Catbirds in Montrose Suddenly Closes; Well-Known Bar Owner Buys Assets
It was news to nearly everyone — including, apparently, the employees — when Catbirds at 1336 Westheimer suddenly shuttered on Monday, July 31. The business — acclaimed multiple times as one of Houston’s best bars, dive or not — posted on Facebook and Instagram:
“As of today, Catbirds is closed temporarily. Catbirds ownership has sold the assets to a new company that intends to reopen the bar later this year, likely continuing it as Catbirds to maintain its legacy as a neighborhood bar.
Catbirds opened in 1995 and was bought by most recent ownership in 2018. Catbirds would like to thank everyone who supported the bar for nearly 28 years to this point.
Catbirds is an important part of the Montrose neighborhood and its history. This is not the end of that story, and we look forward to embarking on a new chapter. We appreciate your continued support and look forward to welcoming you back in the future.”
A GoFundMe page states that employees weren’t given notice that the bar was closing. A statement on the page says, “Many found out upon showing up to work or seeing a Facebook post.” Chris Robertson, a DJ who lives very close to the bar and has collaborated with Catbirds on charitable fundraisers, such as one that raised $75,000 for the Montrose Center, started the GoFundMe to help the employees pay bills while they’re seeking new jobs. He’s created a plan to distribute the funds as equitably and fairly as possible. “The funds will be distributed based on average shifts worked in the last 90 days. Some bartenders, who already have other jobs, have opted out and want the funds to go to folks who are most-impacted. Two folks work full time and the rest have one or two shifts per week, but will be split based on hours usually worked,” Robertson explained via email.
According to CultureMap, Catbirds’ owner Shelley Wilburn, who co-owned the bar with daughter Emily, did not intend for employees to find out the bar was closing via social media, and instead planned to notify them when giving them final paychecks.
On a brighter note — the buyer of Catbirds’ assets is well-established Houston bar owner Bobby Heugel of Anvil Bar & Refuge, Better Luck Tomorrow and Squable. Heugel is also part of a business group, Montrose Real Estate LLC, that bought Cherryhurst Center, the circa-1935 building where Catbirds is located, in 2019. Another notable member of that group is James Beard Award-winning chef Justin Yu, who’s also a partner in Better Luck Tomorrow and Squable.
Heugel emphasizes that any disputes between the former owner and employees are exclusively between those parties, and he had nothing to do with the closing — nor did he buy the actual business, only the assets. Additionally, it’s so early in the process that no plans have been finalized regarding what exactly the group is going to do with the Catbirds space. There is a likely general outcome: it will again be a bar someday, and it’s definitely not going to be fancy.
“We will be operating a bar in that space, because we are bar operators, and that’s what we do,” said Heugel, who pulled guest shifts at Catbirds along with Anvil general manager Tommy Ho during the pandemic to try and help out. “I can tell you one thing for certain though. It absolutely won’t be a cocktail bar. It will be a neighborhood bar — hopefully a bar named Catbirds.” That said, Heugel isn’t fully committed to retaining the name. However, he is mindful of the bar’s legacy.
“Catbirds has a lot of history, and neighborhood bars, more than any others, need to be supported by locals and regulars. I hope the neighborhood and all of those who have loved that bar will give us a chance to carry on its legacy. However, we are going to reflect on everyone’s input before firmly committing to what’s next,” he said.
Keep your eyes open for further details as plans are finalized. Heugel hopes to reopen the bar — in one form or another — in the fall.
Thanks to social media manager/associate editor Mario-Sebastian Berry, Dale Prasek and John Frels for their assistance on this article during a particularly busy time.
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.