EVER SINCE AUGUSTUS ALLEN GIFTED HOUSTON WITH MARKET SQUARE PARK IN 1854, it has been a community gathering point for the city. In recent years, a surge of interest in historic renovation cropped up downtown, and a redesigned Market Square Park opened to the public in 2010. Nestled in the center of the Historic District, the refurbished park now serves as an anchor to the neighborhood’s thriving historic bar and restaurant scene.
"Things are just blowing up here, so it’s great for us to be a resident bar," says Kendall Wuthrich, sales and marketing manager for Hearsay Gastro Lounge. "We’re in the second oldest building in the area and we’ve added a lot of funky little details to the space, like wristwatches embedded in the brick."
Hearsay Gastro Lounge was one of the first new restaurants to open in the Historic District in 2009. Housed in the W.L. Foley Building, the space was once used as a Confederate Armory during the Civil War. The exposed brick and open interior highlights an impressively high ceiling that stands three stories above seating level. The restaurant is known for its upscale pub fare and extensive cocktail offerings. It’s also known for the massive antique crystal chandelier above the dining area.
The attention to detail in mixing historic and modern décor has made Hearsay a popular destination in the Historic District. The restaurant has an open loft that’s frequently rented out for corporate parties and private events. The loft seats 36 to 40 people, but happy hour and reception events can accommodate more guests. "We’ve seen a growing interest for business lunches in the afternoon," Wuthrich says. "We have a projector screen for presentations and the loft is eye level with the chandelier."
Across the street from Hearsay is Batanga Tapas + Drinks. Located in the shade of the 65-foot-tall Market Clock Tower, Batanga has the largest outdoor patio in downtown Houston.
"We saw this location and the building was practically gutted, but it had this beautiful patio," says co-owner Ianne Fasthoff. "We remodeled the entire space to accommodate all kinds of events."
Ianne and her husband, Brian Fasthoff, were experienced restaurateurs in Atlanta, but their family in Houston had them thinking about expanding to the Bayou City. "One day, Brian was looking at an aerial map of downtown, and he saw a patch of green off Congress Street. He said, ‘Babe, what’s this place?’ It turned out to be Market Square."
The couple came for a visit and fell in love with the historic buildings in the neighborhood. The building they chose was once a saloon in the 1880s.
"We’ve been really impressed with the area," she says. "The energy, the vibe, it’s really one of a kind. The historic feel is here, but it’s also mixed with all the modern architecture downtown, so it’s eclectic. It isn’t really a tourist spot; it’s more of a business spot. You’ve got the oil and gas and energy industries … so it’s important to have this little oasis. We try to give people a feel for the ambiance of Latin American culture and food."
The space feels intimate despite about 9,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space and seating for up to 220 guests. Large doors open from the main dining area to the gated patio, so there is flexibility in using the space. "We’re a family-owned restaurant, so we have a lot of leeway with what we do," she says. "We’ve brought in cigar rollers, concept cars, whiskey and liquor tastings. We can tent the outside and we’ve got all the equipment to do outdoor and indoor projections. We do everything."
Even though Batanga is a tapas (small plates) restaurant, everything is generously Texas-sized. In addition to a full roasted pig supper every Sunday, there’s a 30-foot bar to accommodate the crowds that gather to hear live music performed on Batanga’s indoor stage.
For something a little more private, Sambuca Restaurant’s catering department manages the Crystal Ballroom and the Empire Room in the historic Rice Hotel.
The location is about a block away from Market Square, but the building is one of the most storied in Houston. History buffs know the Rice Hotel as the last place President Kennedy stayed before he went to Dallas in November 1963.
The building isn’t a hotel anymore, but it has been fully restored to its original 1913 design. The Crystal Ballroom seats 350 with a dance floor and 400 without, while the Empire Room can hold receptions for 120 with a private serving bar. Both rooms recently underwent a multimedia upgrade, so they’re equipped for presentations.
"People see our space set up for a convention or a gala and that’s how they think of us, but we also do a lot of corporate happy hours in the Empire Room with 50 or so people," says Paula Foreman, director of sales for Sambuca Catering. "A two-hour event there is very common, and we provide more privacy than an open restaurant."
"We’ve been doing events for a long time, so we like to do things a little different," says Foreman. "We’ve had a trapeze artist in here. We’ve had girls on stilts pouring champagne. We do a New Year’s Eve blowout for 1,200 people every year. My goodness, we’ve had boxing matches! There’s very little we haven’t done."