How Dry Am I in the Houston Heights?in Life, Heights, Dine
UPDATE: In November 2017 the 1912 ordinance prohibiting the sale of alcohol in the original Houston Heights was eliminated by voters. Please enjoy this article as a little slice of Heights history. Good news: Lola, Collina's and Thai Space are still BYOB so feel free to bring along your favorite potent potable!
Where is the Dry Area?
Shade was the first restaurant to the Heights to begin serving alcohol under a private club license. It is now Alice Blue.
If you’ve been around the Heights for any length of time, you may have noticed a proliferation of coffee shops and diners. Unfortunately though, in the past,wining and dining meant a drive out of the neighborhood. Originally passed in 1912, the “Dry Ordinance,” prohibits the sale of alcohol and covers the original Houston Heights platted subdivision. In the 1960's, 19th St.featured a domino parlor, where small stakes gambling allegedly occurred, yet no alcohol was sold. Even as late as the 1990’s locals had to drive to places like West University, West Gray or Upper Kirby for a cocktail and a nice dinner with a glass of wine. The ordinance has kept out bars and discouraged restaurants wanting to serve wine or beer with their fare. This suited most Heights residents just fine but many of us admitted that it would be nice to have more sophisticated dining choices closer to home.Then came Shade.
After almost 100 years of not being able to get a drink in the Houston Heights,Heights resident and Shade owner Claire Smith applied for and obtained a private club license in 2004 with hardly a peep from Heights old timers or religious leaders. In fact, at the public hearing, residents in favor of Shade’s license outnumbered those opposing it 10 to 1.
Ironically,the Houston office of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) is smack in the middle of the Heights at 427 W. 20th Street. TABC’s Jeff Haverlah points out that the Houston Heights is not the only dry district in Harris County since Galena Park and parts of Deer Park are also dry. Haverlah sees the ordinance as more about land use control than about any widespread conviction against alcohol consumption. While there is talk every decade or so about petitioning for a vote to get rid of the ordinance, many think it has served the Heights well when considering areas of Houston where bars have encroached on quiet residential life.
Haverlah explains that the ordinance prevents private clubs from calling themselves bars and that the bookkeeping requirements for these clubs make the license unappealing for many proprietors. It’s costly and time-consuming, requiring an investment of over $7,000 and 50 club members to start. However cumbersome the process, Haverlah says that as long as proprietors qualify and comply, TABC will issue private club licenses. That being said, since Shade’s opening, only a handful of other private club licenses have been issued in the Heights’ dry area: Jus’ Mac, Down House, Onion Creek, Coltivare and 8 Row Flint. (Note: Textile,a restaurant operating where Kraftsman is now located, also had a private club license.)
Down House co-owner Chris Cusack says the accounting for the private club is a burden, but he feels that the ordinance is part of the character of the neighborhood and he would not jump on any bandwagon to have the ordinance repealed. Cusack explained his fervor for opening Down House at 18th Street and Yale: “I was adamant I wanted this concept in this building in this neighborhood so I was willing to make the sacrifices.”
Down House’s Darwin-themed “coffee bar café” specializes in handmade cocktails that definitely fit in with the Victorian neighborhood, but also serves French pressed coffee and food for breakfast through late night dinner. Opening a private club in many ways assures an establishment’s commitment to food and in the case of Down House, coffee as it cannot advertise itself as a bar. The alcohol you drink at a private club is provided by the founding members and is only being replenished with the money you pay. The accounting burden is significant.
For restaurants not wanting to go the private club route, BYOB is a popular option.On any given weekend night at Collina’s on 19th St. it’s not unusual to have a packed restaurant and an open bottle of wine on every table. For a nominal $2 per person corkage fee, diners can indulge in Do It Yourself wine/beer pairings. At Lola and Thai Spice, there is no corkage fee but no wine glasses either so bring your own or make do with restaurant glassware.
For more information about the dry area visit the TABC web site at www.tabc.state.tx.us.
-Originally published in OurBlok Heights, Spring 2012. By Karen Derr, updates by Becky Davis