In those two decades, the dining landscape of Houston has changed quite a bit, nearly all for the better. In short, the Houston restaurant scene has improved in every regard than how it was twenty years ago: the food is better and usually more interesting at restaurants, there are many more enticing dining establishments, with a good deal more worthwhile choices in a greater range of cuisines and concepts, and with much wider and better beverage options. I can’t think of any type of restaurant that’s not as good as it was a couple of decades ago. Many of these trends are national; a fair number of them are designed to increase the size of the check. Caviar service, anyone? With all the changes, a few things have stayed pretty much the same: a level of casualness continues, more so than other top restaurant cities, most likely because the frequent heat and humidity; the level of service remains functional at best at the vast majority of restaurants; and Houstonians still love, love, love steak.
Below are the most notable changes to me since I’ve been writing about Houston restaurants.
On the plates
- Diversity – Houston chefs have much more fully embraced the diversity of the local dining scene, incorporating a range of influences, cuisines and ingredients found in the Houston area. This trend is seemingly found at nearly every restaurant that does not have a defined cuisine. Looking at a recent menu from Riel, a restaurant I like, you’ll find chimichurri sauce, Chinese sausage, kimchi, soba noodles, béarnaise sauce, and mascarpone among the components shown.
- Small plates – The advent of small-plate and sharable dining in recent years, for better or worse. Though not unusual across the country, it stood out in contrast with New Orleans, where I went for a couple eating trips in the past year or so.
- Local foods – There has been a much greater emphasis on local and regional food sourcing, usually resulting in tastier items on the plates. The names of nearby farms and ranches are often displayed on menus proudly asserting provenance.
- Humanely raised meats – Along with the more locally sourced products, the meats are often from animals raised without hormones and without constrained quarters.
- Better burgers – The past decade has witnessed the appearance of often-excellent burgers at nice restaurants. This time has also seen the advent of quality counter-service national chains. Both welcome occurrences, if not for my cholesterol level and waistline.
On the menus
- More and better wine – Wine lists have gotten much longer and much more interesting, with best wine lists having a mostly European in focus.
- Craft cocktails – Cocktails have become a lot more serious, and a lot better.
- Better beer, too – Well, at least more beer options, mostly from local small breweries.
- More booze – Hand-in-hand with growth in cocktails, the range of spirits have gotten much broader, with much more expensive choices.
- More steak options –There is now a larger – and much pricier – range of steak options including American Wagyu, the famed Japanese breed and steaks from true Kobe beef, and even the most-prized and expensive grade, A5. To give just one example from an upscale steakhouse, B+B Butchers sells a cut of steak from Hyogo Prefecture in Japan from “100% Tajima cattle, the rarest and most exclusive beef in the world” it proclaims. Four ounces will set you back $220.
- More crawfish – Crawfish is far more widely found than it once was. I was part of a group that held the very first crawfish boil at the West Alabama Ice House in the mid-1990s, which was deemed as rather exotic. Now, there seems to be one there every weekend during crawfish season along with about every low-key bar with a substantial patio. Then there is even Vietnamese crawfish that has drawn national attention.
- And, more money needed to order from the menu – Dining is generally more expensive, even factoring in the effects of inflation. Two give a couple of examples, a burger and fries at a non-fast-food restaurant twenty years ago cost me $6.60 on average and a plate of brisket at a barbecue joint was just $7.60. If the prices had followed the annual rate of inflation since then, I should have expected to pay $10 and $11.50, respectively. Those same meals in the past year have cost me an average of $14.30 for the burger and fries and $17.50 for the barbecue. Beef has gotten much pricier since then, especially brisket, but also it’s gotten considerably more expensive to operate a restaurant inside the Loop.
On the town
- It’s just better eating – As I mentioned above, the restaurant scene has gotten better in nearly every regard than it was twenty years ago. There are better restaurants in every category now than compared with twenty years ago and what is on the plate is typically tastier because of the ingredients that are better and the greater skill and imagination of the kitchen staffs involved.
- Gotten noticed – Houston has received deserved national attention for its dining. One indicator of that is now each year at least one Houston restaurant will be listed among the best new restaurants in the country. And Chris Shepherd was recently proclaimed the best chef in the world by one publication.
- Chefs as the reason to visit – Who is the kitchen has been why many people decide to visit a particular restaurant. A Chris Shepherd, Manabu Horiuchi or Bryan Caswell or that a new executive chef who worked for them now heading a kitchen is a how many people choose where to dine. In that Zagat guide from last year of the last century, the phrase ‘celebrity chef’ hadn’t been coined. There was probably only a few who would have earned that accolade back then, and Robert Del Grande and Mark Cox were about the only two who drew diners. They still do today, sort of.
- Captivating ‘cue – Barbecue has gotten a lot better since the opening of Killen’s Barbecue in Pearland in early 2014. Now the list of terrific barbecue includes Pinkerton’s, The Pit Room, Truth, Blood Bros., and Roegels to name just the best ones.
- Close-in Chinese – Authentic Chinese food has become available inside the Loop, most notably with Pepper Twins and Mala Sichuan, but also Wanna Bao and Spicy Girl. Though I’m most concerned about inside the Loop, where I live and work, high-quality and truly Chinese food can be found in many parts of the city now, including Sugar Land and in Humble, near the airport, where my boss from China has raved about the a place there that serves the best Peking duck in the area, a recommendation the Chronicle recently seconded. Chinese influence has greatly expanded in the past twenty years.
- Upscale Mexican – Mexican food has found nicer, more authentic and proficient outposts, led by Hugo Ortega and his team’s trio of Hugo’s, Caracol and Xochi. Pico’s – which is better than it ever was in the years it was on Bellaire Boulevard – Saltillo and Cuchara are three more, plus several nicely affordable counter-service spots, 100% Taquito, Mexico’s Deli and Polanquito, to name a few.
- Truly Italian today – Italian, more truly Italian, has become much more widespread, if not widespread.
- Superior fare from the sub-continent – Better and more upscale Indian options like Kiran’s and Surya and the more casual but immensely enjoyable Pondicheri; and then there’s the even the much more casual Himalaya.
- Heights on the rise – The rise of interesting dining options in the Heights has been very welcome. Squable, Better Luck Tomorrow, Calle Onze, Fields and Tides, and Eight Row Flint are places that are worth the drive. I’m still bummed about the failure of Hunky Dory, Bernadine’s and Foreign Correspondents, though.
- Chinatown expanded – Chinatown has expanded and with a good deal more options than there were in the past, and now includes various regional Chinese cuisines, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Korean, Japanese and savory, sweet, full-service, counter-service to name an incomplete list of them.
- Valets – Valet-parking at nice restaurants has become the norm, not the exception, as the city’s center has become much more populated. But, far less diners need parking today with the advent of the ride-sharing services.
On the minds (and at the fingertips) of the diners
- Smarter patrons – Diners have become more knowledgeable about food, wine and dining in general. This has made them more demanding and the Houston restaurant scene even better.
- Smart phones and social media – Social media and smart phones have helped to popularize restaurants and dishes that can beautifully photographed here, there and everywhere.
- Weaponized diners – Diners have a weapon against restaurants that don’t live up to their expectations with Yelp and other platforms.
- More tipping – The expected amount of tipping has increased from 15% to 20%, all while restaurants typically pay there wait staff just $2.13 an hour, a wage that has not changed in years.
I’m sure that I’ve forgotten more than one significant item, like delivery services, but this article is already long enough.
One of the artful presentations at Shun, on Shepherd.