Lee Merritt Ellis, 63, legendary Houston and Round Top entrepreneurial pioneer, died peacefully at his home on Tuesday, March 7, 2023.
Born in Lafayette, LA., Lee moved to Houston as a child and would spend the remainder of his life a Texan. After attending the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, with a discipline in photography, and Robert E. Lee High School, Lee embarked on an entrepreneurial career that spanned 5 decades.
Often referred to as a concept king, Lee was a visionary and commonly touted for being ahead of the trend. Early in his career, he opened a surf shop in West Houston and a roller skate rental shop in Montrose. He later became a giant in the sporting apparel business as a founder of the brand Big Ball Sports, earning entrepreneurial awards and national acclaim. Lee would ultimately pursue his love for hospitality through the bar and restaurant business where he immediately became a force. Lee was a leader in the downtown Houston and Washington Street night life renaissance with bars Tonic and The Social. Belvedere, his next nightclub project in Uptown Park, enjoyed a 20-year run. Lee then became jovially known as the Godfather of Comfort Food with BRC, Lee’s Fried Chicken and Donuts, State Fare, Petite Sweets, Pi Pizza, Lee’s Creamery, and Star Fish. In addition to being a prolific creator of concepts, Lee was also a purveyor of style. From his personal image to the beautiful, eclectic, chic spaces he created, he brought a fresh, rebellious edge to Houston.
In 2018, Lee moved to Round Top and brought his larger-than-life spirit and talent with him. Lee opened the popular cocktail bar, Ellis Motel and BBQ restaurant, Round Top Smokehouse, but it was his impact on the individuals in the community that he loved so much (and that loved him back) that he would undoubtedly look upon as his best work.
In the public eye, Lee was rightfully known as a visionary and pioneer. Those who knew him well, knew the free-spirited figure as a loyal, generous, authentic, creative, animal-loving, hard-working man with incredible taste and a heart bigger than his beard.
Lee is survived by his beloved wife, Melissa, his mom, Toby, his brother, Chad, his canine companion, Elvira, and the countless family, friends, and loyal patrons of his many establishments.
A celebration of Lee’s life is planned for April 6th from 4:30pm-7:00pm (tribute begins at 5:30pm) outside of the Ellis Motel – 185 Henkel Cir, Round Top, TX 78954.