Houston restaurant’s best stories revealed

Few restaurants in Houston have been as talked-about over the decades as Tony’s, a fine-dining institution that’s now located in Greenway Plaza. A deep-dive into archival Houston Chronicle and Houston Post stories reveals the many tales and quirks of the city’s most lauded restaurant.

Owner Tony Vallone opened his namesake joint in 1965 on Sage Road, serving mostly Italian and French cuisine. The restaurant relocated a few times, including once due to the Galleria expansion, when Vallone had to move the original location, which is now part of the shopping complex’s parking lot—very Houston.

Vallone passed away in September 2020, but stories of awkward politician encounters and long-lost decadent dishes live on. Here’s a by-the-decade look at what caught our eye in old articles from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Restaurateur Tony Vallone passed away in 2020 at the age of 75.

Restaurateur Tony Vallone passed away in 2020 at the age of 75.

Manuel Chavez/Houston Chronicle

Tony’s in the 1960s

In what is likely the very first mention of Tony’s in the Houston Chronicle, Dining Out columnist Mary K. (whose full name was Mary Herolz and later Mary Kilburn) claimed on April 23, 1965, that this new restaurant has everything to offer “for those who appreciate the very best in food, decor and service.” She talks of “gleaming tables,” “sculptured foil paper” and “gold carpeting.”

The original Tony's dining room on Sage Road, circa 1967.

The original Tony’s dining room on Sage Road, circa 1967.

Courtesy Vallone Restaurant Grou

Descriptions of dishes, from French chef Edmond Foulard, hint at the creativity and decadence that would define Tony’s—those lucky enough to have been alive (and wealthy) then could have dined on Hawaiian chicken baked and served in a fresh pineapple. By August of that year, Mary K. returned to Tony’s, this time delighted by a “Rock Cornish game hen” that would at times be shaped like a frog, or a steer, or an alligator. In October, she wrote about Tony’s again, where she reportedly had “an evening of unsurpassed enjoyment.”

Mary K. sure loved Tony’s, but her favorite dish didn’t crop up in her writing until two years later, in 1967. That June, the columnist wants us to know that she ate Tony’s stuffed mushrooms with a great glass of Barolo. The next year, visiting the restaurant for a friend’s birthday, she dined on Tony’s “famous stuffed mushrooms,” this time providing us with a little more information: They are stuffed with crab meat and cheese. In 1969, Mary K. opened her column with “I’ve had Tony Vallone Jr.’s marvelous stuffed mushroom…” Unfortunately for the rest of us, the elusive stuffed mushrooms are no longer on the menu. It’s unclear when they left, but there is a recipe for mushrooms stuffed with prosciutto, salami and herbs in “Tony’s: The Cookbook” by Vallone and George Fuermann. (Make the recipe at home.)

Tony’s in the 1970s

Tony’s settled into its swagger and reputation as a place to see and be seen, particularly among the rich and famous. Male diners came in with their mistresses, whom the staff code-worded “nieces,” or booked the entire wine cellar for “active lunches” with women who weren’t their wives. Throughout the years, there are tales of Vallone—who called himself “a pleasant dictator,” “a hustler” and “a perfectionist” in a 1977 Houston Post profile—turning away stars such as Frank Sinatra, Muhammad Ali, Tom Jones and Liza Minelli’s musicians for not having ties, then a required garment at Tony’s.

Men reportedly had "active lunches" with their mistresses in Tony's wine cellar.

Men reportedly had “active lunches” with their mistresses in Tony’s wine cellar.

Timothy Bullard/Houston Chronicle

Every president since Lyndon B. Johnson has reportedly dined at the restaurant, but newspaper accounts of the most interesting politico sightings show how the retelling of old stories can reveal inconsistencies and muddy waters. An awkward Watergate-era encounter appeared to have happened in the 1970s at the Houston restaurant. On the same night, Vice President Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon adviser and Texas governor John Connally, and Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski all dined at Tony’s—at three different tables.

“They avoided each other all night,” read a 1994 retrospective article in the Houston Chronicle, which also claimed this occurred “during the Watergate scandal.” But according to two other historical mentions of this incident, it was in fact in 1977, three years after Nixon resigned in 1974. In 1973, Agnew resigned and was almost replaced by Connally, but the president ended up opting for Gerald Ford. Regardless of the year, there is no doubt such an evening would have been awkward for the three parties involved.

Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski (left) makes an appearance at Tony's in Houston in May 1977.

Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski (left) makes an appearance at Tony’s in Houston in May 1977.

Mike Robinson/Houston Chronicle

“And one night, about eight months ago, Tony had Connally in his wine cellar, Agnew upstairs in the dining room and Jaworski across the room ‘as far away as I could find,'” read a July 1977 piece in the Houston Post. But it wasn’t quite eight months prior. According to Chronicle gossip columnist Maxine Mesinger, the affair happened in February 1977. She provides details in a “Sunday Snooper” column where she reports that both Agnew and Connally were indeed at Tony’s on the same night, but Jaworski is only mentioned later in the column, referring to an upcoming dinner he was to attend in March. It leaves us wondering if this threeway ever happened.

Tony’s in the 1980s

After the boom comes the bust. The 1980s oil glut greatly affected Houston, and with it the city’s most lavish restaurant. 

The aforementioned 1994 article does note that Tony’s managed to maintain a full dining room throughout the ’80s, but Houston’s one percent had to make some cutbacks. Apparently, fewer diners ordered Tony’s baked potato with beluga caviar, which set you back $75 in 1980s dollars (or more than $250 today). And some oil companies in town removed Tony’s from their list of approved restaurants employees could expense a meal from.

Tony Vallone at his Houston restaurant Tony's in an undated photo.

Tony Vallone at his Houston restaurant Tony’s in an undated photo.

Bela Ugrin/Houston Chronicle

Another anecdote, while undated, may have served as an omen for the 1980s oil bust. An oilman had come into Tony’s to celebrate a new well, ordering a $15,000 bottle of wine for him and his partners. The old bottle cracked, leaking the precious juice all over the restaurant’s white linens. Shortly after the dinner, the story goes, the man’s well dried up.

Tony’s in the 1990s

Tony’s moved from its Post Oak Boulevard location to Greenway Plaza in 2005, but 10 years before that, it almost closed its doors. “Houston’s most visible restaurant served up its final meal of osso buco and ostentation,” wrote Houston Chronicle feature writer Cheryl Laird in 1994.

Tony's came close to the end in 1994.

Tony’s came close to the end in 1994.

Houston Chronicle archives

Fresh off Food & Wine magazine naming Tony’s one of the “top 25 restaurants in America” two years prior, Vallone’s landlord demanded higher rent and the restaurateur announced he was calling it quits. Today, we know the story has a happy ending: There was a resolution with the landlord and he was able to stay in that space until the restaurant’s 2005 relocation.

But at the time, long-time patrons thought it may be the end. Laird showed up to what would have been Tony’s last day of service. All tables were filled and diners took Tony’s ashtrays home as souvenirs, lamenting the loss of the restaurant and wondering if it would reopen in its former splendor, if at all.

Riccardo Mazzucchelli and Ivana Trump talk with John and Nellie Connally during a party at Tony's in 1992.

Riccardo Mazzucchelli and Ivana Trump talk with John and Nellie Connally during a party at Tony’s in 1992.

Steve Campbell/Houston Chronicle

“Where will we go?” asked philanthropist Mary Owen Greenwood, as highlighted in the Chronicle.

“You mean, like we won’t ever be grand again?” replied socialite Jan Becker. “Oh, I can’t bear to think that. No, no, no. We must not think that.”

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