Houston Loses Downtown Bar & Heights Restaurant to COVID-Driven Economic Downturn
The efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 over the last few months have caused huge challenges for Texas bars and restaurants. Bars have been forced to shut down twice, although for this second time around, Governor Greg Abbott is at least allowing these businesses to sell drinks to-go.
Dining rooms were initially closed in mid-March, partially reopened at 25% occupancy on May 1. Eventually, restaurant owners were allowed to scale up to 75% capacity before the governor required a drop back down to 50% on June 26 — the same day bars were required to close a second time. In light of the continuing climb of COVID cases in Harris County, some customers, understandably, have still been reluctant to go out to eat or drink. As the current situation continues, the list of restaurants and bars permanently shuttering is becoming more commonplace. Unfortunately, Heights restaurant Blackbird Izakaya at 1221 W 11th and downtown bar Lockwood Stn. at 409 Travis inside Bravery Chef Hall have joined the casualties.
On Monday, chef Billy Kin quietly posted a video entitled, “Goodbye Blackbird”, featuring a slideshow from his time with the restaurant. In 2018, owner Ken Bridge (who also owns Pink’s Pizza and Ritual, among other businesses) shifted the restaurant space from Korean-focused Republic Diner + Sojubang to Japanese eatery Blackbird Izakaya, complete with an old-school binchotan grill. (The restaurant actually even had another incarnation, as it started life as Witchcraft Tavern. Each concept brought something new to the Heights.) Kin’s menu at Blackbird Izakaya was eclectic, ranging from simple, well-executed items from the charcoal grill such as squid, and traditional curry katsu, to unique dishes like Uni Carbonara.
The environment matched the food. There were classic designs, such as wood-paneled benches with modern features such as the wall of speakers and an anime mural. A bar with Japanese banners separated the kitchen from the dining room.
Lockwood Stn. at Bravery Chef Hall
Lockwood Stn., operated by owner and bartender David Cedeño, aka David Daquiri, also ended its run in Bravery Chef Hall this week. Designed to be a bar incubator space and help up-and-comers get the hang of running their programs, Cedeno won the opportunity to establish Lockwood Stn. when his proposal was selected from among other candidates by Bravery Chef Hall owners Anh Mai and Shepard Ross. (Last November, Houston Food Finder also showcased Cedeno as one of 5 featured bartenders at its inaugural The Perfect 10 Gala.)
Despite the small bar space, Lockwood Stn. offered a meticulous cocktail experience to its customers. Cedeño maintained a varied selection of spirits, liqueurs and other ingredients, which allowed him and his staff to create near-endless combinations and accommodate a diverse clientele. Customers could either enjoy his drinks at the bar or at any of the restaurant stands inside of Bravery Chef Hall.
As for running a bar during the pandemic, Cedeño has been vocal on his social media about safety and responsibility to help protect others from COVID-19 and even delayed his initial reopening to make sure he had everything in order.
Though the project ended ahead of schedule, Cedeño says, “It was a rewarding business experience to run my bar program exactly how I thought it should be and demonstrate how much I learned from past mistakes.” Nothing is set in stone, but he has been approached about a few new potential projects. While waiting for him to be back behind the bar, Cedeno’s fans can stay up-to-date on what he does next by listening to his podcast, “The Open Bar Experience” It covers many aspects of the bar business and is “broader than bar talk into conversations you have at the bar.”
Blackbird Izakaya and Lockwood Stn. are both big losses to Houston’s independent bar and restaurant scene. Each had a knowledgeable staff that was happy to engage customers. Blackbird gave Houstonians a chance to try new foods, and Bridge and Kin were not shy about taking risks. Lockwood Stn. engaged and shared knowledge with customers, encouraging them to dive into the world of craft cocktails. The coronavirus pandemic has deprived many Houstonians the opportunity to visit bars and restaurants, and it is unfortunate that they won’t get to enjoy these again.