Westheimer is one of Houston’s main thoroughfares, and one that runs twenty miles to the west. Soon after its humble beginnings, when Elgin turns, and turns into Westheimer via a name change less than a mile southwest of downtown, is where many of the city’s best and most exciting restaurants, ambitious cocktail bars and worthwhile coffee joints call home. Awards and nominations from the James Beard Foundation abound on this part of the thoroughfare. The Houston area is known as the most ethnically diverse area in the U.S., and some of that is also on display in the eclectic collection of often ambitious, high quality establishments along this part of Westheimer.
Driving west from its start along the nearly-too-narrow four lanes, the old two-story house on the left-side at 219 Westheimer, now the home of a catering business, is where lower Westheimer began as a culinary destination twenty years ago, when the area was fairly dicey. The address was the home of Chez Georges that served well-reviewed traditional French fare and was one of the city’s best. In the spring of 2008, Feast moved in. A modern British restaurant known for its superb snout-to-tail cooking with one of the city’s best chefs Richard Knight in the kitchen about which Frank Bruni, the former restaurant critic of the New York Times, wrote had “no real peer in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other major cities.” Even with a surfeit of critical attention, the superlative Feast shuttered in 2012, but this part of the city continued to grow as a dining hub.
Nearly across the street from the former Feast is a restaurant of note that is actually open, Bistecca, a beautiful, upscale steak joint with central and northern Italian dishes scattered on its menu that is headed by one of the region’s finest Italian chefs, Alberto Baffoni. He might not get the national attention he did years ago when he was at Simposio near the Galleria, but still directs a kitchen that turns out usually excellent fare. Nearly next door is the sleek, brand new Avondale, a unique wine shop-cum-restaurant from the well-regarded Olivier Ciesielski, once Tony’s top toque, which recently scrapped its eponymously-named French concept that might have gone a little stale. A stone’s throw away is two-story outpost of El Tiempo, the city’s top Tex-Mex that excels both with AM and PM fare in numerous guises. Their potent margaritas might flow more freely here than at their other spots.
A block further west is Dolce Vita from Marco Wiles, who has other places of note along the way. It’s easily the best pizzeria in Houston, as it’s been since opening in 2006, whose thin Italianate pizzas, menu of interesting small plates and a well-chosen all-Italian wine list earned it the number three spot among Italian restaurants in the very last of the Zagat surveys. Next door is Indika, an upscale, contemporary Indian restaurant with a flair for fusion that was once named one of the best Indian restaurants in the country by Travel + Leisure magazine among its many accolades. It doesn’t get the press that it once did after Chef Anita Jaisinghani sold it to concentrate on her Pondicheri restaurants in 2017 but the new Nepalese owners have kept things the same, including high quality. The low-slung stand-alone structure next to Indika houses Aqui from Austin’s James Beard Award-winning chef Paul Qui. It does an outstanding job with an array of pan-Asian-inspired refined small plates including sushi in a differently designed, comfortable space with a useful patio that faces Westheimer.
A different kind of enjoyment, much lower-key than Aqui but one that’s far easier on the wallet, is found across the street in a strip center typical of Houston, if not of this part of Westheimer. The counter-service Pappa Geno’s is a local mini-chain that serves the city’s best cheesesteaks and some of the best, hot, messy casual sandwiches of any ilk. It’s delicious artery-clogging decadence. After that Westheimer begins to twist slightly right as you continue west, and about a block away is where another small plate place of interest from Marco Wiles, Poscol. Named after the main thoroughfare in his hometown of Udine in northeastern Italy, this serves dishes, salumi and cheeses, mostly from the provinces well north of Rome. Not incidentally, it was named the best cantina, or Italian wine program, in Houston by the Italian publication Gambero Rosso earlier this year.
Not too many steps from Poscol is the busy Katz’s, a present-day rendition of New York deli that never closes. A block away sits a third restaurant whose roots, improbably, also lie in Austin. Serving a creative take on modern Japanese food and known for its sushi and sashimi preparations, Uchi is a version of the most acclaimed restaurant in Austin that won Chef Tyson Cole a James Beard Award several years ago. It quickly became part of the restaurant firmament in Houston soon after opening in early 2012, and remains a top destination for sushi and seafood. Around the corner, at the busy intersection of Westheimer and Montrose, is Aladdin, an inviting and welcoming oasis of very well-prepared and appropriately clean-tasting Lebanese food served cafeteria-style amidst the car and foot traffic, which offers of the best dining values to be found in the Houston area.
A block west of Montrose is a trio of establishments that are part of the Underbelly Hospitality restaurant group, a local collective of innovative bars and restaurants led by star chef Chris Shepherd. The first is Blacksmith that occupies a squat brick building and appears in numerous lists of top coffee shops in the nation. In addition to its roasting and brewing capabilities, its savory fare, like Vietnamese steak and eggs, help make it popular brunch stop, too. Travel + Leisure, again, included it as one of its fifteen “Best Breakfast Restaurants in the U.S” a few years. Shepherd won a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest in 2014 and he is a big reason for the quality of the food at Blacksmith.
Across from Blacksmith is another one-story building, though bigger, that is shared by the new Georgia James and Hay Merchant. This is the structure where Shepherd rose to national prominence with his creative cooking at Underbelly that opened in late 2010. Underbelly essentially decamped earlier this year a few blocks away in a smaller space to what is now called UB Preserv while Georgia James took over the original Underbelly with a steak concept opening in October of this year. Houstonians love steak. It got a few-month trial run as the terrific One Fifth Steak a couple years ago. Georgia James is certainly the most interesting steakhouse in Houston and among the very best. It can the most fun, too. On the eastern side of Georgia James is Hay Merchant, a beer bar with an interesting kitchen of its own, and one of the most serious and capable craft beer bars anywhere.
Another lauded chef has a place across the street in old Tower Theater at El Real. Bryan Caswell got some national airtime a few years ago as Next Iron Chef competitor and was also one of Food & Wine’s best new chefs before that. El Real is a temple to traditional Tex-Mex largely courtesy to involvement of the city’s best food writers and critics, Robb Walsh. It can be very good, but has been maddeningly inconsistent since opening. Mala Sichuan, a far more attractive version of its original location on Bellaire Boulevard, is about door down. With its traditionally and authentically spicy and vibrant fare from Chengdu and environs, the Mala Sichuan outlets have been regarded as the top Chinese restaurants among non-Chinese, but also a big favorite for folks from China, including my co-workers.
Easy for a pre- or post-meal stop from one of these recently aforementioned restaurants is Anvil, a few blocks west at 1424 Westheimer. Almost popular as it is proficient, it was Houston’s first bar dedicated to artisanal cocktails and was a James Beard Award finalist for the Outstanding Bar Program earlier this year. It might be impossible here to order a cocktail that is not terrific – my experience in a number of visits – and there always over one hundred on its ever-changing list. Just around the corner, as Westheimer bends to the right, sits Da Marco and the luxury vehicles that crowd its small parking lot, Marco Wiles’ temple to Italian gastronomy. Very adept at replicating top trattoria and ristorante preparations mostly from the northern regions of Italy like the classic Venetian take on calf’s liver and onions, Da Marco had the top food score from the last Zagat Surveys. Casual counter-service Ramen Tatsu-Ya is across the small street north of Da Marco, about 20 yards and visible from Westheimer, a sister restaurant in Austin was nominated for a James Beard Award this year, it’s possibly the top ramen restaurant in Houston.
About a block west is the city’s most accolated Mexican restaurant and on most lists of the best Mexican restaurants in the country, upscale Hugo’s serves modern preparations on a tempting menu that takes inspiration from throughout Mexico. What’s one the plate is serious, but Hugo’s can be fun and loud, especially during the weekend brunches. Led by James Beard Award-winning chef Hugo Ortega, it’s only serious competition for best Mexican restaurant in Houston is its two siblings, Xochi and Caracol.
Nearby is UB Preserv, the successor to Underbelly. Set in the space that once housed Poscol it opened in the first half of 2018 and burnishes the phrase, “The Story of Houston Food” – now also “Without Limits.” Its kitchen incorporates not just products but flavors from the disparate cultures that are part of the Houston mosaic that are combined in non-traditional ways, and it nearly all succeeds grandly. The vast land of Chinese is a bigger component of the mix, as is seemingly the vast dining landscape of New York City. David Wong, an alumnus of David Chang’s kitchens and Grammercy Tavern in Manhattan (and also Cal Berkeley), is the chef de cuisine at this inviting and comfortable, if serious restaurant. With UB Preserv Shepherd had the stated pre-opening goal of creating the best Chinese-style dumplings in the country. They weren’t quite there during an early visit, but the puffy rice salad served during brunch has got to be at the head of the list in some “best of” category.
A half-block north of Westheimer from UB Preserv, Goodnight Charlie’s is a contemporary honky-tonk featuring mostly Texas musicians with a clean-lined, contemporary setting that has a partner in David Keck who is one of the city’s top wine professionals, a Master Sommelier, and who is also a former opera singer. Even with that wine expertise, it only has three wines, a red and white on tap, and a rose in a bottle; a great selection of bourbons, though. The food is mostly tacos during the non-brunch times, with the corn tortillas made in house starting with corn – not masa – from a chef who staged for a year-and-a-half at Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy named again as the best restaurant in the world, before coming to Goodnight Charlie’s.
Heading further west just before Dunlavy is One Fifth Mediterranean, the current and third of five 11-month iterations of the space from Chris Shepherd and team. This one is Shepherd’s “interpretation of the flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean and Northern Africa” that features numerous small plates including some of the most incredible hummus and airy pita bread that you will likely ever encounter, larger plates of lamb, fish and chicken, all with light pure flavors in greater complexity than found elsewhere here. The restaurant has struck a cord with patrons who have roots in Levant and Persia, seemingly a testament to its quality and faithfulness in the ethos of the various dishes.
Last among the notables is across Dunlavy, is Common Bond, a serious bakery, both boulangerie and pâtisserie in the French tradition, which publicly aired aspirations to be the best bakery in the country and it very well might be. No doubt. With amazing croissants, terrific baguettes and delicious breads and French sweets in a variety of renditions, it’s the best bakery in the city, at the very least, and a nice, popular little restaurant and coffee shop, too.
The best Tex-Mex, pizza, cheesesteak sandwiches, sushi, coffee, beer bar, steakhouse, Chinese, cocktail bar, Italian, ramen shop, Mexican, Middle Eastern and bakery might be found along this dynamic 1.1-mile stretch of asphalt. Though two dozen establishments are highlighted, there are others worthy of a visit here, and there are more on the way. It and Houston, keep getting better and better, and more interesting. And, with a concentration of spots, people can actually be something that is still rare here and visit more than one place on an evening without a car: a pedestrian.
The highlights of lower Westheimer:
- Bistecca – 224 Westheimer
- Avondale – 240 Westheimer
- El Tiempo – 333 Westheimer
- Dolce Vita – 500 Westheimer
- Pappa Geno’s – 515 Westheimer
- Indika – 516 Westheimer
- Aqui – 520 Westheimer
- Poscol – 608 Westheimer
- Katz’s – 615 Westheimer
- Uchi – 904 Westheim
- Aladdin – 912 Westheimer
- Blacksmith – 1018 Westheimer
- Haymerchant – 1100 Westheimer
- Georgia James – 1100 Westheimer
- El Real – 1201 Westheimer
- Mala Sichuan – 1201 Westheimer
- Anvil – 1424 Westheimer
- Da Marco – 1520 Westheimer
- Ramen Tatsu-Ya – 1722 California (twenty yards north of Westheimer)
- Hugo’s – 1600 Westheimer
- UB Preserv – 1609 Westheimer
- Goodnight Charlie’s – 2511 Kuester (a half-block north of Westheimer)
- One Fifth Romance Languages – 1658 Westheimer
- Common Bond – 1706 Westheimer
A dish early in Aqui's tenure