PaperCity Magazine

September 2019- Houston

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a few yards up the street to occupy an expansive two-story space. "I think the whole plan initially was that Cafe Annie was going to be the endcap of the new development, where there would be a hotel, shopping, etc. It was proposed as the place you needed to be, but instead, it turned into 'What's going on there? What's with all that construction?'" Del Grande recalls. "I thought, 'I don't want to move; I want to wait until the development is more complete,' because if they are going to build a hotel we could be a part of it, much the way Fearing's is within the Ritz Carlton in Dallas." But the hotel never happened. "The problem with the restaurant was that when we designed it, everything was in such a rush. Before you knew it, they're telling you the elevator's in, and then you're trying to figure out where the front door should be. We never had a chance to really think it all through." When the foursome had initially made the move from Westheimer to their first Post Oak space, the layout was almost identical, save for a quick flip of the blueprints. "When we had to move again to the new Post Oak location, nothing was the same," Del Grande says. "There was a lower ceiling, the space faced another direction, and there was no way we could take the former design and place it in the new one, nothing fit. Not to mention the problematic two-story, upstairs/downstairs situation with the kitchen and dining level on the top floor and the entry and restrooms on the first, which had customers complaining from the start. While we tried to soften things up with a different design the question eventually became: How can you call it the same name if it's not going to even resemble the other in the least?" Thus, with the move, the iconic Cafe Annie name went by the wayside, replaced with RDG — the chef's initials. Yet Bar Annie's name stayed the same. The new place was now labeled RDG + Bar Annie. To confuse matters further, Del Grande recalls that diners would telephone the new location and ask, "Is this still Cafe Annie?" Others would drive past its former stead, see a construction site, and wonder where it had gone, never realizing it was only a block away. And then there were the out-of-towners who had no idea what was going on. But that was the least of their problems. "I thought we had a bad break with Mo's restaurant across the street, too," he says. "That rowdy group [complete with hookers] would cross the street, cocktails in hand, and jam up our bar. It was nuts. We had to have someone downstairs collecting their drinks. The restaurant was not set up for that, we never anticipated it … A lot of people got the wrong message in the beginning." And just about this time, younger diners were heading everywhere else, as a veritable boom of restaurants was hitting Houston. One could hardly begin a casual conversation without the phrase "Have you been to [name of latest restaurant] yet?" spilling from one's lips. A city that had always staunchly supported those who started their careers here began to embrace outsiders, making competition for dining dollars fierce. Cafe Annie began losing pivotal, long-tenured front- and back-of-the-house employees, but Del Grande and company took each departure in stride. As the 35th anniversary approached in June 2016, they contemplated ways to mark it. Nixing the idea of a big party, they decided instead to bring a few Cafe Annie signature menu items back to RDG. Then someone on the team (no one is sure just who) thought it would be a brilliant idea to change the name back to Cafe Annie, typography and all, which led to nothing but more confusion. In 2017, in an outward sign of business slowing significantly, the Schiller Del Grande Restaurant Group (as they are collectively known) decided to refashion what was essentially a dead first-floor entry space into a small retro eatery, serving wood-grilled steaks and oysters. While the food was fabulous and up to the standards they'd set decades prior, the short-lived concept was far from the talk of the town. Now 64 years old, Robert Del Grande is stepping up for his grand redux and stepping out on the stage solo. Mimi has retired, and the Schillers are busy consulting on hotel and restaurant projects elsewhere, although the foursome still retain operations at the downtown eatery The Grove, at Discovery Green. In a deal brokered by the site's late developer Ed Wulfe, Del Grande has partnered with restaurateur Ben Berg and renewed the lease for another decade. Together they're working to completely revamp what once was — concept, design, and menu — to bring something exciting and altogether new to the fore. Berg, a native New Yorker and alum of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, moved from Manhattan to Houston several years ago with his wife and three young children in search of a better quality of life. After a management stint at the Houston location of Smith & Wollensky, Berg has gone on to open his own popular steak place, B&B Butcher's and Restaurant, in Houston, then Fort Worth. Shortly after, two Houston locations of his more casual concept, B.B. Lemon, premiered. Almost simultaneously, he acquired the old Carmelo's restaurant in west Houston, now rechristened B.B. Italia and B.B. Pizza. All in a span of four short years. Berg admits to combing the massive archives of the New York Public Library's old restaurant menu collection for fun. "When I moved to Houston," he says, "I learned about the history of the restaurants here. Everyone told me about Café Annie and Tony's and Maxim's." While aware of Del Grande's legacy and influence, Berg initially hesitated when Wulfe approached him in April 2018 about getting involved. "It was just bad timing," he says. "I had just opened B&B Butcher's in Fort Worth and had other stuff going on with the Italian restaurant, and I thought, 'I don't want to do another restaurant right now.'" But a fortuitous meeting at Galatoire's in New Orleans several months later brought Berg and Del Grande together, where both were dining separately. Berg "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." — Robert Del Grande 60

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