“Dining out is a highly personal experience.” is how the section on restaurants sagely begins in Texas Monthly’s Guide to Houston by Felicia Coates and Harriet Howle that was published in 1976 (and sold for $3.95). Recently found in a friend’s rent house, this provides an interesting and often smile-inducing record of the not too distant past of the Houston restaurant scene, or at least a certain vantage point of it. Unfortunately, this period was not nearly as glorious or historically important as the recent bygone culinary record of New York, Paris or New Orleans. But, this time does seem very distant. Thankfully.
Aiming to provide a representative overview of the best in Houston dining, not just fine-dining with over 140 restaurants were profiled. Interestingly, that included four cafeterias and four ice cream parlors (including the abhorrently named Udder Delight). There were plenty of steaks, sandwiches, Gulf filets and oysters, several oddly themed eateries (the Great Mine Company, anyone?) plus Mexican, Greek, red- and white-sauced Italian, and cornstarch and MSG-laden Chinese joints, but hardly the diversity that exists today. At the higher end, French dishes are rather French-named dishes dominated, and all of the most highly rated restaurants were Gallic or their Francophile brethren Continental. The two most highly rated restaurants were a past version of Tony’s and Maxim’s, followed in the second tier by Brennan’s, and the long gone Courtlandt’s and Foulard’s. Tellingly, there was room for Benihana’s, TGI Friday’s and Steak and Ale.
Some of the dishes that make their appearance in the reviews are venerable species who are nearly extinct from local menus: baked Alaska, chauteaubriand, beef à la Stroganoff, crêpe Suzette, Grand Marnier soufflé, egg foo young, gazpacho, snapper Pontchartrain, trout Véronique, steak Diane, veal Berçy, lobster thermidor, and plenty of “drinkable desserts.” On the lower end, surprising to me, barbecue was not that important, and Otto’s was deemed to be paramount. Of course, you get the impression that these authors didn’t venture into the neighborhoods where the best barbecue was served.
The reporting and prose can seem unintentionally comical, at times, in retrospect, if revealing: Trader Vic’s, “has one of the most varied, interesting menus in town”; gnocchi “are poached”; crostini is “fried bread”; Mongolian beef is Cantonese fare; “Anglos” are welcomed at certain profiled Mexican, Greek and Chinese eateries; “the still life crowd appreciates the marinated mushrooms”, (though the portraiture set is left unmentioned); “the lasagna lacked character” (but nothing about the personality); Ninfa’s tacos al carbon filled with the “barbecued beef” are recommended; enchiladas Suizas needed a description, and, we are told that “many Houston restaurants are the stepchildren of architects and decorators who add food as an afterthought.” As these and “carpenters” were mentioned in other profiles, it appears that a comparatively large percentage of the building trades were also restaurateurs during the 1970s. Though the writing is often odd, the attitude and palates endearingly mid-century WASP provincial, the authors were not without some wit: “Cowboys and Indians dine” at Maharajah; the “service is heel-clicking” at Bismarck’s; and Maxim’s décor is “a nouveau riche Texan’s restaurant-bordello.”
Luckily, Houston has grown quite a bit in terms of restaurant quality and culinary know how, like the country as a whole. There’s probably been a greater range of change here, as Houston went from a veritable restaurant backwater by most objective standards (just a few years earlier liquor in restaurants was legalized), to one of the very best in the country. As transplants from elsewhere began to settle here in droves in the 1970s, and then with the increased immigration from south of the border and Southeast Asia, especially, has made Houston a truly international city, and one that demanded more varied and better places to dine. A perusal of this guide shows how much the restaurant scene has improved in the subsequent thirty years. And, hopefully, the restaurant writing, too.
An excellent dish from an excellent meal at Tony's, which was a stalwart in the mid-1970s and remains so today.