Georgia James is Moving & The Hay Merchant is Closing at the End of 2021
After a decade at 1100 Westheimer, Chris Shepherd and his restaurant group Underbelly Hospitality are leaving the Montrose building where he opened his first restaurant and beer bar. At the end of this year, steakhouse Georgia James is closing to relocate to the new Regent Square development just off Allen Parkway at 1203 Dunlavy. It’s expected to reopen in early 2022. Unfortunately for beer enthusiasts, The Hay Merchant, one of Houston’s first and largest establishments to focus on craft beers, will close. At this time, no relocation spot has been identified.
The new Georgia James location will be where Shepherd originally thought he’d open a live-fire restaurant concept at the mixed-use Regent Square development. He’ll still have two restaurants there, though. The second will likely be inspired by one of the iterations of rotating menu concept One Fifth, which is also closing at the end of 2021.
“This move is bittersweet, for sure,” said Shepherd in a press release, “A lot of factors went into this decision. Our lease is up, and the cost to renovate the building into what we need doesn’t make economic sense. Plus, the City of Houston is starting street improvements of Waugh and Waughcrest, which will definitely impact business. We were provided the opportunity to build Georgia James nearly from the ground up by the folks at Regent Square, and it was too great an opportunity to pass up.”
The new location, which general manager Raul Lorenzana and executive chef Greg Peters will continue running, will be larger than the Westheimer spot. It will seat 220 downstairs with additional seating for 120 inside and 50 on an outside terrace at the Lounge at Georgia James, which is planned for the second floor. Guests can expect to still find favorites from the original location, such as 100-Day Hangar Steak seared on cast iron and Charred Corn with queso fresco and spiced crema. And yes, the infamous Baller Boards, originally developed at One Fifth, will still be available.
The closing of the first Georgia James location and The Hay Merchant marks the end of an era for the historic corner of Westheimer and Waugh. In the 1930s, the intersection was home to a Sinclair gas station owned by Glenn McCarthy before he became a wealthy wildcatter and opened the Shamrock Hotel, a now-demolished Houston landmark. In the 1970s, 1100 Westheimer was home to Charlie’s Coffee Shop, which was across Waugh from iconic gay bar, Mary’s, which operated from 1968 to 2009. In time, coffee shop Blacksmith opened at the former Mary’s, while Shepherd’s original restaurant, Underbelly, as well as The Hay Merchant, split the former Chances Bar space — another social haven for Houston’s LGBTQ+ community until it closed in 2010. (By the way: rest easy if you’re worried about Blacksmith. A representative says it’s not going anywhere for the foreseeable future.)
After leaving Catalan Food & Wine, where Shepherd garnered accolades and a considerable following for his Texas-inspired spins on Spanish cuisines, he opened Underbelly (and Blacksmith) as part of 1100 Restaurant Group, which included Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floyd of Anvil Bar & Refuge. Floyd had been maintaining a small, but well-curated craft beer list at Anvil, but he wanted to expand his microbrew offerings. Under his guidance, The Hay Merchant boasted over 70 taps and a covetable collection of bottled beers. Other memorable features included $3 happy hour beer specials, unique bar bites such as sweet-and-spicy pig’s ears and PB&J wings (dishes were curated by notable chefs that included Shepherd, Antoine Ware, Dax McNear and Erin Smith), Shepherd’s TV Dinner nights and an especially bike-friendly atmosphere. A city bike rental stand occupied the front parking lot, there were discounts for cyclists and even the walls were decorated with bikes and wheels.
Both Heugel and Floyd left the operation a few years ago and separated their business interests to focus on their own projects. Floyd recently opened Shoot The Moon, a self-serve bar and gastropub. Over the years, several other alums of The Hay Merchant also left to start their own businesses. General manager Sean Jensen found recognition and acclaim, first at Public Services Wine & Whiskey with sommelier Justin Vann and chef Justin Yu, then later on a national scale with chef Jason Vaughn at Nancy’s Hustle and Tiny Champions. Bar manager Kyle Pierson opened beloved neighborhood bar and eatery The Branch, named after its home neighborhood of Spring Branch. (Pierson has also been the subject of national attention — although perhaps not for what you would expect.)
As for Underbelly, Shepherd’s original restaurant was his ode to the local restaurants, farmers, fishmongers and purveyors who inspired him, as well as provided him with product — a journey that started when he was cooking at Brennan’s of Houston. At Underbelly, Shepherd’s food earned local and national praise, culminating in winning the 2014 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest.
Chefs who worked for Shepherd at Underbelly or The Hay Merchant and went on to open their own restaurants include Ryan Lachaine of Riel, J.D. Woodward of 1751 Sea & Bar, and husband-and-wife team Erin Smith and Patrick Feges of Feges BBQ (now with two locations; one in Greenway and a new one in Spring Branch). Other recent additions to Houston’s restaurant and bars by Underbelly alumni include chef Gary Ly’s 93 ’til and Lyle Bento’s Space Cowboy at the Heights House Hotel and even-newer Trash Panda Drinking Club. Chef Nicholas Vera is currently selling his traditional, scratchmade Mexican fare at Papalo at Finn Hall, as well as at Urban Harvest Farmers Market. Probably the most famous “graduate”, though, is Daniela Soto-Innes, whose a two-time James Beard Award nominee and winner of the 2016 Rising Star Chef award for her work at New York’s Cosme, which landed a coveted spot on S. Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurant list under her guidance. She’s since left the restaurant, and more recently has appeared on television as a host of The Globe with chef Robert Irvine.
In 2018, Shepherd closed Underbelly and opened Georgia James, a steakhouse named after his parents that evolved out of the one-year-long One Fifth Steak concept.
Initially, it seemed it would be UB Preserv at 1609 Westheimer that would carry on with some of Underbelly’s traditions. Truth be told, executive chef Nick Wong’s consistently strong Pan Asian-Southern menu has since carved its own memorable path.
The next few months will be busy for Shepherd and his team. In addition to moving Georgia James and operating the new Georgia James Tavern downtown, they are opening Underbelly Burger this fall in the newly renovated Houston Farmers Market. It will be the new home of Hay Merchant’s Cease & Desist Burger. In the early months of 2022, Underbelly Hospitality is also opening Wild Oats, a casual eatery from longtime chef and Shepherd associate Nick Fine, at the Houston Farmers Market, as well as the aforementioned second restaurant at Regency Square.