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Though she's been a fixture on Houston's foodie scene for two decades, written a memoir with recipes called Eating Hope, and competed on Top Chef Masters in 2010, Monica Pope admits she didn't know what her next venture would look like when she closed her still-popular restaurant T'afia.
"I had to let it die," Pope, a James Beard Award nominee, says of closing T'afia last summer. A new perspective on dining inspired her to open Sparrow Bar + Cookshop (3701 Travis, Houston; SparrowHouston.com) in its place -- at the same address, to be specific. "I'm trying to make the food more flexible and sharable." That approach has led to a revamped menu of crafted cocktails and a menu updated daily based on the best of local producers' fare.
Eating at a restaurant that has a clear ethos about food can be a bit of a chore. Though there's a solid locavore and farm-to-table ethos at work at Sparrow, there's never even the subtlest hint of a lecture about the food you're eating when you're not here. The chickpea fries, venison, grits, mac and cheese, rabbit tenderloin, or seared scallops, prepared with Southern, Mediterranean, and African spices and techniques, all make convincing arguments for themselves. Most menu items are under $20, and the reservation books have been nearly full since the restaurant opened in August.
The dining room, with its wood, iron, and distressed brick decor and industrial furnishings, has a comfortable patina, as if Sparrow had ever been thus. The tables are made from repurposed farm equipment, and the large slab of wood counter in the open kitchen is a century old.
Customers who come into the bar area for a cocktail and some shared nibbles often end up staying much longer than they had planned -- and that's another part of Pope's ethos.
"Why wouldn't I want to make a place where people want to stay all evening?" she asks.