Lucille's restaurant marks 10-year anniversary in Houston

On Aug. 27, 2012, Lucille's opened its doors in the Museum District, serving Southern cuisine with European influences from chef-owner Chris Williams' time cooking abroad. The Houston restaurant was practically cobbled together by Williams and his team, yet despite rough beginnings and some rocky moments, it is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this weekend.

Lucille's has evolved into the larger Lucille's Hospitality Group, formed last year to incorporate new and upcoming projects, including the soon-to-open Late August restaurant helmed by "Top Chef" finalist Dawn Burrell. Williams also founded a nonprofit, Lucille's 1913, that began by feeding seniors during the COVID-19 pandemic and has expanded its scope since.

Chris Williams has long been the face of Lucille's to the outside world, but in conversation he's quick to mention his chef de cuisine Khang Hoang, who has been by his side for a decade and has taken over day-to-day operations at Lucille's as Williams focuses on the bigger picture of the hospitality group and the nonprofit.

While in Canada running their brand-new restaurant Emile's Black Point Bistro, Williams and Hoang sat down between two services for a candid conversation about the highs and lows of Lucille's.

The shrimp and grits at Lucille's is one of three dishes that has stayed the same since the restaurant opened 10 years ago.

James Nielsen/Staff

On humble beginnings

While renovating the bungalow on La Branch Street, Williams and his team worked catering gigs to finance the restaurant. They did so for local hospitals and eventually big clients like ExxonMobil in Baytown. Williams remembers buying cheap equipment and turning a space he rented into a makeshift kitchen—the old stove would shock him if he wasn't wearing rubber gloves.

Williams and Hoang did this for two years, saving all of the money to build out Lucille's. One day in June 2012, Williams said: "It's now or never, we gotta go." They had $2,000 left in the bank when they finally opened in August.

Chris Williams talks to his guests at Lucille's restaurant in June 2020.

Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

On the first days of service

"So we did a 'friends and family,' but we charged all our friends and family, and they were upset about it," said Williams about the event that serves as a rehearsal for a new restaurant, which is typically free for guinea-pig guests.

The restaurant was packed. They wrote out the menu but Williams doesn't recall really practicing any of the dishes. They began cooking and were figuring out how dishes were supposed to look as they were plating them.

"We know a little bit more about opening a restaurant now than we did 10 years ago," Hoang said.

On the first review

That December, one day Williams walked into Lucille's before dinner service and found the whole team crowding around a laptop "with a look of horror on their faces." The Houston Press review was scathing, saying his great-grandmother Lucille, the restaurant's namesake, would be disappointed in their rendition of her chili biscuits. Williams walked out to collect himself, then returned to give a pep talk to his staff.

"Now people are expecting us to close," Williams recalls saying. "I'm gonna prove them wrong every single day, until people know exactly who we are."

By February 2013, a much more favorable review appeared in the Houston Chronicle. Restaurant critic Alison Cook admitted there were some "rough edges" that needed to be smoothed, but ultimately predicted the restaurant's future success: "I can already imagine Lucille's becoming an institution," she wrote.

Chris Williams and his team assemble meals for seniors in need during the pandemic as part of Lucille's 1913, a new nonprofit.

Godofredo A. Vásquez, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

On weathering the COVID-19 pandemic

"Our to-go program exploded," Hoang said. Many customers wanted to support Lucille's, and the kitchen pivoted to offerings like fried chicken dinners that fed a family of four, as well as batched cocktails in 750-liter bottles. They delivered anywhere people wanted a Lucille's meal to-go; Hoang even remembers a staffer once driving meals to Katy.

They also hosted pop-ups on Lucille's back patio for bars that had to remain shut during the peak of the pandemic. The restaurant provided the space, and the staff from each bar kept the proceeds from drink sales. "That was really fun, and helped a lot of bartenders," Hoang said.

Lucille's hosted pop-ups on its patio for bars that were closed during the pandemic.

Godofredo A. Vásquez, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

On their working relationship

Hoang describes the Lucille's team as a tight-knit crew that goes out together after work. He says Williams is loyal and puts trust in people to do their thing within the company. For the past few years, Hoang's focus has been to make the restaurant consistent.

"I don't like being on TV or taking pictures, that's Chris's thing," Hoang jokes. He likes being the man behind the scenes, keeping the kitchen run like a tight ship. "He's brought real organization to the kitchen," Williams said, describing Hoang as his brother as well as a business partner.

Chris Williams, owner of Lucille's, meets Joe Biden who was in town attending services for George Floyd.

Courtesy photo

On why Lucille's made it 10 years

"There's hype and there's beauty, and then there's heart," Williams said. "Lucille's has always had heart." At the start, he says the Lucille's team didn't have the money to do anything fancy or the know-how to be polished, but they always approached their work with transparency and humility. He says he's been grateful that regular customers have given them the grace to grow and make mistakes.

The success of the restaurant also paved the way for the creation of the Lucille's 1913 nonprofit, which combats food insecurity across the Houston area. Williams says the operation has a dual purpose of allowing guests to indulge while giving back to the community.