Back in 2001, thirtysomethings Charles Clark and Grant Cooper were out-of-the-box-thinking game-changers when they opened their Ibiza Food & Wine Bar. They remain so today, having announced this morning — still some 6½ months before the fact — that they will close the long-popular restaurant south of downtown on Louisiana Street. The final day of service will be Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020, Cooper’s 55th birthday.
“And I’m 57,” Clark, the chef, said, going on to explain that he doesn’t want to be rooted in the same spot, doing the “24-7 thing” anymore. “But I’m going to hit the ground running (after Ibiza goes dark), spending lots of time at our other restaurants, tweaking the menus, tweaking the front of the house. I enjoy that part. That’s a big part of who I am, too.”
After gambling on Midtown — almost nobody was then aware the still-gritty neighborhood had such a name — Clark and Cooper built a tapas-friendly wine list of roughly 300 bottles with a consumer-friendly pricing model nobody had seen before, in Houston anyway. With only rare exceptions would markups exceed twice their wholesale cost for a bottle. Industry folk, not to mention Clark’s and Cooper’s new landlords, thought that they were crazy, that they’d were risking being out of business in a year, if not months. Profits from alcohol sales, they were reminded, make or break a restaurant.
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Instead, they stubbornly launched a mini-revolution that similarly progressive thinkers like restaurateur Bill Floyd — first with Reef, now with Potente — and Chris Shepherd, who opened another Clark Cooper restaurant, the long-shuttered Catalan on Washington Ave. as the executive chef, happily copied with their own successful ventures.
Even many of restaurants that didn’t follow their lead, adjusted their thinking on pricing in various ways. Tony’s, for example, is currently touting a 75-wines-for-under-$75 special through the end of the summer.
With Ibiza, Clark and Cooper also arguably launched Midtown’s remarkable renaissance.
“When we got started, we were living in an apartment nearby,” said Cooper, the behind-the-scenes half of partnership/friendship. “There were crack houses all around us. Nobody was knocking on doors (to open a restaurant). This location was supposed to be just a breakfast-lunch place before we talked (the owners) out of that. We’ve seen a lot of changes. Twenty years is a long time.”
Brennan’s and Damian’s were already institutions on the Smith Street corridor, but that was it for destination restaurants between downtown and the Museum District. Today Ibiza could be the oldest fine-dining restaurant in all of Houston occupying its original spot with the same chef running the kitchen on a daily basis.
Clark laughs when he recalled how Ibiza offered Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon “for 50 bucks a bottle.” Most restaurants were getting at least three times as much for what was arguably the most popular, best-known go-to wine at the time. Clark and Cooper originally wanted to sell all of their wines “at retail,” but that proved problematic for a variety of reasons. Instead, the vast majority of their markups for current-release vintages have steadfastly remained between 60 and 100 percent of wholesale.
“When we were first kicking ideas around,” Clark said, “we’d ask ourselves, ‘Why do restaurants have to charge so much for wine?’ We knew instinctively that wine prices, those built-in 300-percent markups, were a rip-off. After (Ibiza) opened, we’d go to restaurants where our friends worked and, when they handed us the wine list, they’d apologize (for the prices).”
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The two met in 1987 while living in Dallas. Clark was working at, fittingly, at The Grape in Lower Greenville (it’s still there) and Cooper was behind the bar at a nearby ice house. They’d regularly convene after hours and bounce restaurant ideas off each other over cheap Rioja at Café Madrid (it’s still there, too), Dallas’ original Spanish restaurant and tapas bar. That’s where the thought of starting a restaurant with modest wine markups first germinated and it never went away — even as their own expendable incomes grew.
After Clark, who went on to graduate from culinary school, returned from cooking in Spain in the late 1990s, they wound up joining forces in Houston at Tosca, one of downtown’s two groundbreaking, generation-next restaurants, along with Solera, the Arturo Boada-Bill Sadler collaboration. But they left together in February 2000 determined to “open our own place in a year,” Cooper said. “You couldn’t do that today.”
“We put our blood, sweat and tears into Tosca, so it was hard to walk away,” Clark said. “But Grant and I wanted to be on our own.”
They needed a major investor to get Ibiza going, but they were able to buy him out only a few years later. Although Ibiza’s evening business sometimes might not as robust as it once was, waits for tables during lunch aren’t uncommon and the regular diners have stayed supremely loyal. Clark and Cooper are banking that the midday crowd will find The Dunlavy just as convenient. It’s about the same distance from the city’s center, albeit in a different direction.
Expect to see an Ibiza menu item or two there, but don’t go expecting Ibiza, both insisted.
“The Dunlavy is the Dunlavy, Cooper said. “It has its own spirit, just as Ibiza does. We’ll be changing the menu concept when we start doing dinner, but it’s still going to be California inspired.”
The Dunlavy, which has been open only for private events in the evening, will start serving dinner after the first of the year. A new lunch menu and a significantly expanded wine list will be part of the makeover.
“If I could stress one thing it’s that this is a tough decision to make,” Clark said of closing Ibiza. “We’ve been busy, and healthy (financially), our entire careers here. But our lease is ending and I just don’t want to sign on for another five or 10 years. I’d rather concentrate on our other restaurants (and) maybe start some cooking classes. It’s time to do other things.”
Note, however, that they’re not closing the door completely on “Ibiza morphing” — Cooper’s word — into a different entity elsewhere.
“It might be a café with 15 tables,” Clark said. “It might be a wine bar. It might have another name. It won’t be a carbon copy.”
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