Saturday, April 2, 2011

A new generation moving to the Heights?


About two years ago, a friend invited me to a restaurant called Shade in the Heights. I hadn’t been to the area in probably 10+ years, but I’m always ready to try a new great restaurant—and what I found on that trip was an amazing, surprising neighborhood that would soon start attracting people from outside the loop.

Shade was fabulous. The design is sleek, and the atmosphere is casual, quirky, and elegant. Once inside, you can forget you’re in Houston and imagine you’re in Soho on a visit to New York. When we finished our meal, we walked down to the Penzey Spice Shop, where they had some of the coolest, best spices I’d ever seen. There I was able to buy a present for one of those friends who’s impossible to buy presents for; since she sprinkles crushed red pepper all over every dish, I bought her an imported spice that was 10 times spicier than what you’d find at the grocery store. I love the feeling of getting the perfect gift, and with that plus the food at Shade, I was hooked on the Heights.

Recently, I’ve had three families from the Memorial area move to the Heights. They’re not empty nesters, and it made me realize that this shift was becoming a trend. For the last few years, national trends in everything from food to fashion to music have shifted from a corporate flashiness to a humbler and more hip aesthetic, and it seems that Houston is no exception. Farmer’s markets, Discovery Green, and now, formerly Memorial-based families moving to the Heights.

The Heights, with its mix of people and real estate (gorgeous, expansive homes next to run-down shanties), appeals to everyone. It has a small-town feel, yet it’s minutes from downtown. When Wal-Mart tried to open a store in this area, the community response would make you think that they were trying to build a nuclear power plant. Just like the West U community continues to protest with ever-increasing indignance against the Ashby high rise, the people of the Heights want to keep their local charm.

And why wouldn’t they? There aren’t too many places in Houston where restaurants are still locally owned, where the community braves the heat to hang out with each other outside. Food trucks, a trend that never left Austin, have come back to our city—a welcome reminder of my college days, where the third vendor on the drag would sell “lemony lemonade salvation sandwiches,” and one time the Vietnamese eggroll cart caught on fire and made the front page of the Austin statesman.


Visit the Heights if you haven’t been there in awhile and it’ll feel like a breath of fresh air, a piece of carefree living straight out of your twenties. I recently went to a small restaurant called Zelko’s, where the food is sourced locally and the menu changes daily. The manager is a St. John’s alumnus, and one day he sat down at our table with the young chef Jamie and talked to us about food and wine for over 20 minutes. It’s so different from a lot of the other experiences you’ll have at restaurants in Houston. It’s personal, about making a memory and not turning tables. We finished our dinner, went over to a friend’s house, and sat on the porch with a glass of wine. Within minutes, some neighbors had joined us, and I ended up talking to someone who had left a big corporate job to start a music studio—and had been successful within 60 days! Where else but the Heights could you do this? Then, the neighbors from across the street came over from their relatively humble home and started talking about their son’s deployment to Afghanistan.
Houston is a great city, but in a lot of neighborhoods, we lack the community and relaxation and personal connection that a small town brings. The Heights brings that back, and you can reclaim it through a day’s visit or maybe even a move. If you’re an empty nester or feeling a tug towards those college days where things were unexpected and not always so neatly packaged, the Heights might be the place for you.

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