Houston’s Lees Den wine bar inspired by an old Chinese restaurant

When hospitality veteran Benjy Levitt transformed the second level of his now closed Rice Village restaurant, Benjy’s, into a new wine bar in the spring, some Houstonians may have felt a wave of nostalgia hearing his name.

Lees Den is a nod to the Chinese restaurant of the same name, a South Main staple for over 30 years. “Growing up, we didn’t go out to eat much. My mom was a wonderful cook,” said Levitt, who also owns Local Foods. “When we did it was a party, and Lee’s Den was where we always went.”

Lees Den at Rice Village has a genteel retro vibe.

Jenn Duncan

The Chinese restaurant, run by Lee Yin Chung, opened in 1957 and had an illustrious run until it closed in 1988. Its location near the Astrodome and the now-demolished Shamrock Hilton led to high profile visits from celebrities, pro-athletes and musicians. acts, including The Carpenters.

For the Levitt family in the 1970s, birthdays, anniversaries, and award dinners for getting all the Aces on a report card were reasons to visit Lee’s Den, and with six kids in tow, it was a safe place. where all family members could hear each other.

“It was hard to find something that everyone liked,” Levitt admitted. “At Lee’s Den, the owners were willing to do off-menu items, like fried chicken, in order to please guests.” As a self-proclaimed picky eater, he enjoyed that.

Chinese restaurant Lee's Den placed a Mother's Day ad in the Houston Chronicle in 1957, shortly after it opened on South Main.

Chinese restaurant Lee’s Den placed a Mother’s Day ad in the Houston Chronicle in 1957, shortly after it opened on South Main.

Houston Chronicle Archive

Levitt’s family lived in Meyerland. From his childhood perspective, going to dinner at Lee’s Den, just 4 or 5 miles away, was a big deal. “I remember the dining scene in Houston was very different back then,” he recalls. “That stretch of Main Street was interesting, and getting out there felt like an adventure. Every now and then we would see news anchors, local Astros or Oilers athletes, or someone from a sports team visiting. It was always a fun time.”

Lees Den has a spacious patio overlooking the bustling Rice Village below.

Lees Den has a spacious patio overlooking the bustling Rice Village below.

Jenn Duncan

While Lee’s Den was a memorable part of the seasoned restaurateur’s childhood, the name suited him for other reasons as well. Levitt’s mother’s name is Lee, and he’s paid homage to her “wonderful” cooking by incorporating items like “mom’s chocolate cake” on some of his previous restaurant menus. The name was also inspired by the Meyerland house where he and his siblings grew up. “There was a room in the house that our family called ‘the den,'” he said. “It was the room where we children were allowed to have fun in the house.”

Those who pay close attention will note that Levitt’s spelling of the bar’s name has no apostrophe, and that’s no coincidence: “Lees” is the leftover yeast from a wine’s fermentation process. . As such, Lees Den’s beverages are primarily wine-focused. The bar doesn’t have a full liquor license, so the menu features low-alcohol cocktails and around 250 bottles on the wine list. All are also available for purchase in the bar shop, and retail prices are the same as on the bar menu, allowing for great bargains.

Lees Den's menu is Asian-inspired.

Lees Den’s menu is Asian-inspired.

Jenn Duncan

The food menu, with dishes like Forbidden Black Rice with Local Mushrooms and Sesame Ginger Meatballs with Peanut Drizzle, is a tribute to Lee’s Den restaurant menu. “It’s not directly Chinese, but a lot of it is Asian-inspired, and it was done on purpose,” he said.

Decades have passed since Levitt last dined at Lee’s Den. The restaurant, and its owner who died three days before his 101st birthday in 2001, are gone, but hardly forgotten. “The last time I ate there I was probably around 10. I’m 53 now,” he said. Aside from his childhood memories, Levitt has few memories of the restaurant. The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston has a photograph of the restaurant’s austere exterior by Dave Wilson in its collection. And a friend gave him original Lee’s Den matchbooks, which he keeps safe at home, but the restaurant’s memory is honored beyond measure at Lees Den 2.0.

Find it: 2424 Dunstan Rd Suite 125, Houston, TX 77005; (713) 522-7602
Hours: Thursday-Saturday, 4 p.m.-10 p.m.

About Walter Bartholomew

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