Beloved Wine & Whisky Bar in Downtown Houston Has Closed

2020 has been a difficult year for the Houston hospitality industry, with the shuttering of up-and-comers and long-standing institutions alike. Now, it’s claimed Public Services Wine & Whisky, the beautiful and well-regarded wine and whisky bar in the historic Cotton Exchange Building at 202 Travis. In a social media post, Justin Vann, who co-owned the bar with chef Justin Yu, announced that Public Services is permanently closed.

Until now, the status was “temporarily closed.” The establishment has been shuttered since bars were again ordered by Texas Governor Greg Abbott to close on June 26. In early October, that order was lifted and authority to open bars was given to county officials. However, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo declined to reopen bars due to the continued spread of COVID-19 in the community. Some bars with food (which Public Services had) re-licensed as restaurants in order to reopen, but Vann decided not to pursue that option.

“Foot traffic was especially slow in Market Square this year because of lockdown,” said Vann. “We also didn’t have a true kitchen to make such a pivot possible like at say, Better Luck Tomorrow. I believe the area will be viable again as soon as next year, but there wasn’t anything we could do at the time.”

Happy hour at Public Services Wine & Whisky. Courtesy photo.

Vann and Yu opened Public Services Wine & Whisky in 2014. Both are well-known in their respective fields. Together, the pair created a visually impressive and elegant bar by preserving and refreshing the historic space, rife with elaborate crown mouldings and painted ceilings. The spot featured a diverse collection of wine and spirits, along with a well-organized menu of familiar and approachable cocktails.

Yu took creative liberties with the bar menu, with items such as thick slabs of housemade bologna, Pringles served with caviar and cold fried chicken. The bar also held regular classes for guests to help them become more comfortable in choosing wines and spirits. Above all, Public Services created fun experiences, such as seemingly random, but fitting events such as the anniversary of prohibition’s repeal.

The Justins
Justin Yu after winning the 2016 James Beard Best Chef Southwest Award (right) with perpetual business partner and sommelier, Justin Vann (left). Photo by Chuck Cook.

The timing of the closure adds to the sadness, as the bar was known as a Thanksgiving Day haven. Yu and Vann hosted numerous events for the holiday featuring special menus and drinks, whether a customer was escaping family events or was new to the city, all guests were welcome.

“Public Services was one of my favorite bars in the city,” said Houston Food Finder editor and publisher Phaedra Cook, echoing a sentiment that spread across social media on Thursday night. “I spent more than one New Year’s Eve there with many friends. On weekdays, I would go in as soon as it opened to get some quiet time with my laptop and a glass of wine. Dozens of stories were written while I enjoyed one of Houston’s most beautiful and ornate bars. This year — thankfully just before the pandemic — Houston Food Finder co-hosted the inaugural Sweets For The Sweet event with Callebaut, featuring some of the city’s most talented pastry chefs. We could not have asked for a better staff, a better venue or better service for the event. In the bar and restaurant business especially, nothing is forever, but this is not only a tragic loss to Houston’s bar scene but one that I’m feeling personally.”

If there’s a lesson to be learned, it is this: don’t take independent bars and restaurants for granted. It’s easy to believe that there will be plenty of chances to go back in the future, but the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the future of many in doubt. Houston may continue to see the shuttering of restaurants and unique, well-run bars such as Public Services. This is a time for Houstonians to continue to support the businesses they want to enjoy when the dust settles, either through to-go or safely and respectfully dining in.

For those who still want to enjoy Vann’s wry wine recommendations, he is continuing to buy wine for Yu’s restaurant Theodore Rex and you will find him talking wine (and beer, as he’s a certified cicerone) on the floor at Nancy’s Hustle. You can be sure that if you ask him for recommendations, he will have worthy suggestions — and plenty to say about them.

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