Standing: Wine director Bill Elsey, CEO Chris Pappas, corporate executive chef Michael Velardi, president Harris Pappas and executive chef Catarino Torres. Seated: Director of wine operations Jack Mason and executive wine director Robert Smith.
Tucked away in a back corner of Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston’s downtown is a walk-in cooler that is chef Catarino Torres’ pride and joy. This is where he dry-ages his steaks. Standing inside it recently, unfazed by the low humidity and the 31° F temperature, he points to rib eyes and New York strips that have been resting on racks for nearly a month, developing complex flavors. Then he points out some cuts of meat up top, visibly darker. These have been aged for more than 80 days. They’re for a special Burgundy-themed dinner the restaurant’s wine team is planning, and Catarino believes the steaks will match those wines perfectly. “It’s all about highlighting the wine here,” he says.
Pappas Bros. is a classic steak house. The interior features dark woods and marble counters, and a display case shows the cuts of meat available. The kitchen turns out traditional sides like creamed spinach, roasted mushrooms and au gratin potatoes to complement big steaks seasoned with salt, pepper and butter and broiled to perfection. Appetizers are generous and well-prepared, and seafood fans can expect fresh jumbo-lump crab cakes.
Open the wine list, however, and you’ll find something less conventional—3,700 selections from the world’s finest producers.
Keyed to the menu, the California Cabernet selection is popular thanks to verticals from labels including Bond, Colgin, Heitz and Lokoya. Bordeaux highlights take in Lafite Rothschild 1982 ($7,000), Margaux 1990 ($2,000) and Haut-Brion 1945 ($28,500).
The wine team has a passion for Pinot Noir, and it’s obvious in the tour of the Côte d’Or they have assembled, with wines such as Roumier Bonnes Mares 2014 ($1,495), Ponsot Clos de la Roche Grand Cru 2011 ($1,600) and 13 selections from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, including its Romanée-Conti 1994 ($15,000). And the love doesn’t stop in France—there are four pages of American Pinot Noirs and even a selection of Australian Pinot gems.
White-wine drinkers are not forgotten. There are 10 pages of white Burgundies, a plethora of Loire Valley choices and outstanding German Rieslings. It’s not unusual to see large-format bottles of Champagne being poured, and sparkling-wine fans can select from six pages of Champagne, including icons like Louis Roederer Cristal Brut 2005 ($500) and Chartogne-Taillet Chemin de Reims Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut ($125).
Yet along with the big names and hefty price tags, there are many wines under $100 and a knowledgeable staff ready to help you find value.
After a big meal and fantastic wine, the evening can continue as the team wheels out tempting nightcaps: A whiskey cart includes high-end Bourbons and single-malt Scotches, while a special Madeira cart is laden with 3-liter bottles. All of it adds up to a very special experience.
If the name Pappas Bros. sounds familiar, it might be because this is the third steak house the family has opened, as well as the third to win a Wine Spectator Grand Award. Pappas is one of the iconic names in Texas dining. H.D. Pappas arrived in America from Greece in 1897 and became a restaurateur. Today, his grandsons Chris and Harris own more than 80 eateries, ranging from Dot Coffee Shop to Pappas Bar-B-Q to Pappadeaux Seafood. (The brothers also are major players in Luby’s Inc., which owns Fuddruckers and Cheeseburger in Paradise.)
Their debut Pappas Bros. Steakhouse opened in Houston’s wealthy Galleria neighborhood in 1996 and won a Grand Award in 2010. A Dallas outpost matched that in 2011. This latest location in downtown Houston opened in 2015.
Why aim for the third award? Robert Smith, executive wine director for all three steak houses, explains that this location’s clientele, like the patrons of its sibling restaurants, is looking for a world-class wine program. Sitting in the heart of the business district, just five blocks from the convention center, it does a booming business in private dinners and lunches.
Assembling such a wine program clearly takes commitment. At one point, Smith and Don Vrba, Pappas’ concept leader for the steak houses, mentioned the cost of the wines to Harris Pappas. The boss told them to do what it took. “‘Don’t you worry about it,’ [Harris] said,” Vrba recalls. “‘You go get that wine.’ ” At the end of the day, it’s all about the wine.
Read the entire 2019 Restaurant Awards package, including the cover story, “Sharing the Table,” in the Aug. 31, 2019, issue of Wine Spectator.