Chef Tim Reading Puts His Own Spin on Downtown Houston Tavern

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Every day, Tim Reading, executive chef of Underbelly Hospitality’s GJ Tavern, makes a personalized playlist to enhance the evening’s service. He says that this is to encourage guests to relax, be themselves — and maybe even dance in their seats. This is a small example of how he is incorporating his personal style into the swanky, ’20s-themed bar and restaurant.

Nestled in the first floor of Market Square Tower at 737 Preston in downtown Houston, GJ Tavern opened its doors in July 2021. Initially named Georgia James Tavern, according to a representative, it’s been renamed to avoid confusion with Georgia James Steakhouse — another Underbelly Hospitality restaurant. (People have apparently visited the tavern expecting another steakhouse.)

When Underbelly Hospitality first opened the tavern, founder and chef Chris Shepherd was still with the company. Now that he’s no longer there, each restaurant is now reliant on its executive chef to be “the face” and guide branding and experiences. Fortunately, Reading has a spirited personality with ambitions to match, and that’s infusing GJ Tavern with some much-needed liveliness.

Gulf Shrimp Scampi at GJ Tavern. Photo by Danielle Lomeli

In April 2022, after executive chef Nick Wong’s departure, Reading hit the ground running by taking the menu back to the basics. Initially, one of his main focuses was to create stocks that have been reduced, clarified and infused to ensure guests’ taste buds are “activated from start to finish.” The Gulf Shrimp Scampi with Fettuccine, for example, incorporates housemade shrimp and lobster stock and calabrian chile butter. It’s the only seafood entrée currently on the menu, yet this playful and bright dish offers rich seafood-flavor in every bite.

Reading also likes to showcase underutilized ingredients such as veal breast, which was featured in GJ Tavern’s September wine-pairing dinner. According to Reading, veal breast is the “brisket of veal” but often disregarded. To prepare it, Reading marinates the veal for 24 hours, creates a roulade and then braises it to ensure the beautiful, rich color and depth of flavor.

Temper Tantrum at GJ Tavern. Photo by Danielle Lomeli.

We were invited to visit GJ Tavern to see what changes Reading has made to the menu, and sample some items, starting with cocktails. One is the Temper Tantrum, with vodka, raspberry rum, pomegranate, lemon and lychee, all combining for a great balance of tart and sweet. To pair, Reading suggests the pairing the bread and cheese alongside. The name is deceptively simple, as it includes pulled mozzarella, toasted crostini and seasonal accompaniments — currently butternut squash slaw dressed in brown butter vinaigrette and topped with toasted pistachios. It’s the perfect introduction to Reading’s warm and approachable menu.

Fight Like a Girl cocktail at GJ Tavern
Fight Like a Girl cocktail at GJ Tavern. Photo by Danielle Lomeli.

A limited-time drink option for October 2022 — Breast Cancer Awareness Month — is Fight Like a Girl. This velvety cocktail is made with gin, liquid alchemy strawberry, grenadine, lemon juice and egg white. GJ Tavern is donating a portion of the proceeds from each Fight Like a Girl sold to The Rose, an organization dedicated to providing quality breast health services, advocacy and access to care for all.

Cavatelli at GJ Tavern
Cavatelli at GJ Tavern. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

Another seasonal selection is cavatelli (pasta shaped like small, hollow rolls) stuffed with roasted pumpkin purée and topped with peeled butternut squash and a squash stock-based sauce. This vegetarian dish is packed with flavor, texture and beautiful autumn hues. In between seasonal menu changes, guests can anticipate similar, but smaller updates to GJ Tavern’s top sellers and permanent menu items.

When asked if he could put into words the style of food and service GJ Tavern offers Reading admitted, “There really is no one answer. If I don’t have a reason to say ‘no’ to something, then it’s always a ‘yes’. A lot of people order items to share so it’s family-style, but every table is different. With all of the cuisines and techniques I’ve experimented with in the past, this is really an opportunity for me to play around and combine them all into one place.”

Reading attributes much of GJ Tavern’s success to his kitchen team, the front-of-house staff and general manager Lynsey Carrier. Additionally, director of operations Nina Quincy and culinary director Nick Fine (chef of Underbelly Hospitality restaurant Wild Oats, located at the Houston Farmers Market) have played integral roles. Together, they are focused on bringing the Tavern into a new era.

Dining room at GJ Tavern. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

In addition to offering new menu items, Reading is hosting monthly wine-pairing dinners with two seatings, expanding the prep-kitchen to allow more frequent menu updates and launching holiday-themed prix fixe menus. Beyond this, Reading’s wish is to break the barrier between guest and chef. This sentiment is embodied by one of Reading’s most beloved regulars, who dines at the Tavern alone every Friday night. They never try the same item twice and at times, he’ll catch a glimpse of their initial reaction and even hear them letting out ‘oohs and ‘aahs as they savor their meal. Occasionally, they’ll lock eyes and Reading will immediately be waved over so that they may personally offer him constructive criticism or kudos. Reading considers himself fortunate for these exchanges because he believes it’s moments like this that make GJ Tavern so special, and it’s what he wants every guest to experience.

GJ Tavern is open Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m. and Saturday through Sunday, Houston, TX 77002 from 5 to 11 p.m. Reverse happy hour is available Tuesday through Thursday from 8 to 10 p.m. and Friday through Saturday from 9 to 11 p.m.

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