Mockingbird Bistro Is Closing After Christmas Eve—But Here’s What The New Year Might Bring

There are probably thousands of Houstonians who have fallen in love with Mockingbird Bistro’s legendary foie gras burger, carefully made French onion soup, extensive wine list and top-notch happy hour over the years, not to mention the elegant environment.

So, the news from the Houston Chronicle that chef John Sheely’s lovely restaurant at 1985 Welch is closing at the end of this year is heartbreaking for many. The lease ends on January 2 and the restaurant owners were unable to negotiate a new one.

We spoke with Sheely about this sad revelation. The final day of operation is specifically December 24—Christmas Eve. Sheely decided to not wait until the lease end date of January 2. He’s giving his loyal staff a week of severance pay so they can, “have some time with their family and maybe not have to work on New Year’s Eve for the first time in their careers. It’s my way to give back to them,” he said.

Some of those employees have been with Mockingbird Bistro almost for as long as it has been open: 16 years. “My pantry person and my head salad girls have stayed 15 years. I’ve got a server that started with me as a busser, a barback, bartender—just had a lot of long term staff. People stay because they have fun here. I’m not saying I’m the easiest chef to work with because I expect certain things from my staff service-wise—which is like taking care of people when they come to your house. Take care of folks, make them feel welcome and follow the steps of service.”

The Houston hospitality industry has been struggling with staffing shortages for several months now. Sheely is not only confident that his employees will quickly land new jobs but noted that Landry’s has already called to indicate their interest.

What, though, of Sheely, his wife Violeta and the legacy of Mockingbird Bistro (not to mention Sheely’s promising yet prematurely deceased Italian restaurant, Osteria Mazzantini)?

Mockingbird Bistro's graceful dining room was the scene of many memorable meals. Photo by Paula Murphy
Mockingbird Bistro’s graceful dining room was the scene of many memorable meals. Photo by Paula Murphy

That’s where the good news comes in. After the holidays, the chef is going to start looking for a new restaurant. “We’re going to see if we can find a new opportunity and make something happen again, whether it be a small, second-generation space or find a partner and move into something newer. I’ve been wound up in this Mockingbird thing for so many years though that I need to [first] take a little time off and recharge the batteries.”

A new restaurant might be a way to bring together the best of what both Mockingbird and Mazzantini had to offer. “I like the Italian, to be honest with you,” admitted Sheely. “I think it’s fun. In hindsight, with Mazzantini if we’d gone more casual—if I’d gotten off of my fine dining stick—it would have made it. I like casual places with kick-ass cuisine and great service.” Sheely says that despite the white tablecloths at his restaurants, he still always felt they offered comfortable, casual atmospheres.

After 16 years of running Mockingbird Bistro, Sheely’s points of pride are these: “taking care of our guests and our employees. You just take care of people, buy the best product, treat it with respect, cook it with care and serve it to people with a smile. The rest falls into place. That’s what I believe,” he said.

Hopefully, Sheely’s quest for another restaurant will also fall into place.

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