Georgia James moves, hay merchant closes at the end of 2021


After a decade at 1100 Westheimer’s, Chris Berger and his group of restaurateurs Belly hospitality leave the Montrose building where he opened his first restaurant and beer bar. At the end of the year, the steakhouse Georgia James is closing its doors to move to the new Regent Square development just off Allen Parkway at 1203 Dunlavy. It should reopen in early 2022. Unfortunately for beer lovers, The hay merchant, one of the first and largest establishments in Houston to focus on craft beers, will close. For the moment, no place of relocation has been identified.

Georgia James’ new location will be where Shepherd originally thought to open a live-fire restaurant concept in the mixed-use Regent Square development. There will still be two restaurants. The second will likely be inspired by one of the iterations of the rotary menu concept. A fifth, which will also close at the end of 2021.

Chris Berger
Chris Shepherd, Executive Chef and Co-Owner of Underbelly Hospitality. Photo by Julie Soefer.

“This decision is bittersweet for sure,” Shepherd said in a press release, “A lot of factors went into that decision. Our lease is over, and the cost of renovating the building to make it this that we need doesn’t make economic sense. Also, the City of Houston is starting to improve Waugh and Waughcrest streets, which will definitely have an impact on business. The folks at Regent Square have donated to us the opportunity to build Georgia James almost from scratch, and that was too good an opportunity to pass up. ”

A Phase 2 rendering of the development of Regent Square, future home of Chris Shepherd’s Georgia James. Courtesy image.

The new location, including the general manager Raul lorenzana and executive chef Greg Peters will continue to run, will be larger than the Westheimer spot. It will accommodate 220 people on the ground floor with additional seating for 120 indoors and 50 on an outdoor terrace at the Lounge at Georgia James, which is scheduled for the second floor. Customers can expect to always find favorites from the original location, such as 100 day shed steak seized on cast iron and Charred corn with queso fresco and spicy cream. And yes, the infamous Bale boards, originally developed at One Fifth, will still be available.

44 Farms rib eye on a white plate, with a piece of garlic on top.
A 44 Farms rib eye in Georgia James. Photo by Julie Soefer.

The closure of the first Georgia James and The Hay Merchant store marks the end of an era for the historic corner of Westheimer and Waugh. In the 1930s, the intersection housed a Sinclair gas station owned by Glenn McCarthy before he became a wealthy wildcat and opened the Shamrock Hotel, a now demolished Houston landmark. In the 1970s, 1100 Westheimer was home to Charlie’s Coffee Shop, which was across from Waugh’s iconic gay bar, Mary’s, which operated from 1968 to 2009. Over time, Blacksmith Cafe opened in the former Mary’s, while Shepherd’s original restaurant, Underbelly, as well as The Hay Merchant, divided the former Chances Bar space – another social haven for Houston’s LGBTQ + community until it closed in 2010. The future predictable.)

After leaving Catalan Food & Wine, where Shepherd received praise and a huge following for his Texas-inspired variations on Spanish cuisine, he opened Underbelly (and Blacksmith) as part of the 1100 Restaurant Group, which included Bobby heugel and Kevin floyd Anvil Bar & Refuge. Floyd kept a small but well-organized craft beer list in Anvil, but he wanted to expand his microbrewery offering. Under his leadership, The Hay Merchant had over 70 taps and a coveted collection of bottled beers. Other memorable features included $ 3 happy hour beer specials, unique bar bites such as sweet and spicy pork ears, and PB&J wings (the dishes were prepared by notable chefs who included Shepherd, Antoine Ware, Dax mcnear and Erin smith), Shepherd’s TV Dinner evenings and a particularly cycling-friendly atmosphere. A city bike rental stand occupied the parking lot before, there were discounts for cyclists and even the walls were decorated with bikes and wheels.

Stop and Cancel Burger at The Hay Merchant
The Cease and Desist Burger at the Hay Merchant. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

Heugel and Floyd both left the company a few years ago and separated their business interests to focus on their own projects. Floyd recently opened Shoot The Moon, a self-service bar and gastro pub. Over the years, several other The Hay Merchant alumni have also left to start their own businesses. General manager Sean jensen recognized and acclaimed, first at Public Services Wine & Whiskey with Sommelier Justin Vann and Chef Justin Yu, then later nationally with Chef Jason Vaughn at Nancy’s Hustle and Tiny Champions. Bar manager Kyle pierson opened a beloved neighborhood bar and restaurant, The Branch, named after his hometown of Spring Branch. (Pierson has also received national attention – although perhaps not for what you would expect.)

As for Underbelly, Shepherd’s original restaurant was his ode to the local restaurants, farmers, fishmongers and vendors who inspired him and provided him with produce – a journey that began when he was cooking at Brennan’s of Houston. At Underbelly, Shepherd’s food earned local and national accolades, culminating in the 2014 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest.

Chefs who worked for Shepherd at Underbelly or The Hay Merchant and opened their own restaurants include Ryan lachaine de Riel, JD Woodward of 1751 Sea & Bar, and the husband and wife team Erin Smith and Patrick Feges de Feges BBQ (now with two locations; one in Greenway and a new one in Spring Branch). Other recent additions to Houston restaurant and bars by Underbelly alumni include Chef Gary Ly’s 93 up to and Lyle Bento’s Space Cowboy at the Heights House Hotel and even more recent Trash Panda Drinking Club. Chief Nicolas Vera Currently sells its traditional Mexican scratch-off food at Papalo at Finn Hall, as well as the Urban Harvest Farmers Market. However, the most famous “graduate” is probably Daniela Soto-Innes, including a two-time James Beard Award nominee and 2016 Rising Star Chef winner for her work at New York’s Cosme, which landed a coveted spot on S. Pellegrino’s 50 Best Restaurants in the World list under her leadership. She has since left the restaurant and most recently appeared on television as host of The Globe with Chef Robert Irvine.

In 2018, Shepherd closed Underbelly and opened Georgia James, a steakhouse named after his parents that evolved from the one-year-old One Fifth Steak concept.

At first it seemed like it would be UB Preserv to 1609 Westheimer which would carry on some of the Underbelly traditions. Truth be told, executive chef Nick Wong’s Since then, the ever-strong Pan-Asian and Southern menu has forged its own memorable path.

The beer tap wall at The Hay Merchant
The beer tap wall at The Hay Merchant. Photo by Julie Soefer.

The next few months will be busy for Shepherd and his team. In addition to the Georgia James move and the operation of the new Georgia James Tavern in the city center, they open Belly burger this fall in the newly renovated Houston Farmers Market. This will be Hay Merchant’s new home Cease and desist burger. In the first months of 2022, Underbelly Hospitality is also opening Wild oats, a casual eatery from longtime chef and partner of Shepherd Nick good, Houston Farmers Market, as well as the aforementioned second restaurant in Regency Square.

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