officials like Pagel talk about parking as a valuable commodity, one that should be priced accordingly. Among other things, the sidewalks on Washington Avenue are atrocious, so if this parking benefit district can genuinely raise some money, perhaps that can finally be addressed. I have to think that any long-term solution must include better ways to get to Washington Avenue’s recreations without driving and parking – i.e., bikes, mass transit, and remote parking areas with shuttle service. But this sounds like a good start and the right direction, so let’s see how it goes. The Chron’s editorial page has more.

Bikinis, Texas

I got nothin’.

Bikinis isn’t just a restaurant anymore. Now it’s a city, too.

Doug Guller, owner of the Austin-based bar and restaurant chain, has purchased Bankersmith, a long-abandoned town in northwestern Kendall County, renaming it Bikinis, Texas.

The purchase price and seller weren’t disclosed. Guller said the deal came together after he saw an online ad on Craigslist.

The unincorporated town is 29 miles north of Boerne, 10 miles south of Fredericksburg and six miles southwest of Luckenbach.

Guller, who also owns Austin music venues Beale Street Tavern and the Parish and the recently opened Pelons restaurant, said he plans to regularly host events in the newly renamed town, with the first one slated for this fall.

“Bikinis, Texas, will be a world-class destination, and I am thrilled to expand the Bikinis brand to include town ownership,” Guller said Tuesday. “There can’t be a better way to put Bikinis on the map, literally.”

Yes, Bikinis is what you think it is. The things you can find on Craigslist, I’ll tell you. This could be the setup for a 70s-era screwball comedy or a modern “Piranha 3D” style horror movie. You have to admire the marketing vision, I’ll say that much. Hair Balls has more.

Wash hands or wear gloves?

There’s an interesting debate going on in Oregon about the best way to ensure food safety in restaurants and other eateries.

Oregon restaurant owners and chefs recently earned a small victory, delaying by several months a new state rule that could make dining out more expensive, create waste and, despite its good intentions, do little to protect public health.

The rule, initially set to take effect [last] Sunday, would require cooks to wear gloves or otherwise avoid touching food with their bare hands. But restaurant owners argued the requirement won’t prove safer than the state’s current rigorous hand-washing practices — and the science seems to back them up.

“The idea that using rubber gloves is going to stop people from getting sick is ludicrous,” said Andy Ricker, chef and owner of Pok Pok restaurants in Portland and New York. His New York locations already comply with that state’s no bare-hand-contact rule.

“For it to be safe, every time you touch something, you’d have to take your gloves off, wash your hands, and put on new gloves.” Ricker said.

At least a half-dozen recent studies have concluded the same: Counterintuitively, wearing gloves does little to prevent the spread of bacteria compared with effective hand washing.

Wearing gloves has been found to reduce the number of times people wash their hands, while warm, moist conditions create a hothouse for bacteria to grow. A 2005 report from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center that analyzed grilled tortillas found more staph, coliform and other harmful bacteria on the samples prepared by workers wearing gloves.

“Gloves lead to a bulletproof-vest feeling,” said Bryan Steelman, owner of the Mexican eatery Por Que No? and among the restaurateurs leading the charge against the new rule. “Cooks think, ‘I have a glove on. I don’t need to wash my hands.'”

“Effective” hand-washing being the key, of course. I have to admit, this isn’t something I’d thought much about, but it’s a big deal. The annual cost of food poisoning is $77 billion, with one in six Americans affected, and 3,000 deaths. It’s also largely preventable, and doing a better job of it would no doubt help keep health care costs under control. There’s more to it than hand-washing or glove-wearing, of course, but this is the low-hanging fruit. As the story notes, both methods are effective as long as they are implemented properly. Anyway, I thought this was worth highlighting. Read the whole thing and see what you think.

Take the train to your dining destination

Katharine Shilcutt writes about how she gets to some of her favorite restaurants.

When owner Staci Davis decided on a location for her restaurant, Radical Eats, one thing was extremely important to her above all: Davis wanted her vegan paradise to have access to the new Metro light rail North Line that’s currently being built along Fulton. When the line is completed, riders will only have a few short blocks to walk from the Moody Park station to her restaurant. For now, the construction and the dust are a bit of a nightmare, but Davis insists that it’s worth it.

And at the new 8th Wonder Brewery that’s being built in EaDo, the planned Stadium stop on the East End Line will not only service the Dynamo’s shiny new stadium — it will bring visitors to the craft brewery as well as to concert venues like Warehouse Live and restaurants like Huynh.

[…]

I ride the light rail to the Museum District and to Reliant Stadium so that I don’t have to deal with parking. I ride it to my doctor’s appointments or to visit hospital-bound friends in the Medical Center (or to eat at Trevisio) because the only thing more confusing than the hospital corridors themselves is trying to recall where you left your car. I ride it to the Best Block in Houston to see shows at the Continental Club, to get cocktails and coffee at Double Trouble, to eat brunch at Natachee’s or dinner at t’afia. I ride it to the Preston station and get my movies at Sundance or my culture at Jones Hall.

And, as you would expect, I ride it to restaurants up and down the line. People will often complain about walking in the Houston heat — that’s why we have tunnels, after all — but the funny thing is this: You get used to it. Really fast. And walking off a meal is one of my favorite activities to do outside of eating the meal itself. If more of us did this (myself included, as I don’t walk nearly as often as I should), Houston would undoubtedly remove itself from the running each year as the Fattest City in America. Walking is good. Try it.

On that note, we’ve put together a handy visual guide — to scale, no less! — of all the lunching and dining options off the main stops on the light rail. Some will require a bit of a walk (perhaps five blocks at most) while others are literally right in front of the stop itself. If you use it online, you’ll note that you can click on the restaurant names to be taken to a site about the restaurant itself. If you print it out, you can use it as a visual reference when you take your first heady steps into the rail car before it rattles and shakes off into city.

You can see the map here. That’s a link I plan to keep handy for visitors who are staying or doing business downtown or in the Medical Center. Be sure to read through the comments, as several people noted places they overlooked. There will be a version of this map the June 28 dead tree edition of the Press, so look for that as well. This map is just for the Main Street line, but Katherine says (in response to my comment) that they will do this again later for the three that are under construction. I’m looking forward to that.

Couple things to add. One, I totally agree with Katharine about walking and the heat. It really isn’t that bad, especially if the sidewalk you’re on has some tree cover. I’ve been bringing my bike with me to work and using it to get to lunch instead of driving, and I’ve actually been surprised by how little the heat has affected me as I bike around. Sure, I do work up a bit of a sweat, but I haven’t melted yet. And remember, eight months out of the year the weather is generally pretty darned nice here, much better for the most part than in many transit-and-pedestrian cities around the country. This is Houston, y’all. We don’t let a little heat get us down.

If you look at the map, you’ll note that the vast majority of dining locations are at or north of the Ensemble/HCC station. They didn’t bother to extend the map any farther south than the Museum District station, and as someone who works near the Smithlands stop, I can confirm the dismal lack of lunch options in the vicinity. The sheer paucity of eateries in the Medical Center – there’s a Subway and a Chipotle at the Dryden/TMC stop, and pretty much nothing else there or at the other two stops, unless you walk to Hermann Park to go to Little Big’s – is as frustrating as it is confounding. With the thousands of people that work and visit there daily, you’d think some entrepreneur would see a golden opportunity to fill a giant niche. Available space is an issue, of course, but still. That’s got to be a huge potential market. All those people have to eat somewhere. What do you do for lunch if you work in the Med Center?

Food trucks

The city of San Antonio is preparing to overhaul its regulations of food trucks.

In San Antonio, strict mobile food vending laws make it difficult for food trucks to flourish. Acknowledging the need for change, officials are jump-starting a process to get more moveable feasts on the road.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley has ordered a review of existing ordinances and wants staff to develop recommendations for the City Council, a plan Castro embraces.

“San Antonio’s probably been a bit too traditional with respect to food vendors, and other cities have been more creative,” Castro said. “But that will certainly change. The city will review the policy on food vendors. They’ve played a role in a number of cities in enlivening downtown, and they can play that role for San Antonio.”

At the leased Southtown lot, the Newmans’ park would have featured about five trucks hawking the likes of $8 Japanese beef sliders and $5 french fries rendered in duck fat.

But the plan was snagged by a city law that prohibits food trucks parked on commercial property from vending within 300 feet of a restaurant without written, notarized permission from the restaurant. And the owner of any restaurant within that range can change his or her mind at any time.

[…]

Inspired by a fear of ice cream vendors, one law requires mobile food vendors to undergo an FBI background check that can take six weeks to complete. Another prohibits vendors from setting out tables or chairs and playing music.

A fear of ice cream vendors? I know their jingles can drive you a little crazy, but seriously? I’m hard pressed to see the public policy rationale in these regulations. It’s no mystery why San Antonio lags behind here. The case for throwing out a lot of these silly rules is clear – nobody would ever argue that restaurants must be more than 300 feet away from each other, or that their employees must undergo FBI background checks – but any time an industry that has benefited from such anti-competitive regulations sees them come under assault, it tends to push back. It’s not clear yet how that will play out in the River City.

Aware of the city’s shifting stance, officials with the San Antonio Restaurant Association are striking a cautious tone.

“It’s a sensitive issue,” said Yolanda Arellano, executive director of the association. “We don’t want to deny someone from being an entrepreneur. And restaurateurs are the epitome of the American dream. But at the same time you’ve got to be fair. There’s an investment in that mortar, in that brick. And you want it to be safe, too.”

As change stirs, opponents will have to contend with a city looking to the future.

“I hear that there are concerns from existing restaurants,” Sculley said. “But a rising tide lifts all ships.”

And not to put too fine a point on it, consumers will be much better served by a looser market, just as we all would be better served by getting rid of the byzantine regulatory structure around the beer and wine industries. Matt Yglesias has often written that unaccountable local regulations and licensing requirements are the sort of thing that libertarians who often go tilting at federal windmills should spend more time on, and that there’s a lot there for progressives to work with them. I see a lot of merit in this viewpoint.

And how do things look in Houston?

As general counsel of the Texas Restaurant Association, Glen Garey works in downtown Austin. He says the environment has inspired little hostility among food trucks and restaurants.

“There was a great deal of tension when the concept first started to balloon,” Garey said. “I think a lot of that kind of dissipated.”

He added that Houston has seen a different outcome.

An influx of food trucks there led to a health-code crackdown that severely restricts their operations. Trucks with propane can’t go downtown, and no food trucks can park on a street for more than an hour or sell food within 100 feet of any outdoor seating, said Laura Spanjian, the city of Houston’s sustainability director.

She said Houston also is planning to lift restrictions to allow food trucks downtown.

And indeed, a little googling around led me to the August Greater Houston Restaurant Association newsletter, which contains the following:

As you know, the food truck industry is growing rapidly in the Houston area. In addition to the multitude of taco trucks that have long been a part of our community, we are now experiencing “chef-driven” trucks who are rapidly expanding in numbers.

The newer trucks have indicated that current regulations are restraining their ability to conduct business. As a result, the Mayor appointed a Stakeholder committee to discuss their issues and concerns. We have been a part of the task force and all of the many meetings that have been held.

Issues surrounding the mobile food truck business include distance between trucks that are using propane, allowing them to operate in the central business district, allowing trucks to have tables and chairs within 100′ of your restaurant, and more.

We’ll see how that goes.

Eating good in the neighborhood

The Chron rounds up a bunch of restuarant openings and soon-to-be-openings in and near the Heights; they hedge this a bit by declaring the area of study “Super Heights, which includes the Washington corridor and its fringes, where owners are self-identifying as a ‘Heights-area’ business”. The comments are entertaining to read as well – it’s one part complaining about what actually constitutes “the Heights”, one part complaining about places that didn’t get mentioned, including a couple on White Oak, and one part complaining about the types of cuisine on offer. We do like to complain, don’t we? Anyway, I agree with Marty Hajovsky that while there have always been decent places to eat around here, there’s a lot more now. Check ’em out.

Houston food tours

This is a fabulous idea.

[Monica Pope, chef of t’afia] — along with fellow chefs Bryan Caswell of Reef; Marcus Davis of the breakfast klub; Mark Holley of Pesce; Randy Evans of Haven; Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s; Chris Shepherd of Catalan; and food writer Robb Walsh — will lead eight tours this year including visits to Houston’s hidden Asian restaurants, small ethnic markets and the gems along Long Point Road.

“That’s the best cross section of everything,” said Caswell, referring to the restaurants along Long Point. “You can throw a dart and chances are it’s going to be good.”

The four- to five-hour tours, led by two chefs and limited to 16 participants each with several already sold out, are designed to boost the comfort level with unfamiliar food and little-known restaurants.

Pope, Shepherd, Caswell and Evans, who got together recently at one of the Vietnamese restaurants they plan to showcase, said some residents may find it daunting to go into restaurants that don’t have fancy storefronts or detailed menus in English.

The only complaint I have about this is how limited in number they are. I hope someone figures out a way to make this a regular feature, with other knowledgeable types filling in for the chefs. If anyone has signed up for one of these, leave a comment and let us know about it.

Calorie counts

Honestly, this is long overdue.

Restaurant groups, nutrition and disease-prevention advocates and Washington lawmakers from both sides of the partisan divide on Wednesday announced they have hammered out an agreement that will put calorie contents on the menus of chain restaurants and other nutritional information within easy reach of consumers.

Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa)*, Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said Wednesday that a draft compromise would oblige any establishment that is part of a chain of 20 or more restaurants operating under the same name to post the calorie content of all of its regular offerings and, upon request, to provide written information about menu items’ fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sodium, sugars, dietary fiber and protein.

The draft language is to be included in an omnibus health reform bill under assembly on Capitol Hill. It would create a single national standard for nutritional disclosure by chain restaurants and eateries, preempting provisions adopted by some localities that have been stricter.

It would be better if the stricter local provisions could be left in place, but I can live with this. Honestly, I don’t even know what the argument against this is. People can’t make fully-informed choices without full information. Here are a few examples of what we’d learn if this information were readily available today. Maybe you felt better not knowing, but I daresay there won’t be such egregious choices out there once this is out there. Doonesbury was on this all last week.

Banning trans fats

I haven’t really followed the anti-trans fat bill very closely, but if it’s worth a front page headline, it’s worth a mention here.

Lawmakers in coming weeks will consider bills by Houston state Rep. Carol Alvarado and state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, that would outlaw restaurant use of certain oils, shortenings and margarines by September 2011.

The oils, which have been treated with hydrogen at high heat to prolong shelf life, were touted as healthful alternatives to butter until doctors found they contributed to cardiovascular and other diseases.

“Texans want to make healthy choices,” Alvarado said Friday. “This has nothing to do with taste. Our restaurants cook with trans fat-free oils, and it doesn’t compromise the flavor at all.”

Glen Garey, general counsel for the 5,000-member Texas Restaurant Association, said his organization “stands arm in arm” with Alvarado on the issue, especially since the bill was altered in committee to allow restaurants more time to comply.

If the bill becomes law, Texas would join California and New York City in banning the restaurant use of oils containing artificial trans fats.

Alvarado’s bill calls for eliminating use of such oils at restaurant chains with 15 or more outlets in Texas by September 2010. The ban would apply to all restaurants by September 2011. Penalties for violations have yet to be determined.

Rep. Alvarado’s bill is HB1523. I’m moderately surprised that there’s no real opposition to this; usually this sort of thing kicks up a big fuss. I guess this is sufficiently mainstream now that a measure like this is seen as inevitable.

One objection I have seen to this comes from EdT on Twitter, in reply to an agreeing Alison Cook, who notes that there’s “MUCH more trans fats in the stuff on the grocery store shelves.” I’d say that’s true, but it’s also a federal matter. Restaurants are something the Lege can regulate, and so here we are.

HB1523 hasn’t had its committee hearing yet, and with a bit more than 8 weeks left in the session it’s hard to say what its prospects are, even with the restauranteurs in its corner. On a related note, Rep. Alvarado has also filed HB1522, which would require chain restaurants to disclose their nutrition information. Given that the best source for this information nowadays is Ken Hoffman’s Drive Thru Gourmet column, I’d say that bill might have the bigger effect.

Ellis and Crownover on the smoking ban

State Sen. Rodney Ellis and State Rep. Myra Crownover have an op-ed arguing in favor of the statewide smoking ban legislation they’re sponsoring. I don’t know how persuasive their case may be to anyone who isn’t already in favor of it – I get the impression this is more a matter of faith these days than anything else – but there you have it in case you were curious. What I’m curious about is how much actual effect this legislation will have. Maybe it’s just my urban elitism speaking, but it strikes me that with the extension of Houston’s ban, I can’t remember the last time I encountered a lit cigarette inside a public building. Maybe if I visited a bar in unincorporated Harris County I would, but as far as my normal habits go, it’s just not an issue for me.

So help me out here: Where, if at all, do you encounter smokers? I’m only talking about places that would be affected by this proposal, which includes bars, restaurants and all indoor public places across Texas, including offices, convention centers and bus stations. It would also ban smoking in the bleachers of outdoor sporting or music events, and anywhere within 15 feet of a doorway to a public building. Putting it that way, the latter is probably where I’m most likely to run into smokers, though not at my own office building – they’re restricted to a rooftop area near the cafeteria, which I can easily avoid. What about you? Leave a comment and let me know.

One thing from the op-ed:

As Lance Armstrong recently stated, in 10 years we will look back at this debate and wonder, “What were we debating, and why did it take Texas so long?”

I have to say I agree with this. When I came to Houston in 1988, smoke was everywhere – restaurants, hotel lobbies, office buildings (at my first job, my smoking coworkers lit up in the building’s atrium; the place had a permanent haze), you name it. Now, it’s all gone, and it’s totally normal this way. I fully expect that this will be one of those stories I’ll some day tell my kids about how things used to be that will make them roll their eyes in disbelief.