Underbelly Hospitality Calls It Quits on GJ Tavern in Downtown Houston
Say farewell to yet another ground-floor eatery in Market Square Tower at 777 Preston in downtown Houston. Underbelly Hospitality has closed GJ Tavern (originally known as Georgia James Tavern and named after then-executive chef Chris Shepherd’s parents, then renamed due to confusion with the company’s Georgia James Steakhouse).
In fairness, there are indicators that finding the right concept for that particular space has been tough. GJ Tavern replaced coffee shop, restaurant and wine bar Coterie, a venture by Sean Marshall of Southside Espresso and Charles “Chaz” Lusk. It opened in November 2018. (Later, Marshall had to also close his primary coffee shop in Montrose.) Georgia James Tavern opened in July 2021. Just a few months later — in November 2021 — chef Nick Wong was shuffled out of now-closed UB Preserv and into the Georgia James Tavern to replace opening chef Matthew Coburn after a rash of opening and closing announcements. Wong shuffled himself out of the role in April 2022.
GJ Tavern underwent its name change, and its final chef was Tim Reading — whose down-to-earth food perspective seemed to get some traction for a time. More than one of our writers enjoyed his menu, with dishes such as Gulf Shrimp Scampi, Ham Brined Pork Chop and Cavetelli with Pumpkin Purée and Butternut Squash.
As of press time, there’s no word from Reading or Underbelly Hospitality regarding where the chef is going next.
Regarding Reading’s fate with the company, Underbelly Hospitality says:
“Tim is an excellent chef with an extraordinary talent. As it stands, we have no executive chef positions available within Underbelly Hospitality. For that reason, he has been laid off. We are very appreciative of Tim and wish him all the best. ”
“Closing GJ Tavern was an incredibly difficult decision to make but we ultimately realized that operating a 40-seat restaurant in downtown Houston was financially unsustainable,” said Nina Quincy, a longtime employee of Underbelly Hospitality who was recently named president of the company. “We loved building the GJ Tavern brand and are hopeful that it will someday have a place within Underbelly Hospitality. We are grateful to our team for their contributions and their unwavering commitment to GJ Tavern, and to Market Square Tower for their partnership. And to all of our guests – it was an honor to serve everyone who has ever walked through our doors.”
Woodbranch Management owns Market Square Tower, and in a statement, Underbelly Hospitality said it is helping with the transition of the space to a different food and beverage provider.
The closure still leaves Underbelly Hospitality with no shortage of restaurants to manage. It just opened Italian seafood restaurant Pastore — its second restaurant in Regent Square, just across from Georgia James Steakhouse. There’s also Wild Oats and Underbelly Burger, both conveniently located in the Houston Farmers Market center in the Heights.
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.