Dean's Downtown Helps Fuel Houston's Downtown Revival
It can happen fast; vibrant nightlife areas become passed, shut down by enforcement or redefined by residential development. Often another chicer area develops and the crowds simply relocate. Sometimes an underdeveloped area rifed with high crime rates, bad transportation or off the beaten path becomes a destination for customers seeking "the new".
Houston is a big city, boasting the fourth largest population in the USA with a developing downtown nightlife scene. Bobby Stark, an ex-DJ, along with partners Bob Diego and Grace Rodriguez have taken over a 1893 building and have joined the downtown revival. Dean's Downtown opened November 14 and is quickly making its mark. I caught up with my old friend Bobby Stark and asked him to tell us all about it.
Tell us about the history of Dean's Downtown.
The Deans building was originally built in 1893; it was Kiam building and it was built as a department store. When it opened it was the most electrified building in the country and back then that meant DC power. Over the last 120 years it was two different department stores, clothing and shoe stores - It still houses the third oldest electric elevator in the country. In 1999 it was turned into bar called Dean's credit clothing and lasted four or five years until it became Deans on Main. We took the space over in the summer and are calling it Dean's Downtown.
How did you redo the space?
That was a fun project because the building has so much history. We did a lot of reclaimed woods and reclaimed furniture. We got lucky and found 100 year old timbers from the Saint Arnold Brewery building and turned those into the 30 foot long bar top. The liquor display is made up of old wooden crates and we have the oldest electric elevator in Texas (3rd oldest in the country) and turned it into a private conversation room. We have a library area that has a few of the original ledgers from when it was a credit clothing store; it also has a smoked crystal chandelier. My partners Bob Diego and Grace Rodriguez and I wanted to create a sexy lounge that pays homage to the space and to Houston.
Tell me about the revitalization of the area?
Fifteen years ago Downtown Houston had a vibrant nightlife scene mostly clubs with a few bars/restaurants. But about five or six years ago, almost all the bars/clubs/restaurants started to close down and the few that stayed open had a small and very young crowd. It was kind-of a ghost town for a while. Then about a year and a half ago, a new breed of great restaurants and bars started opening all within two blocks of one another, Original OKRA Charity Saloon (is bar that donates their profits to local charities), Goro & Gun (one of the city's best noodle houses), Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bear (a craft cocktail bar with a great patio that overlooks main street), Batanga (a great Latin American tapas restaurant), Pastry War (a very well done mezcal/tequila bar), Little Dipper (A cool bar) Clutch City Squire (a nice chill bar with a dance room upstairs) and soon to be open are Trigger Happy, El Big Bad, and a Coffee/Cocktail bar. It's great for Houston to have all these amazing bar/restaurants within a two block area; it's making nightlife much better.
You were a highly successful promoter in NYC. How did that experience translate to Houston?
I learned a lot promoting in NYC but the biggest lesson I learned was the power of networking to different groups! Another lesson was don't do mass marketing it kills your rep.
Houston is a big city. What is unique about the market and what is the same?
Houston's great and it's maturing as a city, it's getting better every year. Fifteen years ago it was way too car centric but now there are a lot more walkable areas and a light rail that’s starting to feel more like NYC where you take the subway to work, shop or meet friends for a drink - You're starting to see that here. NYC is the finance and fashion capital of the world and Houston is the energy and medical/medical tech capital. Also downtown Houston has the largest theater district outside of NYC. NYC is more fashion forward than Houston but it's catching up. For nightlife a big difference is that Houston does not do the celebrity doorman or follow promoters in the way people in NYC do. Moving here from NYC you have to learn that and adjust.
What music do you play and on what sound system?
Since we are a lounge we needed to have you hear the music but still have a conversation. Therefore, 8 JBL Control 29's and a Crown amp since it's only a 2,000 square feet space are used. This allowed us tons of head room on the sound system so you get a nice clean sound but you can still talk.
My take on music for Dean’s is to play good music regardless of how old it is. So we play everything from the Doors, to Marvin Gaye to LCD Sound System and MGMT it makes for a very cool vibe.
Talk about the reopening and the branding.
The rebranding of Dean’s is a little harder than just opening up and branding a new lounge - We kept the name Dean’s because of the historical aspect. We are calling it Deans Downtown (the outside still has the Deans neon sign from the 50's). Deans has been a bar since the late 90's and the last few years have been pretty run down. So some people still think it's going to look like it did the last few years. When people come in now it’s definitely a new Dean’s; it's a beautiful space with excellent cocktails. Our cocktail program is put together by Chris Morris, a former wine sommelier at Pass and Provision; we definitely have some tasty beverages.
Tell us about your background and philosophy about nightlife.
I started out as a DJ in Charleston, SC back when you carried crates of records to your gigs. As a DJ I had residencies in Dallas, Atlanta and Chicago - In the late 80's I opened Level 5 in Dallas and did the Tower Theater in Houston. In 1990 I started throwing parties in Miami at the Cameo and at The Roxy, Palladium and the Building in NY. In the late 90's I opened Spy and the Hub in Houston. The last few years I have produced some great websites (Checkoutmyink.com, Lyricsnmusic.com and SongCrate.com) and jumped back into the nightlife business when Dean's became available because it was such a great space to work with.
I think being a DJ gives you a great perspective on the nightlife business. It really boils down to one word... Fun and as a DJ you learn that. But fun can mean different things to different people on different days or different times in their lives. To some people fun means being at club with a massive sound system and an intense light show, to others it means getting a perfectly crafted cocktail in a nice environment with friends, good music and meeting new people and to others it's sitting on a picnic table with a cold pint. No matter what nightlife concept you're doing you should create the vibe to allow the customer to have fun in their own way.