New Rice Village Restaurant Injects New Life Into Long-Abandoned Tapas Spot
Alife Hospitality Group has steadily been growing with new restaurants such as Kamp Houston, Bungalow Downtown Dining and Southside Sporting Club. The newest is FRNDS, located in Rice Village at 2441 University in the former Mi Luna space — which has stood empty since Mi Luna closed in 2018. It continues what Alife Hospitality Group is becoming known for: semi-upscale dining with an energetic atmosphere.
FRNDS’ setting varies depending on the time, ranging from relaxed during the day to a full-on party in the evening. The restaurant is dark and cavernous, with velvety purple furniture adding a pop of color. Most of the lighting is indirect and hidden behind panels, which creates an intimate atmosphere.
The manager explained during our visit that he does not want the restaurant experience to be considered part of the current vibe-dining trend with more style than substance. During the day — before the lights turn down and the music turns up — the food at FRNDS is intended to hold its own. Considering who created the menu, it should. Well-respected executive chef Mark Holley, also known for Davis St. at Hermann Park, created the food program, which heavily focuses on shareable dishes and handhelds.
There are a handful of full-sized entrées, such as Thai Salmon, Rigatoni Bolognese and Brick Lemon Chicken, which is served with sides including broccolini and fingerling potatoes with lemon-caper sauce, as well as a few salads. The eclectic menu also offers satay (skewers), dumplings, sliders, meatballs and assorted appetizers. The diversity of the food offerings does not feel confusing, instead allowing the restaurant to be a place where everyone can find something to enjoy.
Houston Food Finder was invited to try some of the dishes. The buttermilk fried chicken tenders, with a light, crisp breading, is served with three housemade sauces: habanero-honey mustard, BBQ ranch and spicy ketchup and is a personal favorite. Both types of sliders, the wagyu beef and lobster, are well-executed and on the more filling side.
The cocktail list is heavily influenced by specific brands, but the drinks we tried were still meticulously crafted — again, navigating away from “all style and no substance”. The butterfly pea-infused French 75, Lucid Dreams, is the best example of adherence to both brand and craft. Despite numerous purple butterfly pea gins on the market, FRNDS uses Fords Gin and infuses it in-house. The drink has a gorgeous lavender hue and is topped with a matching tuft of cotton candy — but still hews closely to a classic French 75.
The Snatch Piña Colada, made with cognac, is a great example of how to build a fruit-forward beverage without hiding the alcohol. Exemplifying the point of specific brands being drivers of the drink list, the name Nearest, Dearest FRNDS is a nod to the Uncle Nearest Rye used as the base spirit. And you know what? The team nailed it. The amaretto and vermouth could have made this drink cloyingly sweet, but the rye and St George NOLA Coffee Liqueur kept it balanced and add a soft spice. FRNDS also offers wine by way of a small by-the-glass list.
Balancing substance and style is FRNDS’ biggest strength. Happy hour and dinner visitors will be able to appreciate the food and drinks, and those looking for a nightlife scene later in the evening can look forward to entertainment such as DJs and burlesque.
Be sure to check the website, because there is a dress code. The hours of operation are Thursdays from 4 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. and Sundays from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Reservations are available at the FRNDS website.