Retrospect Coffee Bar is digging up things from the past to enhance their guests’ present experience. Lead by operating partner Stephen Harrison and sitting semi-secluded at the corner of Alabama and La Branch, the building holds 96 years of Houston history.
You might have heard of Retrospect before. After original plans for opening its doors in the autumn of 2015 fell through, the delay lead way to the building being recognized as a historical landmark. In May 2017, Retrospect opened and is a reminder of a time before freeways and convenience, in the Midtown neighborhood.
Before it was planned to become a coffee bar, the building served many other purposes. In 1921 it was one of Houston’s first Gulf Oil filling stations and served the community for 50 years. Home to an early electric refrigeration system called “Kelvinator,” it allowed customers to purchase cold beverages while they refueled. After being pushed out of business by the modern-day convenience store, the building sat idle for more than 40 years. Nevertheless, art found a way to the building, and it served as a canvas for the community with murals overseen by the Station Museum of Contemporary Art across the street.
When we dropped in for a quick history lesson (and a taste) we noticed the large open-aired patio up front where customers are able to sit at tables and enjoy a bit of fresh air. Inside, the small but thoroughly stocked retail space houses decorations that complement the building’s history, including all original windows restored by a local carpenter. The beauty and beast of the coffee house is the bright orange Slayer espresso machine, hand built and customized to Retrospect’s coffee production needs. Finally, out back are benched tables, several cornhole sets and hand-built fountains to help drown out city noise.
On the food menu are muffins, vegan granola and Retrospect’s signature crepes. While most food items are house-made, others come from local suppliers such as Pat Greer’s Kitchen, Cake & Bacon, Honey Child Sweet Creams and Chaste Foods. You are also welcome to add sparkling, white or red wine to your tab, as all are sold by both glass and bottle. Beer is also available and includes a rotating selection.
But back to the beans: Coffee is sourced from local roasters close to home including Boomtown Coffee, Katz Coffee and the Pearland Coffee Roasters.
Despite the Houston heat, we charged up with the staff-recommended espresso ($2.75) and immediately noticed the richness in our tiny cups. The bold taste truly explains the name of the espresso machine, Slayer. We could not leave without trying the signature crepes that pay homage to Texas legends with names like Lady Bird Johnson, Janis Joplin, Willie Nelson, and Houston’s own “slime in the ice machine” Marvin Zindler. Depending on the preference of your taste buds crepes are available in sweet or savory. Giving in to our guilty pleasure we devoured the sweet Willie Nelson, which was full with fresh strawberries, a smear of Nutella hazelnut spread and granola ($8). This sweet treat was all we needed for a quick summer sugary high and sent us buzzing out the door.
Living up to its name, Retrospect is a fun touch of Houston nostalgia in constantly changing Midtown and is a good neighborhood player along with Axelrad Beer Garden and Luigi Pizzeria. In a city that has demolished and built over so many of its early buildings, this is a welcome rarity. Let’s hope it inspires other businesses to follow a similar path.
Retrospect Coffee Bar, 3709 La Branch St., 713-993-6600, http://retrospectcoffeebar.com/
Hours: Monday – Thursday 6:30 am – 10pm, Friday 6:30 am – Midnight, Saturday 7:30 am – Midnight, Sunday 7:30 am – 10 pm.