In the end, says James Silk, "There were not enough people coming through the doors on a regular basis." So last week, after much soul-searching, Silk, his wife Meagan Silk and co-chef-owner Richard Knight dropped the bombshell on Twitter: Houston's influential nose-to-tail restaurant, Feast , will be closing in August 2013 when their five-year-lease is up.
It's a sad development for the Houston dining scene, where Silk and Knight played a big role in ushering diners toward locally pastured and humanely raised meats that went beyond the usual polite cuts of beef, chicken and pork. They were among the first chefs to play with the wilder specimens of Gulf bycatch brought to their back door by fishmonger to the stars P. J. Stoops. And their archival bent as chefs, raiding the memory chest of British recipes they grew up with or researched, marked their restaurant as something out of the ordinary, too.
There was nothing like Feast and its daily-changing menus in town when it first opened its doors on Lower Westheimer in March, 2008. Even nationally, the restaurant was ahead of the nose-to-tail curve, and when I coaxed in Pete Wells, then the editor of the New York Times dining section, he loved it, too. He sent along then-Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni, who gave it a place on his wrap-up of the year's best new restaurants in America.
There ought to be a fairy tale ending to this narrative arc, right? But if there is one — which is in serious doubt — it hasn't been written yet.
The Silks and Knight have no real plans to open another restaurant or even to stay in the industry. Meagan, a passionate animal lover, talks wistfully about opening a kennel. "Get jobs," is the program, according to James Silk.
Knight will stay in Houston, where his children live. The Silks have thought about returning to England, where Silk has family, but even that seems out of reach right now: it would cost too much to transport their household overseas, says Meagan. They're simply hoping that the next 9 months before they close will bring in enough revenue that they aren't left with a lot of bills to pay.
That's been the rub all along: despite excellent reviews and national notice, keeping Feast open has been a struggle. The trio opened the restaurant on a prayer and a credit card, basically, with no backers. An ill-fated attempt to open a branch in New Orleans in 2010 made things even tighter. "We survive," says James Silk, "but it's by the skin of our teeth."
About three months ago, he says, he and Knight were standing in the kitchen at the restaurant when "Richard looked at me and said, 'This is going to kill us.'" Explains Meagan Silk, "we weren't consistently busy enough for it not to be a continual stress and worry for us. None of us had it in us to tackle another five years once the lease was up."
Last week, taking stock of an October and November "that was very quiet for us again," says James Silk, the trio felt it was time to make an announcement. They weren't sure when to do it, but looking at a reservations book that showed only 11 covers for Saturday night, they let the news out on Twitter — and ended up having good weekend business.
Irony? Sure. The social-media lamentations over the closure announcement came from top local chefs and diners alike, and James Silk couldn't help noticing that some of the stricken parties hadn't been into Feast for years.
As vivid and satisfying as the food was at Feast, why didn't it stay full? I think in large part it was because the restaurant challenged diners with pickled lamb's tongue or salad of Gulf ray and lentils instead of soothing them with the familiar. Silk and Knight never dumbed down their vision or played to the crowd with a burger or a beefsteak or a Caesar salad.
I always shared Knight and Silk's hope that "there would be space in Houston for someone to do things a bit different," but I am left wondering, now — looking around at the success of similarly idiosyncratic and challenging newcomers like Oxheart and Underbelly — if Feast wasn't a little ahead of its time. Certainly Silk and Knight's work has inspired some of the young Houston chefs who are now making a splash on the national scene.
"If we'd had someone with money backing us," says James Silk ruefully, "we probably would be selling pizza by now, because otherwise they'd have pulled the plug."
As it is, says Silk, "We're open to ideas from anyone. Nothing is off the table."
Except their wonderfully individualistic food, for the next 9 months, anyway. During that interval I hope to devour my share of chicken-skin cracklings, bubble and squeak, or pulled pork salad with marinated red cabbage, capers and parsley, interspersed with crisp bits of pork skin.
I'll need several last orders of Exmoor Toasts, for sure, each finger of crisped bread mounted with thick clotted cream and a briny anchovy. The ecstatic moment I tasted that improbable combination of ingredients will stay with me long after Feast has closed its doors on this particular chapter of Houston dining history.
Feast, 219 Westheimer, 713-529-7788. Dinner Monday — Saturday 5 p.m. — 10 p.m.; Sunday 5 p.m. — 9 p.m.