PaperCity Magazine

September 2019- Houston

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59 in the late '70s and early '80s," he says. "The more difficult it was, the better, and the French were very good at making things difficult. If you wanted to be the best, you had to be French. Then three things converged. One was the principle of nouvelle cuisine that mandated you had to use the best, freshest ingredients. It was an early local thing. Next, there is no way we could be better than the French — according to the French. And, third, these were not dishes you made at home. The foods we really liked, that we ate in the back of the kitchen, were the origins of Southwest cuisine: the local, fresh stuff combined with some Mexican influences, all of which was the complete opposite of French cooking." Back then, in the early '80s, Houston colleagues such as Amy Ferguson (Charlie's 517) were meandering down the same path as Del Grande — ditto in Dallas, with chefs Stephan Pyles (Routh Street Cafe), Dean Fearing (The Mansion on Turtle Creek), and Avner Samuel (Loews Anatole Hotel). Circa 1984, cookbook writer and consultant Anne Lindsay Greer suggested several of them come together to put on a potluck dinner in Dallas and show the world that Texas has its own unique take on regional cooking. She convinced them that by working together, they could attract more attention than they could ever garner alone. In a 2014 retrospective story, Texas Monthly food editor Patricia Sharpe wrote of the movement: "How can you pinpoint the beginning of something as sweeping as a culinary movement? You can't … To appreciate the radical nature of that act, it helps to remember how stratified restaurants were then: there was fine dining, defined by French food and 'continental' cuisine, and there was everyday dining, and the two seldom overlapped. Yet at their very first dinner meeting, the Texans recognized one another as kindred spirits who believed that our state's humble foods — enchiladas and salsas, smoked meats and fried chicken, okra pickles and chowchow, buttermilk biscuits and peach pies — were not just homey favorites. Treated with imagination and refinement, they could equal anything the Old World had to offer." Attract attention they did. Throughout the mid-'80s through the '90s, the food world exhaustively covered the trend baptized Southwest cuisine. Every major publication, from Bon Appétit to Gourmet, as well as industry insiders such as Restaurant Hospitality, not only spread the word but anointed Del Grande, one of the movement's founding chefs, with accolades ranging from the coveted James Beard Award to Best Restaurant honors in a 1999 issue of Food & Wine. Del Grande, along with now-wife Mimi, who ran the front of the house, and partners/in-laws Candy and Lonnie Schiller were running what was arguably the most famous restaurant in the city. In 1989, nine years after Cafe Annie's founding, the foursome decided to move from their 3,500-square-foot Westheimer address to the highly visible Galleria area. The new Post Oak location, near San Felipe, was nearly three times larger. With the help of partner/interior designer Candy Schiller, they upgraded everything from the stone floors to the rich mahogany book-matched veneer that cloaked the walls of the soaring, dramatic space. Cafe Annie was the reservation to get. It was the see-and-be-seen-place where diners' names were dropped in the gossip columns of the day and milestones happened, from signing a big oil deal to celebrating a wedding anniversary. Boldfaced hometown names, from George H.W. Bush to astronaut Alan Shepard and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, made the place their own. Even the most famous chef in France, Paul Bocuse, made a pilgrimage through Cafe Annie's hallowed doors; thankful that Del Grande served him anything but French fare, he delighted in the regional cuisine that had been elevated from humble to approachable haute. Then there were the fabled New Year's Eve parties, packed with women dancing on the bar. "In the '90s, the economy was blowing along," Del Grande says. "New Year's Eve was an odd thing. It was like a badge of honor that you could survive it. We would do all this elaborate stuff. There were two seatings — the quiet 6 pm and, later, the wild second seating." As they rolled toward the year 2000, each party got crazier. "I don't remember how it started, but then there was a gong, Silly String, and you'd wake up the next day with glitter on your pillow," says Del Grande, who would sit back and watch Mimi and company jump onto the bar, turn up the music, and dance like it was 1999, to quote the Prince song. And it was. After the eve of 1998, in the wake of Y2K and the horror that ensued, they closed out the last year of the millennium with no fanfare whatsoever. Whether that moment was the harbinger of change, we'll never know, but change was indeed afoot, with cell phones beginning to proliferate. "I made this prediction in 1999," Del Grande recalls. "I said, 'Cell phones will change everything. If you change the way you communicate, you will change the way you socialize, and we'll all change.'" When they moved to the first Post Oak location, the restaurant was much bigger and more dramatic, but "the difference was that everything was concentrated in the dining room," he says. "The bar was simply a place you waited for a table. But there was a certain group who would eat at the bar. It was like 'If there is all this hoopla in the dining room, I'll just sit in the bar.' Then a light went off in my head. I thought: 'What's the difference between bar food and the food in the dining room? You can eat bar food with your fingers!' We couldn't put a burger on the main menu, but we could serve it at the bar. That was the difference." While people were still wearing coats and ties in the dining room, the bar was surreptitiously gaining a certain cachet. In the years leading up to 2009, things changed in a bigger way: Their landlord had other plans for the space they occupied, near the intersection of San Felipe and Post Oak Boulevard. Over the years, commercial real estate developer Ed Wulfe had been acquiring land around the Post Oak area and envisioned something much bigger, much grander — a development he'd call BLVD Place. His idea was to move the eatery Julia Child and Robert Del Grande, L.A., mid-1990s Robert and Mimi Del Grande at the original Cafe Annie, 1984

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