Trailblazing Chef & Restaurateur Prepares to Close Heights Restaurant
Chef and restaurateur Claire Smith has been a fixture of Houston’s food scene since opening her first restaurant, Daily Review Café, in 1994, closing it in 2000 to move temporarily to Chicago with her husband. In 2003, she opened Shade, which would be rebranded as her current restaurant, Alice Blue, at 250 West 19th Street. In 2017, she followed up with Canopy, which operated for a decade in Montrose. Now, Smith has decided to close her final remaining Houston restaurant, Alice Blue. Its last day of service will be Sunday, February 25.
“My lease on 19th Street is ending, my son is a sophomore at Rice and the time seems right for enjoying life,” said Smith. “You never know — I may want a coffee shop one day. But for now, I will be watching all the amazing things happening in the Houston restaurant scene.”
The closing announcement came on the same day as that of another independently owned restaurant, Urban Eats. The impending closings have left area residents deeply concerned about losing unique restaurants operated by small business owners, and expressing those concerns on social media, such as in the popular Houston Heights Foodies Facebook group, which has over 34,000 members.
However, a representative for Smith says this closing, “has been planned for a bit” and “Claire has a great relationship with her landlord of many years, who had given her the option to stay at her leisure”.
Smith was one of the first well-known Houston woman chefs and restaurant owners, coming up alongside peers such as Monica Pope. When Smith first transformed Shade into Alice Blue, for a while it showcased another well-known woman chef, Brandi Key, whose prior notable roles have included Director of Culinary Operations for Clark Cooper Concepts, and she currently holds the same title for Five 12 Restaurant Group, which owns local farm-to-table chain Dish Society and Daily Gather in CityCentre. During her time at Alice Blue, Key posted, “This place has made me a better chef, a better leader, a better friend and brought me the greatest loves in my life. Ultimately, it made me a better person. Without these four walls, and the people in it, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”
Currently, Alice Blue’s chef is Oscar Montiel. He was previously a cook at Canopy, and a representative describes him as, “amazing and creative”. Early on in Alice Blue’s history, Smith hired two key players before they’d go on to open their own James Beard Award-finalist restaurant. Beverage professional Sean Jensen developed one of Alice Blue’s first beverage lists, while chef Jason Vaughn helped execute the early menus. The two went on to open Nancy’s Hustle. In 2010, Vaughn was a Best Chef: Texas semifinalist. Last year, Nancy’s Hustle was a semifinalist for the national category of Outstanding Wine & Other Beverages Program, and this year, it’s a semifinalist in the prestigious Best Restaurant category.
Those are far from the only two Houston restaurant professionals that Smith employed who’d go on to other roles. Kent Domas, for example, is the executive chef at Benji Levitt’s Eau Tour. Kenten Marin says he is now executive chef for a new gastro-bar called Sayani in Lima, Peru, and also owns Kenten’s Fried Chicken in Mexico. Those are just a few of the chefs who Smith has employed and mentored.
Should Smith follow up on opening a cozy little coffee shop in Houston, many will welcome it. In the meantime, hopefully the chef will find time to have fun and relax in her post-restaurant-ownership life.
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.