In the heart of Montrose in the former location of McGowen Cleaners, Kelly Barnhart recently debuted gluten- and dairy-free all-day eatery Vibrant. A stylish, health-conscious crowd flocked to the instant hit, and that was before the dinner service was launched in November. Barnhart, who previously was a curatorial assistant at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, carefully selected not only the artful menu items at Vibrant, but also the pared-down feminine decor scheme and standout art pieces. Here, she dishes on the hot spot.
How did the idea for Vibrant come about?
I left [The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston] to have Lyla, my daughter. While I stayed home with her, I daydreamed about opening a juice bar. It slowly and organically built.
Did you bounce the idea off of anyone else?
I have a friend, Marie, who is a nutritionist; our kids are the same age. During play dates, she and I would talk incessantly about health, well-being, nutrition, and the Houston marketplace and how there’s such a significant need for this—a place you can go and feel totally safe and completely trust every single ingredient. Stuff we would want our kids to eat. Through our conversations, the pieces started coming together. Five years later, here we are.
Why does this concept work in Houston?
Because it doesn’t exist. I had no interest in being a restaurateur and no chef experience. Vibrant comes from a consumer-based entrepreneurial perspective to offer healthy yet flavorful food. I wanted a place that bridged beauty, fun, art, design and a brilliant combination of ingredients and flavor profiles.
Why’d you choose this location?
I had a very clear vision. I looked at spaces for two years. Once the McGowen Cleaners building popped onto the market—I’ve had a crush on this building for as long as I can remember—I jumped on it immediately. It’s a time capsule of a bygone era of Houston. I loved saving it.
Tell me about your goal for the menu.
To create [dishes] that are pleasurable, satisfying and beautiful as much as they are good for you. One hundred percent healthy.
And you didn’t start with a traditional chef?
I knew what this was going to look like, taste like and feel like. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel with [restaurant chefs], I needed to find someone who lived this way authentically. I discovered Alison Wu, who lives in Portland, and it was a natural fit. She worked on the breakfast and lunch menu remotely, and came down to train the staff here in Houston. Now, I have incredible cooks who have taken the reins. The new dinner menu is the evolution of this, a collaboration between me and my chef de cuisine.
What is your favorite thing on the menu?
I go through weekly cycles. This week, it’s the baked eggs. And the bone broth soup—it’s such a good, cozy meal, and it gives me everything I need to make me feel awesome for the rest of the day.
What was the plan for the interior design?
I worked on the interiors myself with Kelly Weckman at Lake|Flato. I designed everything, and she [did] the technical aspects of it. [Editor’s note: She also briefly consulted with buzzy New York firm The MP Shift.] Inside, I wanted to highlight younger female American artists who are really special and emerging, like Mattea Perrotta, who did two pieces in the space.
The tableware is fabulous as well.
We commissioned Fernando Aciar of New York’s Fefo Studio—the most lovely human being—to make all of the tableware. I went to his studio several times to develop what we were going to have in the restaurant. He made every piece by hand.
What is your hope for Vibrant?
In a simple sense, I want people to think of Vibrant as a place to eat food that’s equally good for you, satisfying and delicious. I
want it to be a place where people feel fulfilled and brighter.
1931 Fairview, 832.409.6423
PRICES Cocktails, $10-$13; potions and elixirs, $6-$8; breakfast, $11-$13; lunch, $15-$18; dinner, $28-$45
HOURS Every day, breakfast 7am-3pm, lunch 11am-3pm; dinner Sun.-Wed. 5-9pm, Thurs.-Sat. 5-10pm