Feature

17 OG Servers to Know in Houston

By Ellie Sharp  |  January 31, 2017
Credit: Ellie Sharp

Aside from the host or hostess, a server is the first impression most diners have during their meal and a critical link in the chain of an overall positive — or negative — experience. Fortunately, Houston is loaded with folks who live and breathe hospitality and who show up to work every day with the sole intent of serving those in their care, be they first-time guests or decades-long regulars. Here, meet a handful of Houston's best in the business.

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  • Credit: Ellie Sharp

    Gerard Thibodeaux at Rosie Carrabba's
    ​A series of restaurant jobs around the country and a stint in human relations lead Thibodeaux, a native of nearby Victoria, to Houston where he visited Carrabba's, home of classic Italian-American cuisine, to dine. "That was it," he says. He's been here for 21 years, noting that his original plan was to stay for one. He's watched families grow up (serving four generations of some) and becoming close friends with others. An avid sports fan (Astros baseball and Aggie football), he travels the country visiting major league stadiums and has been to so many it's now easier to count the ones still on his list. Cooking is another passion, which he got from his mother, and he taught the staff at sister restaurant Grace's how to make the étouffée on its menu.
    Secret to success: ​Thibodeaux has a few secrets, including anticipating his guests needs and "remembering [for them] because they forget what they want." He's also a believer in the Golden Rule and an astute observer. "It's timing. You don't want to rush it, but at the same time you don't want them to wait. You want to visit with the ones who want to visit and leave the ones alone who don't want to visit."
    Insider tip: "My favorite dish is spaghetti and meat sauce because it's like my mom used to make it — it's almost the exact same recipe, same flavor," he says, but that doesn't mean you can't get creative. "As long as we have the ingredients in the house we'll do it for you." 

    1399 S. Voss Rd.; 713-468-0868

  • Credit: Ellie Sharp

    Lisa McCoy at Underbelly
    A native of Memphis, McCoy has worked at farm-to-table restaurant Underbelly since opening day in January 2012, and her passion for food and travel takes her across the globe to places like Vietnam (she is half Vietnamese). Outside of work she takes to her own kitchen, whipping up dishes inspired by ingredients at the farmer's market.
    Secret to success: "I am the best salesman when I believe in what I'm selling. Underbelly’s philosophy — supporting local farmers, respect for the animal, quality ingredients — is how I approach food at home."
    Insider tip: "My favorite way to take care of a table is to order for them. I order what I’d want to eat if I were dining in the restaurant that night (since it changes nightly, it’s always different)."

    1100 Westheimer Rd.; 713-528-9800

  • Credit: Courtesy of Pappas Bros. Steakhouse

    Eduardo Alonso at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse
    A team approach to quality, hospitality and service form the basis for Alonso's loyalty to the steakhouse where he has served patrons since 1995 when he began as a busboy. "Having the chance to be a part of this makes every day, for me, sincerely wonderful," he says.
    Secret to success: "My secret to success is that after 22 years I have never been late to work. If I'm not at the restaurant 20 minutes early from the time I need to be, I consider myself late. Motivation is an important part of being successful, and what motivates me is being happy, friendly and helpful every single day."
    Insider tip: "My go-to dish at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse has to be the bone-in prime rib-eye. It's my absolute favorite."

    5839 Westheimer Rd.; 713-780-7352

  • Credit: Ellie Sharp

    Jim Laine at Rainbow Lodge
    Though Laine has worked as a general manager, staff trainer and even as a limited partner in five restaurants, his true calling is as a server. "When I was in college I told my parents, ‘I really love this,’ and they said, ‘go ahead and do it!’ I was really shy when I started serving but I have shed that over the years.” He first worked at Rainbow Lodge, popular for its upscale wild game menu, during the 1980s when it was still under original ownership, and returned in 2006 after spending some time in Austin. His regulars appreciate his playful let professional approach to service and his attention to detail. 
    Secret to success: "I think it is huge to really anticipate a customer’s expectations. Some people come into a restaurant and they have set the bar really high, and you can sort of sense that and you need to evaluate — you can do this with the first few sentences."
    Insider tip: "Chef Mark [Schmidt]’s buffalo tenderloin is my favorite dish — it is tender enough to cut with a fork, just incredible.” 

    2011 Ella Blvd.; 713-861-8666

  • Credit: Ellie Sharp

    Michael Khatib at B&B Butchers
    Khatib began his career as a 14-year-old dishwasher and later fish scaler at a small seafood restaurant in Israel where he worked through college. After moving to Houston in 1986, he was on opening teams for restaurants from the Cordua family, Lynn Steakhouse (1998–2004), John George (2004–2011) and Triniti (2011–2015). He joined American steakhouse B&B a month before it opened in May 2015, and he still serves regular guests he's known since his days at Lynn and John George. With nearly 40 years in the industry, he's as content as ever saying, "It's such a fun business — time is not a problem. You go to work, you get out of work and you don't even know how these eight hours went by."
    Secret to success: "The first impression, the first few seconds, the way you greet a guest, this is when they feel how genuine you are — just welcoming them, offering them a cocktail, letting them get comfortable, talk to them about the menu, giving them some time and not being pushy. Giving them a chance to get to know you and just relax."
    Insider tip: "I love meat, and the fact that this is not your average steakhouse. We have very good Chilean sea bass with lobster cream sauce. I love the Carpetbagger oysters and Tommy's bacon. It's hard to decide on a favorite because everything is amazing." 

    1814 Washington Ave.; 713-862-1814

  • Credit: Clark Cooper Concepts

    Todd Stardig at Ibiza
    The Spanish restaurant opened 15 years ago, and Stardig has been part of its existence for more than 14 of those years. He was formerly at longtime local institution Ruggles and counts dishwashing, busboy and management among his many hospitality credits. His regular guests might be surprised to learn his proficiency at pool volleyball, a favorite pastime. 
    Secret to success: "People are coming to Ibiza for an experience, and I give it to them. Mainly I like to give them the experience by humor, and I'm booked almost every day. It is important to get to know your guests and that will make all the difference."
    Insider tip: “Add samba chile and olive on our pizzas, whether it is the fresh mozzarella pizza, the burrata and Italian sausage pizza or the local goat cheese and portobello."

    2450 Louisiana St.; 713-524-0004

  • Credit: Ellie Sharp

    Gabriela Santamaria at Hugo's
    A part of the team since opening day, Santamaria has gained a cadre of regular guests who love her easygoing manner and knowledge about the dishes she serves — she's at home in the Mexican restaurant and knows the menu by heart. Her natural hospitality extends to those less fortunate in the community whom she volunteers to help, and in her spare time she loves to cook and paint.
    Secret to success: "I like to approach customers like family, as like if I already know them. I ask questions — is it their first time? What are they in the mood for? etc."
    Insider tip: Chiles rellenos and mole with vegetables

    1600 Westheimer Rd.; 713-524-7744

  • Credit: Ellie Sharp

    Juan Leal at Damian's Cucina Italiana
    On his first day on the job at the Italian-American establishment, Leal was awed that two servers had already worked there for six years — and that was 28 years ago. He credits his longevity to the quality of the restaurant and people with whom he works.
    Secret to success: "I treat customers the way I would like to be treated and see customers as my family."
    Insider tip: "My favorite dish is our spaghetti carbonara — it is not as rich as most carbonaras you have at other restaurants." He adds that Damian's offers complimentary shuttle service to and from the theater district.

    3011 Smith St.; 713-522-0439

  • Credit: Paula Murphy

    Kathy Brophy at Prego
    ​After nearly 21 years at Italian cafe Prego, Brophy has many regulars and knows nearly everyone who walks through the door; she also heads up the restaurant's catering department. Take a seat at the bar and you're likely to swap fishing stories — she heads to South Padre Island every chance she gets. 
    Secret to success: "When a customer says, 'Can you do this for me?' I say, 'I would love to do that for you' and I mean it. I want to make our customers happy," she says. "We get a lot of people from the medical center, many who go for follow-ups at MD Anderson, for instance, and they love to come in and give me the update, whether good or bad, and they know we can talk and laugh, and hopefully, celebrate good news."
    Insider tip: "I always recommend chef John [Watt]'s housemade ravioli and any of the snapper dishes. Delicious!"

    2520 Amherst St.; 713-529-2420

  • Credit: James Heard

    Eduardo Lopez at Caracol
    Lopez may only have two years of experience at one of the most reputable restaurant groups in town, but he's certainly made the most of it. Find him at this hot spot for coastal Mexican cuisine while he prepares for his level two sommelier exam this August.
    Secret to success: "My success is determined by how people appreciate the details I do for them. I never expect anything in return. The best service is the one that you are always anticipating their needs. That little extra from everybody is what makes people leave with a wonderful experience.”
    Insider tip: "Our chef has worked so hard to provide us with the best menu in town, with amazing food from start to finish, especially our wood-roasted oysters, moving on with our whole snapper, and finishing off with our specialty dessert El Coco." 

    2200 Post Oak Blvd.; 713-622-9996

  • Credit: Paula Murphy

    Thai Van at Kata Robata
    ​Van has lit up the room with his gracious smile and warm personality with the Azuma Group for 12 years (starting first at Azuma Sushi & Robata Bar on Kirby). He's been at Kata Robata for four-plus years. Diners love his easygoing personality and his ability to relate.
    Secret to success: "I think building rapport with a guest is key, whether they are a new guest or a regular," he says. "People will come to a place when the food is good, [but] what will definitely bring them back is great service. Being able to provide a level of closeness with a guest, knowing when they arrive what they like or don’t like, is important." 
    Insider tip: "Best dish is the Hawaiian amberjack with foie gras — a standout.  Very balanced — has flavor, texture and something different. Always make a reservation, and come with an open mind."

    3600 Kirby Dr.; 713-526-8858

  • Credit: Ellie Sharp

    Nelson "Efren" Herrera at Backstreet Cafe
    Herrera, head waiter and captain at special events, has spent 16 years at the American-leaning restaurant. He's friendly with owners Tracy Vaught and her husband Hugo Ortega, biking with Ortega on the rare shared days off. Herrera helped Ortega open his namesake restaurant Hugo's in 2002 before returning to Backstreet. He's also passed down his love for the company to his son, who now works at the restaurant part-time.
    Secret to success: "[Just] like any other job, you really need to have passion for what you are doing. I believe it's a key point in any type of activity to reach success. If you have fun and enjoy what you're doing, everything is better." 
    Insider tip: "Two of my favorites dishes are the pecan crusted chicken and red corn chicken enchiladas as they are some of the traditional plates in the restaurant."

    1103 S. Shepherd Dr.; 713-521-2239

  • Credit: Courtesy of The Palm

    Justino "Tino" Arroyo at The Palm
    Three generations of guests have enjoyed the hospitality of Arroyo, a native of Spain, who joined the Palm steak and seafood family in 1981 (the Houston location opened in 1978). He's also the artist behind the caricatures of prominent local citizens on the walls.
    Secret to success: Arroyo credits an easygoing attitude and ability to work with every guest — even if they are disgruntled — as key to maintaining a positive experience for diners. He turns on the "old-school" charm at every opportunity.
    Insider tip: "I know everyone considers us a steakhouse, but our Italian dishes are some of the best in the country. My favorite dish would be our veal parmigiana with a side of spaghetti Bolognese."

    6100 Westheimer Rd.; 713-977-2544

  • Credit: Courtesy of Añejo

    Alejandro Alisirat at Añejo
    ​What Alisirat lacks in history at uspcale Tex-Mex concept Añejo, he makes up for as server and resident "tequila sommelier." A family background in cooking, along with a personal love of sharing food with friends and loved ones, inspired him to join the hospitality industry.
    Secret to success: “Never forget to smile. Our customers enjoy when I take a personal approach to every experience they have here. I treat customers with respect, and want every customer to have a fun experience while they are at Añejo. It also helps when you remember who they are, and what they like."
    Insider tip: “My favorite dish at Añejo is chef Beto [Gutiérrez]’s fresh red snapper ceviche. It’s a good start to the main course. When people come to Añejo, they might be surprised by the number of tequilas available. We have over 100 tequilas and mezcals making it one of the best selections in Houston."

    1180-1 Uptown Park Blvd.; 713-963-9032

  • Credit: Ellie Sharp

    Steven Mendoza at Uchi
    ​Several years ago Mendoza and his wife put their 80-hour weeks on hold, purchased one-way tickets to Bangkok and traveled around Southeast Asia, the Mediterranean and Europe. Once they returned, Mendoza found his way to upscale Japanese restaurant Uchi, where he has worked for more than two years. His 20 years of Houston hospitality experience range from busboy to general manager and covers a range of corporate and casual dining outlets. He and his wife are also strong supports of community arts and education foundations.
    Secret to success: "Know the food and beverage inside and out, but also know about other restaurants in other cities, our ‘peers’ if you will. History and origin of ingredients. Techniques and cooking methods. Mechanics and doing the same thing the same way so you don’t have to think about it," he says. "Whatever they want we should be able to guide them through the kitchen of Uchi, one bite at a time."
    Insider tip: "A lot of guests think of Uchi as a ‘sushi’ restaurant, and we are, but the attention to the quality and detail is the same to all food. We are a restaurant that executes the raw, the cooked, the vegetarian all very well. You could come in and eat no sushi and be blown away with the flavors."

    904 Westheimer Rd.; 713-522-4808

  • Credit: Ellie Sharp

    Bonnie Garcia at Kenny & Ziggy's (Post Oak)
    ​Garcia's bubbly personality and gracious approach to service keeps regulars coming back to the New York–style delicatessen year after year — 17 to be exact. 
    Secret to success: "To me, it’s about personality: Be friendly, be kind, love people. It’s important to read the people, make sure they are comfortable, acknowledge them when they arrive. I’ve been in the business for 49 years, done it all my life. I just love the people."
    Insider tip: "I like the breakfast items the best, love the eggs Benedict."

    2327 Post Oak Blvd.; 713-871-8883

  • Credit: Courtesy of Taverna

    Jassmine Blair-Foster at Taverna
    Blair-Foster has been a fixture at this Italian restaurant since it opened in 2016, and she's one of Taverna's most requested servers. Her 13 years of experience in hospitality comes by way of her hometown of Minneapolis where she worked for a range of concepts including sports bars, a sushi/steakhouse and Italian restaurants. Traveling and cooking are personal passions, and she hopes to open her own catering/food truck concept one day.
    Secret to success: "My approach to customer service is simply to treat others the way I wish to be treated. I genuinely like to interact with people." 
    Insider tip: "I think something that newcomers need to know is we make our pastas, pizza dough and all our sauces from scratch." She recommends burrata salad with house-sliced prosciutto, the risotto al frutti di mare and the salmone ai capperi limone.

    4444 Westheimer Rd.; 713-871-0902