Monica Pope’s Sparrow flies high
by Marene Gustin
Photo by Robyn Arouty
A lot of folks were shocked when celebrity chef Monica Pope shuttered her popular Midtown restaurant in August to transform it into something totally new and different.
But they shouldn’t have been.
The transformation of T’afia, and Pope herself, was actually brewing for a long time. “It all started five years ago,” says Pope. That’s when she parted from her partner of 15 years, Andrea Lazar. “I needed to push myself to get over that,” she says. “So I started the cooking classes, and that connection with people started it all.” Pope began to be open to change, and to new experiences and people.
Shortly after that, she appeared on Top Chef Masters Season 2 on Bravo—an adventure she says she wasn’t really thrilled with.
And then she met Josette “Josie” Edwards, a hospitality worker who hosted an event at T’afia.
Fast-forward three years, and we find Pope reinventing both her restaurant and herself.
Gone are the clogs, checkered chef pants, and striped apron. Gone is T’afia. In their place are jeans and a leather apron, the Sparrow Bar & Cookshop, and, oh, a silver James Avery ring on her finger.
“We’re going to get married legally in New York City,” says Pope, “where my sister lives. But then we’re going to have a wedding in Austin at the Hotel Saint Cecilia.” The boutique hotel is a favorite of the couple, and they plan to have the ceremony in the fall of next year, which Pope calls the year of the sparrow.
“We have a plan,” says Pope. “My daughter, Lili, is nine and a half now, and Josie and I have a 53-pound pit bull puppy. We also redid the house, and it just seemed time to redo the restaurant. I really thought T’afia would be my last restaurant—I really did. But in the end, the shoe stopped fitting me the way my clogs and chef’s clothes did.”
Pope started with The Quilted Toque, then followed up with the Montrose favorite Boulevard Bistro before opening T’afia ten years ago. She then added Beaver’s, an upscale barbeque joint in an old ice house on the Washington corridor.
But it was T’afia where she really spread her wings, promoting locally sourced food, adding a Saturday morning farmers market, community cooking classes, and gaining national attention for her global comfort food. But sometimes even the best of places comes to the end of its shelf life.
“There are some iconic restaurants,” admits Pope, “but sometimes even those close. For many years at T’afia we had the tasting menu and small plates, and for many years people were confused. With the cooking classes upstairs, I really began to feel connected to people—it was comfy and cozy, and I wanted to bring that feeling downstairs to the restaurant.”
So in August, she closed T’afia for two weeks and reopened the location as Sparrow Bar & Cookshop, an homage to the medieval cookshops that served travelers and locals who had no kitchens in their homes. It’s a sort of community gathering place to eat simple, flavorful foods prepared the way Pope would cook them in her own home.
The décor, too, has a very homey feel. Designed and installed by Jur can der Oord of Installationsantiques, it has a soft industrial look: a concrete floor, exposed orange brick walls, and reclaimed odds and ends like the antique columns from Paris, Texas, that support the rough-wood community table and the wait-service station made from a San Antonio antique butcher block. It’s all very comfortable and very tactile; you’ll want to run your hands across the woods and old metal. Small rusted tables are powder-coated and integrate wheels from old farm equipment.
And so much of the new restaurant is very personal, like the restrooms that offer emery boards and pocket combs and are labeled Liv and Todd (instead of Women and Men) for Edwards’ cats.
It is whimsical and charming, and it all works just wonderfully with Pope’s farm-to-fork food.
“A lot of it is the same food,” says Pope. “But it’s served and shared in a different way. We have twelve different appetizers at night, all under $20, that a table can share. And you can pick a protein and then share side dishes.”
The Double Deviled Quarantine Eggs are a hit, as is the Date with a Pig: a delicious date wrapped in bacon. But one of the most popular starters is the Chick Fries, made from chickpeas served with a red curry catsup. They are some of the best fries in town.
There are a lot of vegetarian dishes on the seasonal menu at Sparrow, including a shitake mushroom dumpling with blue cheese and a summer slaw of sour cherries, cayenne cashews, and miso dressing.
But there is also plenty for the meat lover here. Whole Black Sea bass in a lemon sauce, semi-boneless quail, and a flatiron steak with blossom butter. Add a few sides—say, the mac ’n’ cheese, crispy Brussels sprouts, or the wonderful yellow-corn grits with black-eyed peas—and you’ve got a great meal. And of course there are craft cocktails and a pretty extensive wine list you can choose from.
All in all, Sparrow seems to fly high; it’s simple, homey, comfortable, and tasty. And it seems to embody Pope’s new attitude of happiness and openness.
As the chef embarks on her impending marriage, in addition to turning fifty and completing her memoir/recipe book Eating Hope, she seems to be at a perfect place in her life. And Sparrow echoes that.
So, will Sparrow be her last restaurant concept?
“Dare I say?” she wonders. “If this lasts twenty years I’ll be seventy, so . . .
“I’m not really wired for more than one place. Houston is such a great food town, and people are starting to notice. There are so many great women chefs here. And we do have another concept in mind.”
At which point Edwards lays a hand on her arm and says, “Uh-uh, we’re not ready to talk about that yet.”
Apparently there may be more to come.
In the meantime, we’ll just enjoy the soaring Sparrow and wait for the next act.
Sparrow Bar & Cookshop
3701 Travis Street
713/524.6922 • sparrowhouston.com
Marene Gustin is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.