“Carl Walker, a prosecutor who tried much of the case against Ali [for dodging the draft], told Hauser, ‘The only concern we had involved . . . rumors that there might be some sort of confrontation. . . . In those days, racial tensions were pretty high. . . . So we had a meeting with Ali in that regard. [The United States Attorney] Mort Susman took us all, including Ali and his lawyers, to lunch in the Plantation Room at the Houston Club.’”
-Roger D. Citron, The Champ's Greatest Fight, www.law.com
Let's get this straight. In 1967 lawyers took Muhammad Ali to the Houston Club’s Plantation Room? Yes indeed. A former colleague of mine was part of the group that broke the color barrier by bringing Muhammad Ali -- the first African American to dine, rather than serve, in the whites-only club. Of course, even a whites-only club would be foolish to refuse to serve the greatest boxer of all time.
Perhaps I am not being fair to the Houston Club's real motives for admitting Ali. It always has been a progressive club. They even began to admit women – in 1989.
The downtown dining clubs are one of this city's strangest restaurant phenomena. These members-only clubs are hidden in tall buildings and cater to business people. If you do not work downtown, you could easily miss them. For years, this is where contacts were established and deals were made. Times may have changed, but they still have vestiges of the older, more exclusive days. Gentlemen are still asked wear coats. Plus, the world of privileged white men is still reflected in the décor and art. One club prominently features paintings of 19th century English gentlemen inspecting naked prostitutes in a bordello.
The clubs are not about the food. They are about a narrow range of conservative choices. As a result, none of them serve food of much interest. But the food quality does vary. These are three examples:
The Houston Club was for decades the Queen of the downtown clubs. It now seems a bit shabby – the paint, the carpet, the chairs, and the food. At a recent buffet, they served a round slab of unidentifiable meat covered in a dark brown tasteless gravy, parts of chicken breasts covered in a light brown tasteless gravy, and small triangles of dry fish covered in a cream-colored tasteless gravy. This food is extremely safe – no spice, no character. This quintessential Southern banquet food is designed to please everyone the same, but it is also designed to please no one all that much.
The Plaza Club has a nice view from the top of the Shell Tower and features a salad and entrée buffet. On a recent visit, I did not try the entrees, each of which was covered in the mandatory gravy, but the salad bar was not all bad. Although the “sushi” was 9/10 rice and 1/10 tuna, the smoked salmon was very tasty and had all the correct sides. The buffet featured pasta salads, spinach salad, romaine salad, and a variety of classic dressings like Italian and French. It was conservative, but comforting, and possibly even better than Souper Salad.
The Coronado Club cooks the best food of all the downtown clubs. At a recent luncheon, I had chicken enchiladas with some real spice – a healthy dose of jalapeno salsa on top. The broccoli and carrots were correctly served al dente. But best of all, the black beans had a lot of flavor. They prominently featured onions and tasted much like a Brazilian black bean soup. The whole-wheat jalapeno biscuits were spicy and had an interesting texture. The chocolate cake tasted like strong, dark chocolate, not the bland guess-the-flavor deserts these clubs usually serve. In another recent visit to the Coronado Club, I had a seafood Cobb salad that was far better than any Cobb salad I have had in Houston. The cuisine is not revolutionary, but it has enough flavor to be good.
I am sure that Ali enjoyed breaking the color barrier when he went to the Houston Club. But I doubt he liked the food.