Pioneering Houston Restaurateur Elouise “Ouisie” Adams Jones Dies at Age 79
Elouise “Ouisie” Adams Jones, founder of Ouisie’s Table at 3939 San Felipe, wasn’t afraid of making a statement. She even did so when she left this world on Monday, January 10, 2022 — her birthday. She died at age 79 after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease and dementia, according to the Houston Chronicle. She’s survived by her husband of 23 years, Harry R. Jones Jr. as well as numerous other family members, including a sister, brother, three stepsons and grandchildren.
A Missouri City native, Jones originally founded Ouisie’s Table on May 12, 1973 in a small, former grocery store at a time when it was rare for women to own restaurants. The fact that Jones didn’t have any restaurant experience didn’t stop her from boldly using her nickname “Ouisie” to guide diners to her new eatery. Appropriately, the seed money came from the aunt she was named after: Elouise “Diddy” Nazro.
The original location had 88 seats and a menu, written on a blackboard, that changed daily — sometimes more than once a day. Jones was one of the first in Houston to have shrimp and grits on a restaurant menu. It along with other Southern fare such as chicken fried steak, egg salad, fried oysters and lemon icebox pie soon became signature dishes.
Her distinctly Southern demeanor and upbringing influenced her menu, as did her mother and grandmother’s cooking. According to a press release, Jones would say of her upbringing, “Cookbooks were read with relish. Recipes were always exchanged and food opinions — and there were many — were offered freely.”
Before starting Ouisie’s Table, Jones’ had a brush with journalism, working as a special assistant to John T. Jones, who was the acting President of the Houston Chronicle at the time. There she started the work that would lead to opening her own restaurant. She made and sold sandwiches to the editorial staff under the moniker The Traveling Brown Bag Lunch Company. Later, Jones would would return to journalism, this time occasionally writing food columns and op-eds for Houston-area magazines and newspapers.
It was also at the Houston Chronicle where she met her first husband, Van Heatherly. Heartbreakingly, their only son, Tucker Heatherly, died in a car accident in 1987.
“When her son died, something in her was crushed forever,” said Teresa Byrne-Dodge, the former editor and publisher of My Table who covered Jones’ life over multiple decades. In mourning, Jones closed the original location of Ouisie’s Table to “go count seagulls on Galveston Bay.” Sadly, her first husband did not survive her, nor did second husband Dr. Benjamin Cooper.
Ever a survivor, Jones reemerged on May 12, 1995 when she reopened Ouisie’s Table at its current San Felipe location, which she designed herself with an expansive dining room, wide patio with lush greenery and multiple private dining areas named after friends and family. As a nod to the original restaurant, there’s a chalkboard in the dining room with the daily specials.
Pimento cheese was not just pimento cheese. According to Jones, it was sacred pimento cheese, and not the only dish with an adjective. “Elouise knew her way around ‘damn eggplant’, which is what she called her eggplant gratin recipe, as well as pimiento cheese and shrimp and grits,” recalled Byrne-Dodge. “On a personal level, she represented to me — a Midwesterner — the kind of spunky, stylish Southern lady I had long imagined from books and movies. She’d give almost anything a try. I think of her kitchen often, though it’s been at least 25 years since I was at her home. I remember open shelves of silver hollow-ware and serving pieces. Maybe that’s why I collect silver myself?”
Some of the luminaries that dined at Ouisie’s Table include former President George and former First Lady Barbara Bush, and the celebrated Julia Child once made a surprise drop-in. She wasn’t the only family member to have a brush with celebrity. Horton Foote, an award-winning playwright known for writing the screenplay for the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, wrote a Broadway play called “Dividing the Estate” about Jones’ maternal grandmother.
Public relations professional Mark Hanna, who still represents Ouisie’s Table, was somewhat intimidated when trying to secure Jones as a client, but also discovered her spontaneous warmth and kindness. “I still remember interviewing to do her PR more almost 23 or 24 years ago,” he said. “I’d been answering questions and being my usual half-wit self when she suddenly stood up. I thought I’d put my foot in it, but she came around the table and hugged me in front of her chef and two managers. I was so stunned and touched. I still don’t remember what I said or what we were talking about.”
As Jones’ health declined, she sold Ouisie’s Table to longtime general manager and business partner Wafi Dinari. He has not only maintained the name and southern flair, but some of the beloved, quirky traditions. That includes the annual display from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day of the infamous Miss Ruby, a red debutante dress that Jones’ sister wore in 1958. Jones found the dress in storage in 1990, and that year, she hung it over the fireplace and it served as her substitute Christmas tree. Eventually, Miss Ruby relocated to Ouisie’s Table. A Labrador statue that Jones bought on a whim and named Patience still sits at the bar.
“She treated me like a son. Her home was open to me. And her heart. She supported me day in and day out. She was literally another mother. I’m not exaggerating, that’s truly how she made me feel,” Dinari told the Houston Chronicle. “I loved her creativity at the restaurant and her passion for it. When she was here, she wasn’t at work; it was her second home.” The Houston Chronicle also reports that Dinari never considered changing the restaurant name, even after Jones retired.
Jones leaves behind not only a namesake restaurant, friends and family, but fond memories of her sharp, irreverent wit and generosity to the community. “Elouise was much more than a restaurant owner,” said Byrne-Dodge. “Her kind support for the literary arts and animal welfare was well known, and she was a generous team player in supporting the whole Houston restaurant scene as it matured in the 1980s and 1990s.” During the holidays, Jones hosted an annual “Everyone Come Dressed as Santa and Bring a Bike Party.” Bringing a new bicycle was required for admission, so Jones collected thousands of them for charities over the years.
Jones is being buried in Kerrville, Texas, and plans are being made for a memorial service in Houston.