Date of visit: 01/10/2009

Location: Houston

This is truly a legendary Houston establishment. Written up in countless food magazines, Cafe Annie is the Houston epitome of upscale Southwestern cuisine, a mainstay and must-go institution established in the 80s that gave birth to the wood fired, chicken fried menu with a touch of BBQ and Hispanic influences. The only problem is that these days, those flavors seem tired and worn not innovative, fresh, or new. Sure, I like a good wood-fired chop, but is it a really something I should be paying a premium for?

Perhaps what I’m paying a premium for here is the atmosphere. One of the first things you notice upon entering is that the expansive room, with a lowered first floor and a second tier that encircles the first, seems designed for the “see and be seen” set. From every seat in the house you can see everyone. This would be great – if I knew who to look for. I wonder how many of the Houston upper crust were there that night that I missed? Judging by the gorgeous cars in the parking lot, quite a few. We didn’t valet because we forgot to bring cash that night but perhaps doing so would have helped with the service. Then again, the only car given a “money” spot that night was a Maserati.

Ah, the service. The only restaurant at this price point at which I’ve had worse service is the now defunct Anthony’s on Kirby, back in my poor college days, for my one year anniversary with Matt. That was truly terrible service, and I won’t put Cafe Annie in that category – a restaurant which makes one feel poor and terrible to be there. If I had known better I would have left. No, at Cafe Annie, we were greeted with friendliness, and shown graciously to our table. It was after this that things began to go downhill.

After a very long perusal of the menu, I began to wonder if our server had forgotten about us, when he reappeared and asked if we were ready to order. Since restaurants of this caliber (heck, I went to a restaurant called Fish House the other day, and they had a fish of the day) usually have off the menu items, I inquired about them, but was told they were all out. From that point on, we had to ask for everything except refills of water. We had to ask for more butter for our bread, for the wine list, for the wine we ordered to be brought out. Is it some kind of custom/politeness issue I don’t understand for the lady not to be asked if she has finished her meal? Because they came by and asked Matt twice, and left each time although I tried to get their attention to tell them I was done and would like my plate removed. Perhaps it’s a custom I’ve never experienced before that the dishes stay on the table until the gentleman is finished.

In any case, the icing on the cake (ironically) was perhaps the dessert. Which is a shame, because the dessert was the best part of the meal. I ordered coffee, and since I’d had to ask for pretty much everything all meal, I asked for a refill. I guess it was supremely silly of me to assume that in a restaurant like this, my second cup of coffee would be considered a refill – since they charged me for two coffees. The most confusing thing was that after the check arrived, a (different – wow, this one actually offered something) busboy arrived, and asked if I would like more coffee. Would they have amended the check after to add a third coffee to the check or was the second coffee an error? I was flabbergasted.

At this point it was so late in the evening there were not very many other people in the restaurant. We are always ready to pay as soon as the check arrives, and had the credit card ready to go. Now, we weren’t in a huge rush to leave, but it probably took them a good 20 minutes or so to pick up the check. Several times they walked past the table and ignored the billfold, standing there, while we had no more food or drink at our table.

The food was not good enough to save the mediocre service. At these prices, I expect dedicated waitstaff who are gracious and attentive and alert to the needs of the table. My benchmark for this kind of thing is Da Marco, where the servers seem to swoop in unobtrusively just when you need them to, to answer questions, take orders, clear dishes, or bring food, and leave just as quietly. They are practically invisible, but always there.

One good takeaway was the ceviche which I ordered as an appetizer off of the Bar Annie menu. The amount of food I got was easily twice the amount Matt (who ordered off the normal menu) got, and tastier, too. I would come back and try Bar Annie- though it was packed to the gills last night.

Recommended: Fish ceviche, Lamb Chops (though medium is rare here), Caramel Custard is amazing but accompanying churros are so-so. Better churros have been had from my neighborhood Mexican El Bolillo.

Price: Just under $200 for two, though we did stint on the tip a bit, with 2 drinks.

Food – 2/5 bacon slices. Seriously, the food is not that interesting or innovative.
Atmosphere -1/5 bacon slices. The building is nice, but service is inattentive.
Miscellany – Go if you’re known in town.