As new restaurants open at a rapid rate across the New Orleans area, word that one of Metairie’s older eateries would soon close stirred interest, a bit of intrigue and even some outrage.
Never mind that the restaurant in question is part of a national chain and operates in an area renowned for its own indigenous food, or that a second location of the same brand remains open a few miles away in New Orleans.
The announcement by Houston’s Restaurant that its Veterans Memorial Boulevard location will shut its doors for the final time Sunday after 34 years in business did not sit well with many of its regulars.
“It’s not just another chain closing,” said Rachel Eustis, a Lakeview resident who works at a real estate firm near the restaurant. “This was shocking. Even though it’s a chain, it felt like it was local, and people are upset.”
One reason for the strong reaction, she said, is that regulars felt blindsided by the decision to close.
“It’s always busy; there’s always a wait for a table. It’s not like it wasn’t doing well, so we don’t understand why it happened,” she said.
Houston’s is the oldest brand of the Hillstone Restaurant Group, a company based in Los Angeles that operates 48 restaurants around the country under a dozen different names. Some are multiple-unit restaurants, like Bandera, with five locations; some are one-off concepts, like Rutherford Grill, in Napa Valley.
The brand got its start in Nashville, Tennessee, where its first restaurant opened in 1976. The company closed that location in 2005. The Metairie location opened in 1981.
Amanda Bongard, a Metairie native who counts herself as a twice-a-week regular at Houston’s, said the impending closure feels like a betrayal of the customers who have made the restaurant their own through the years.
“We took it to heart,” said Bongard, who started making regular visits with her husband, David, back when they were first dating.
“It’s not about the place. It’s about the people and the personality. If you go somewhere else, to another chain, they don’t know who you are, what you like. It was always different there.”
She fired off an email to the restaurant’s corporate office, looking for more answers, but she hadn’t heard back by Monday afternoon. By press time, the company hadn’t yet responded to a request for more information from The New Orleans Advocate either.
On its Facebook page, however, the restaurant addressed some questions and comments posted by disappointed customers.
Calling the decision “a final one,” the restaurant said the “reason for the closure is to allow greater attention and resources to be (focused) on the Houston’s Restaurant on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans.”
Acknowledging that the Metairie property “was a very successful location for us,” the restaurant thanked customers for their support over the years. The company also explained that it owns the property, dispelling speculation that possible lease problems led to the closure.
The Houston’s brand was once much larger, but the company has been rebranding several locations in recent years. In 2010, the industry publication Nation’s Restaurant News reported that the restaurant group was converting some of its Houston’s locations to the Hillstone brand, an upscale/casual restaurant with a similar menu of steaks, ribs, burgers and entrée salads.
The company had 30 Houston’s restaurants as recently as 2009; it now has 19 spread across 10 states, including the Metairie location.
When the rebranding effort began in New York, some industry observers speculated that the move was intended to avoid compliance with a law in that state mandating chains with 15 or more locations to include calorie counts and other nutritional information on their menus.
The company disputed that idea and explained the rebranding as part of its strategy to compete with independent upscale/casual and fine-dining restaurants.
There’s no comparable state law in Louisiana regarding menu calorie counts, but a similar federal law is set to take effect in November. It will require a broad array of food purveyors, including restaurant chains with 20 or more locations, to include calorie counts on their menus.
While the future of the Metairie restaurant site remains in question, some regulars are making plans for at least one last visit before the closing date. And Bongard is even making plans for the future.
She and her husband have befriended many of the employees and other customers, whom they counted on seeing each weekend.
That turned a dinner at Houston’s into more of a social outing than just a meal out, she said, and on their visit Saturday night, she and others were exchanging phone numbers and connecting on social media so they could keep in touch after the closing day.
“We want to see the staff wherever they go, and with the customers we’re all trying to figure out where we’re going to meet up next,” she said.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.