If you are visiting Houston for work (or even fun) and want to experience its terrific restaurant scene like a local while not traveling very far from your hotel – which is likely downtown or in the Galleria area – this article recommends a number establishments that can suit a variety of tastes and moods. Places in the recently burgeoning Heights and other points too far from the hotel clusters, with a few exceptions, are omitted. But, most of Houston’s best restaurants are located between downtown and the Galleria, so most visitors are in luck, just needing a quick cab or Lyft or Uber ride, or maybe even, in the very un-Houston-like fashion, a short walk. The types of diversions are listed alphabetically.
Barbecue – Since the opening of Killen's in suburban Pearland in early 2014, barbecue in the Houston area became a little more interesting and has drawn more regional and national attention. Killen's is worth the drive, but prepared for long lines, which are a feature daily. Brisket, pork ribs and, increasingly, beef ribs are the stars of the show in Houston barbecue. Sausage should be good, too. Across the street from MinuteMaid Park downtown, Jackson St. BBQ combines the talents of top local chef Bryan Caswell of Reef fame and, for the pork ribs, Greg Gatlin of his well-regarded eponymous family barbecue spot on the near north side, Gatlin’s. This is worth the trip, but prepared that service can be very slow even on slow days. Also northeast of downtown, though closer to downtown, is Pinkerton’s, that opened to rave reviews in 2017, and even serves cocktails in addition to lauded Texas barbecue (open from Wednesday through Sunday). The Pit Room is a slick mid-2016 newcomer to Montrose, not too far from downtown, has quickly matured into one of the best barbecue spots in the city with its properly moist and flavorful brisket, peppery rubs and diligent smoking, plus there are even top-notch barbecue-centric tacos. Opened early in 2018, Feges BBQ is oddly set in a basement food court in an office complex, but run by two accomplished chefs, husband and wife, and having ventilation to smoke on site, it turns out excellent Texas-style barbecue and better and more interesting sides than most. West of the Galleria on Voss, Roegel'shas drawn raves since it rebranded and upgraded the Dallas-based chain they had been operating, offering not just well-regarded brisket but more chicken than you'll find elsewhere and daily specials like pastrami beef ribs and pork belly. Still known for its pork ribs, Pizzitola’s just south of I-10 west of downtown has had a barbecue pit in operation since in the 1930s. Though long popular, especially during lunchtime since it is easily accessible from downtown, it has somewhat recently been drawing attention from newly fashioned local barbecue enthusiasts again. Longstanding Goode Co. Barbecue doesn’t get much attention from critics and self-styled barbecue snobs, but it remains popular and often very good, with a ranged of smoked meats beyond brisket and pork ribs and the very best sides including house-made cheddar-jalapeño bread and the easily the most efficient counter-service around. A hike north to Old Town Spring, but highly acclaimed is Corkscrew that features some twists on the menu like tacos and a triple pork sandwich plus top-notch brisket.
Beer – Houston boasts the very first modern beer bar in the country, The Ginger Man, in the Rice Village, which opened in 1986 that is still a popular stop offering a great, relaxed atmosphere in which to imbibe. The most serious and polished of the local beer bars is The Hay Merchant offers over 75 drafts including five casks – nearly all from the more interesting craft breweries, Belgium and Germany and served through beer lines better attended than elsewhere; it shares a building on lower Westheimer with the estimable restaurant Underbelly. Not too far from the downtown hotels, Mongoose versus Cobra in Midtown, is a casually slick spot serving an unbalanced array of mostly very hoppy or alcoholic domestic brews aimed at the younger hop-heads but also a well-chosen array of spirits, all to be consumed on attractive communal tables or at the bar. For something different, there is the historic West Alabama Ice House that dates from 1928, a remnant of the days in Houston when beer was mostly consumed from bottles while sitting outside (and smoking). There is also an outpost of The Flying Saucer, conveniently located on Main Street downtown, which offers scores of draft domestic craft beers, and Saint Arnold Brewing Company, just north of downtown, has an expansive new beer garden that opened in the summer of 2018, and should be even better after a few months of operation and cooler temps. A little further out, just past the 610 Loop is the city's best brewery and its best brewer, Karbach, which sold out in late 2016 to the beer behemoth ImBev, much to the chagrin of most Houstonians. It has a popular beer-centric restaurant, events and tours. En route to downtown, King’s Bierhaus is German / Austrian restaurant and bar with its Bavarian beers the real attraction. Most of the best Munich-area beers are available – also still no Augustiner here – on tap including five dopplebocks and even a couple of the fame monastery beers from Andechs. Closer in is The Heights Bier Garten on N. Shepherd that was built to order to very attractive effect and serving over 90 beer taps, an expansive and gorgeous arrangement of liquors in a structure separate from its beer dispensary, an attractive crowd and horrific parking. Just down a flight of stairs near a busy Main Street intersection, The Conservatory is an underground beer, wine and food hall with around fifty local beer options, mostly hoppy or fairly alcoholic. Also downtown, a few blocks away is the Craft Beer Cellar, a cool retail-cum-draft beer bar featuring mostly local craft beers plus an emphasis and heavy-hopping and sours.
Breakfast – If you are up for breakfast on a weekend morning, a couple standouts provide an excellent taste of Houston in the morning. Goode Co. Taqueria on Kirby just south of Highway 59 serves breakfasts that are strongly influenced by Mexico and south Texas ranch cooking, and are consistently exceptional and hearty. The recipient of some national attention, The Breakfast Klub in Midtown is friendly, eclectic and properly caloric, sporting local and Southern-rooted flavor and nice vibe whose only downside is that you’ll likely have to wait in line for a while. Who knew that catfish and eggs can make for an excellent morning meal? The Dunlavy, set attractively above Buffalo Bayou off Allen Parkway west of downtown, offers attractive and even healthy breakfast options that can be accompanied with a mimosa or wine, if you must. Picos does an excellent job with Mexican breakfasts, done more nicely and refined than most, seven mornings a week.
Breakfast Pastries – Bringing donuts or pastries when visiting another office or making a sales call can help win some friends or bring smiles, at the very least. The sweet dough Kolaches are a regional specialty, both sweet and savory, and the best in Houston are found at the Kolache Shoppe in the Greenway Plaza area. Their kolaches might even be the best in the entire state, a recent trip to West, Texas strengthens that notion for me. Common Bond looks well beyond Texas to France for their baked goods and does a fantastic job with croissants and pretty much everything. Almost as good are those goods found at the stand-apart Bake Shop at Weights and Measures in Midtown.
Brunch – As distinct from breakfast, brunch is little nicer, longer and much more alcoholic. There are a number of options including Brennan’s in Midtown, the sister restaurant of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, which serves a classic Crescent City-style brunch that is refined, rich and with rarely a table that hews to single drink per person. A Houston classic brunch is Backstreet Café, which has a similarly appealing courtyard and kitchen. Its stablemate, Hugo’s, does the morning fare of Mexico and more on the weekend, including a mariachi-drenched buffet, a very nice buffet, as does another one, Caracol, in the Galleria on the weekend, though more seafood-oriented, and its most recent sibling, Xochi in the Marriott across from Discovery Green downtown that is similarly enticing. Not incidentally, these are the three best Mexican restaurants in the city. For something more casual, but with the expected quality of fare and well-made cocktails, there is Weights and Measures in a quiet part of Midtown. For something different and a drive, but excellent, is the city’s best and most copious dim sum at Fung’s Kitchen, about 10 miles southwest of downtown on I-69, though be sure to get there before 11:30 as the 500-or-so-seat dining room will already be packed.
Chinese – Until a couple of years ago, there was no Chinese food inside the Loop in Houston. Well, there was Chinese-American food – and likely truly Chinese dishes cooked for Chinese patrons – but recently there have been a trio of quality, truly Chinese to open in the greater Montrose area west of downtown. All are Sichuan, the spicy, chile- and Sichuan pepper-laden cuisine that might be the most popular in China. Nicely set Mala Sichuan, the quaint and bare-bones and the rapidly multiplying Pepper Twins are worthy of a visit, and all quite popular with Chinese nationals, a good sign, but still inviting to those not knowing any Mandarin. The location on West Gray might be the nicest with a slightly different menu and seemingly better ingredients, and alcohol, too. The Kirby one is also quite pleasant, both much more so than the original on Fairview, which did get a shout out, though, for having the appetizer of the year in 2017 according to a writer at GQ, the innocuously named Mr. & Mrs. Smith. The most attractive Chinese restaurant in the city, and one of the most expensive, is Yautcha in the Galleria. It's a lively, upscale place specializing in dim sum dishes that's similar to its Michelin-starred sibling in London's Soho neighborhood. If you want to make the drive, Chinatown, which is centered around Bellaire Boulevard west of I-69 in southwest Houston is largest Chinatown in the country area-wise – really – and jam-packed with often wondrous and inexpensive Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese and even Korean and Malaysian restaurants, tea shops and supermarkets and a lot more.
Cocktails – Opened in 2009 as Houston’s first serious craft cocktail bar, Anvil in Montrose has deservedly earned a fair amount of national press, and continued local attention from appreciative, savvy imbibers. Their cocktails are impressive and it has also spawned several other very worthy sprits-centric establishments that are also worth a visit. This evangelist of mezcal amid the cluster of Main Street bars downtown, The Pastry War, can provide a great setting for an introduction to this beguiling spirit that has deservedly gained acclaim in the past half-dozen years while being a fun bar that also has an array of bottled Mexican beers and one of the very best house frozen margaritas around. Tongue Cut Sparrow, the quaint bar-within-a-bar upstairs at The Pastry War, provides a very cool setting with attentive service and fabulous cocktails. Nearby, OKRA is a casual stop in the early evening just off Main Street for a quality cocktail, a well-chosen and nicely priced wine or an interesting-enough beer, and like most of its neighbors, a bit more hectic later. Another member of the group, Julep on Washington Avenue not too far west of downtown, riffs on a Southern theme and serving updated classic cocktails plus an envious list of brown spirits led by the pride of Bourbon County. Opened by an alumnus of the Anvil is the Bad News Bar perched above the bustle of Main Street that has mellowed somewhat into a top-flight cocktail bar. Though known for its wine and whisky, Public Services does a wonderful service with cocktails that are finely updated versions of the classics, always spot on. Something outside the expected fold and a little different, is El Big Bad that specializes in casual infused-tequila concoctions that can be quite tasty while offering a great deck overlooking a stretch busy downtown and a kitchen with long hours.
Coffeehouses – Starbucks are ubiquitous as in everywhere as in every industrialized country in the world, but there are also homegrown spots with a little more personality and likely even better coffee, as the Port of Houston is a big hub for coffee imports. Catalina Coffee in a storefront on Washington Avenue just a mile west of downtown was one of the first of the more serious coffeehouses in Houston, featuring roasts from its sister company, the local Amaya Roasting Co. Blacksmith, nearly across the street from Underbelly on Westheimer in Montrose and part of its restaurant group, features coffee, well-chosen teas and friendly service from acclaimed local roaster Greenway Coffee and a casual, eclectic menu that also draws in the crowds for breakfast and lunch. A block away on Westheimer, Southside Espresso is a quaint spot that offers a different range of also locally roasted coffees from their sister company, Fusion Beans Coffee Roastery and an European feel, plus teas, food, wine and odd or very hoppy beers. Not far away, also in Montrose, as most of the most interesting coffee spots reside, Campesino on Waugh north of Westheimer provides “a Latin perspective on Montrose coffee culture” featuring a strong coffee from a couple of local roasters including Katz’s, a Houston favorite found at a number of places, along with food like empanadas and tamales. Siphon further south in Montrose has the unique Siphon method utilizing halogen burners for much of its coffees and then espresso machines for the rest, all from a couple local roasters and some well-regarded national ones. Fairly spacious, it also offers a decent-sized menu at breakfast and lunch, with foodstuffs from top local and regional purveyors. Less serious, if more arty, Inversion provides an easily accessible stop for a quality cup just off busy Montrose Boulevard and an interesting food truck always in its parking lot to provide sustenance. Mercantile is another roomy one in Montrose, with a second location in the Rice Village, offering not just coffees from a local roaster, but wine and a small number of specialty groceries. A few blocks away from their Rice Village spot, Italian-owned Fellini Caffe does an excellent job with the requisite Italian-style coffees that attracts a steady European clientele. A few blocks from the ballpark in EaDo near I-69, Tout Suite, is a casual, industrially chic bakery and coffeehouse that should be able to satisfy the morning needs. In downtown proper, The Honeymoon Café, attractively set on a glass-lined corner on a stretch of busy Main Street, has become a popular place for weekend coffees, which are roasted in house, and hearty morning eats, with some of the menu drawing inspiration from New Orleans.
Crawfish – Crawfish season runs from about late January through May, and is a big deal to a lot of Houstonians, who eagerly await the taste of the invariably messy, often spicy boiled crawfish consumed by the pound. One of the best is The Boot located just west of the Heights proper that features regular shipments of crawfish from southern Louisiana and properly relaxed atmosphere for enjoying it. Even more casual, T-Bones is a very dumpy sports bar in near northwest Houston that happens to do a very good job with crawfish. Ragin Cajun is more expensive and much more popular than these two, but a go-to for many for crawfish during the season, and it also has a good-sized menu for those not wanting the mudbugs. For something a little different and a drive to Chinatown in southwest Houston, Crawfish and Noodles is among the best purveyors of Vietnamese style boiled crawfish, something that has become popular in the past decade.
Downtown – Though not quite a dining nexus, yet, downtown became a lot more interesting during the Super Bowl year of 2017. Clustered around Discovery Green are Xochi a Oaxacan-themed sibling to Hugo’s and Caracol, the city’s best two, now three, Mexican restaurants, and Brasserie du Parc from one of the city’s top French chefs, both a creperie during the day and offering a enticing range of familiar French dishes both day and night. Located conveniently across the street from the Hilton Americas and the George R. Brown Convention Center on Discovery Green like the previous two, The Grove offers an attractive contemporary space and approachable and tempting locally attuned menu under the aegis of one of the city’s venerable chefs, Robert Del Grande. And, for steakhouses, there are Vic & Anthony’s and a location of Pappas Bros. Steakhouse and Quattro in for Italian, which lost its star chef in late 2017, but should be worthwhile, at the very least, as all Four Seasons restaurants are. Main Kitchen in the JW Marriott on Main Street provides a well-executed array of appealing options with global and regional influences and often some spice in a lively open space that bleeds into the attractive bar with big windows looking out on a street scene enlivened by light rail passing by. Another hotel eatery, this one near The House of Blues, in the Hotel Alessandra is 64-seat Lucienne that serves only four- and six-course tasting menus at night featuring largely French-inspired preparations, but more casual a la carte dishes during the day including a range of salads, sandwiches and tartares for lunch. Opened right across from MinuteMaid, whose proprietor is fittingly Astros owner, Jim Crane, is Potente, a pricey Italian-inspired New American – “Downtown Caviar Service” is among the starters – that has well-regarded Brennan’s former executive chef and Commanders Palace alum, Danny Trace, leading the kitchen. Around the corner is its casual sibling Osso & Kristalla, opened for three meals a day offering a well-run pizza oven and fair amount more of Italian food with a very strong American accent. Not bad. A very scruffy, dumpy, lunch-only burger joint, the Hubcap Grill, has deservedly won legions of fans for its well-rendered take on the great American burger. Christian's Tailgate serves another very good burger, a basic one done well, in sports bar environment on Congress. For something still relaxed, but when a burger is not in mind, there is MKT Bar serving Middle Eastern fare and more, along with well-chosen wines and beers, that is set in the base of Phoenicia Specialty Foods near Discovery Green. And, then there is the bare-bones Bombay Pizza Co. on Main Street with its Indian-flavored pizza-like creations that can work very well. Just a block or so away is the Finn Hall, a food hall that opened in December 2018 with eight diverse dining options from Sichuan, Vietnamese, seafood, pizza and burgers and included edited versions of local favorites like Goode Co. Taueria. Booze, too, but long hours from 7:00 to late night. Near Main Street and down a flight of stairs is The Conservatory is an underground beer, wine and food hall with several options, and quite cool. The fourth branch of one of Houston’s most laudable sandwich shops, upscale and interesting at that, Local Foods is the heart of downtown on Main Street. On the other side of the freeway from the convention center, Vinny's, a late 2018 addition, dishes up commendable rectangular slices that works well hen sober and not, and something different from the broadly similar-looking Sicilian and grandma pies of the New York area.
French – Though it might come as a surprise to most locals, there has actually been an unmistakable French influence on Houston mostly through the patronage of the Menil family who recruited the architect Philip Johnson to the city to work on their family home and the main quadrangle at the University of St. Thomas after the war, and Johnson become the favorite, and most significant, architect working locally and alighting the skyline with the Williams Tower in the Galleria, the Pennzoil and the BankAmerica buildings downtown. The Menil Collection and Rothko Chapel are other significant legacies. Their fortune came from the Schlumberger, which is joined by large operations by Total, Techniq and AirLiquide among the most prominent ones. There are a fair amount of French nationals to enjoy their home cuisine that is done very aptly and attractively here, if not terribly adventurously. The two most lauded are Le Mistral on the far west side and Etoile in Uptown Park. The latter has a similar sibling that opened downtown just a month ago, Brasserie du Parc, which is expected to shine. Not far from downtown is Artisans that features a dramatic open kitchen surrounded by about two dozen seats and a menu of familiar French fare usually done exquisitely and always expensively. In the Galleria area, the attractive La Table has pleased with its approachable, comfortable and noticeably very well-executed French fare since it opened a little over a year ago. The former chef at La Table opened Maison Pucha Bistro in late 2017, a stylish and hard-working bistro serving quality renditions of familiar fare that’s been popular since its start.
Galleria – These will be within walking distance of the big hotels, if you care to be a pedestrian. Café Annie works for a drink, a somewhat casual meal and a more ambitious and usually excellent one from the kitchen of long-lauded Robert Del Grande, and a chance to catch a something sleek crafted in Maranello or Modena pull up to the valet stand. Run by the star of the recent “Deli Man” documentary, the gregarious Ziggy Gruber, Kenny & Ziggy’s produces comically caloric creations that you would expect in a quality traditional Jewish deli with roots in New York. Their open-faced pastrami Reuben is glorious, absolutely delicious, ungainly monstrosity, possibly the best in an array of tempting, heart-stopping sandwich choices. For top-notch Mexican and seafood in an attractive space and setting, there is Caracol. Striking, quite competent in the kitchen and mostly French, La Table is nicely, if expensively, located a few steps from Café Annie. In or at the Galleria are outposts of a few national or international restaurant groups that attract visitors and locals: Yautcha, a lively, upscale dim sum restaurant that's similar to its Michelin-starred sibling in London's Soho neighborhood; a branch of the globally popular Peruvian-spiked Japanese Nobu that opened in mid-2018 to throngs of well-shod and -heeled patrons; and the soaring, masculine Del Frisco's, long one of the city's most popular steakhouses.
Houston notables; notably Houston – A few restaurants don’t fit neatly in any of these other categories, but would be remiss not to mention to restaurant-savvy visitor. At the top the list is the nationally acclaimed UB Preserv in the heart of Montrose is the successor to the famed Underbelly that won the James Beard Award for chef Chris Shepherd. Burnishing the phrase, “The Story of Houston Food,” the kitchen incorporates not just products but flavors from the disparate cultures that are part of the Houston mosaic, and succeeding in nearly every dish. Café Annie from Houston’s most famous chef and a pioneer of Southwestern cuisine in the 1980s, Robert Del Grande, provides top-notch fine dining, much more casual noshing and attractive lounge activity in seamless, gorgeous contemporary space in the midst of the Galleria area’s hotels. In late 2017, the restaurant added the Prime Room, separate room with a separate, small menu featuring old school classics led by the Slow Roasted Prime Rib. Backstreet Café is a wonderful expression of a locally attuned American bistro that has matured in its three decades as a favorite along with the city’s dining habits. A tough reservation since opening in late 2015, and quickly a clubhouse for the well-heeled from the surrounding neighborhood, State of Grace has a seemingly scattershot menu – Gulf Coast-inspired fare, Tex-Mex, Italian, expense-account-worthy steaks, and some Asian flavors plus a postcard-pretty tiled oyster bar – that nonetheless makes sense here and is well done. Though it focuses primarily on Creole fare and is the sister restaurant of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans , owned by the Brennan family, the fare at Brennan’s has longed been attuned to local tastes while providing much of the best of nearby New Orleans, with flavors from Latin America finding space on the plate in recent years. Unfortunately, it might have slipped since the departure of its chef in mid-2017. Maybe not Houston-centric, but Nancy's Hustle is quite well-suited for the still-gentrifying EaDo – a hyphenated East Downtown – with its quickly boisterous and nicely casual set-up in a new strip center coupled with a serious kitchen churning out delectable dishes with flavors ranging from the Mediterranean on either side of the Bosphorus to stateside, most designed for sharing, and an expertly chosen array of wine, cocktails and even beers to complement the evening.
Indian – Just reopened, possibly the best, and also the most expensive, Kiran’s is many ways a very good, hushed fine dining restaurant that happens to serve Indian food. But, the trueness of the cuisine to its roots and its quality is why you will find many Indians in the hushed dining room. Indika is also a nice restaurant out of the typical mode, even more so, with its fusion cooking that combines that flavors of what is now Pakistan with more Western ones, always done intelligently and to good effect, even since the founding owner and chef sold the restaurant to concentrate on the more casual and multi-concept Pondicheri. A second branch in Manhattan and was one of New York’s top ten new restaurants in 2016 for the New York Times. Quaint, contemporary Surya tucked in a tiny strip center along the Washington Corridor a few miles west of downtown, has grown into one of the city's best Indian restaurants, offering familiar northern Indian dishes and more, often with the chef's sure, personal touch. Himalaya south from the Galleria area down I-69 serves terrific, vibrant Pakistani fare and more in a humble setting that has drawn deserved raves from food writers since not long after opening.
Italian – There is actually some good Italian in the city. A few miles west of Westheimer, Amalfi specializes in the vibrant and familiar cooking of the Amalfi coast, the home area of chef-owner Giancarlo Ferrara, who also does a proper Venetian-style risotto and an excellent table-fileted Dover sole courtesy of stints working in northern Italy and a French restaurant bearing two Michelin stars. Da Marco on Westheimer in Montrose has been on the short list of best Houston restaurants for fifteen years and turns out refined upscale trattoria fare with dishes from across Italy in a quaint and quite setting. At the much more casual and popular Giacomo's east on Westheimer, affordably priced and well-rendered small plates of trattoria-style Italian dishes that often highlight Rome and Tuscany, but also including items like mozzarella in carrozza and fine quality freshly made pastas, are paired with a nicely assembled, interesting, and very nicely priced 75-bottle or so mostly Italian wine list that has many tempting choices between $25 and $40, and a setting that is comfortable and coolly retro. Maurizio Ferrarese, one of the best Italian chefs in the state, became executive chef at RIstorante Cavour at the Hotel Granduca in Uptown Park in late 2018, making this fine-dining spot another top destination for Italian fare.
Italian (-American) – Serving what most people think of Italian food featuring a plates with a palette heavy in reds, whites and greens signaling vibrant and hearty flavors, this is still one of the country’s favorite cuisines. And, several long-popular Houston restaurants – whose owners are all part of the Mandola clan – can more than aptly oblige a craving for it. Not far from downtown, Damian’s has been a favorite for upscale takes on familiar fare since the early 1980s. Then there is Carrabba’s, on Kirby begat the national chain, but in this original site is something different and much better, and a preternaturally popular for restaurant-going locals who appreciate the friendly, professional service and lively atmosphere. Nino’s, an option among a cluster of establishments, has a menu filled with robust Italian-American choices with evident Sicilian roots; among their best dishes is the superb Veal Vincent, a tender veal scallop that is coated with Parmesan, pan-fried and topped with artichoke hearts and lemon-scented butter. Not Italian-American, but not really Italian, either is Potente, a pricey Americanized Italian that has highly regarded executive chef Danny Trace leading the way.
Live music – The quaint McGonigel’s Mucky Duck in the Upper Kirby District has been a popular stop for regional and national Americana acts – or just “Texas music” here – since 1990, and also offers a nice selection of wines and beers – including the city’s best pint of Guinness – and even kitchen dishing far-better-than-can-expected pub-inspired fare. Just down Kirby is the larger, and a little twangier and more raucous Goode Co. Armadillo Palace, a newly renovated “one-of-a-kind tribute to all things Texas.” The Continental Club on a rail stop in Midtown has great, club-like setting and an array of local, regional and national acts. The Heights Theater featuring regional Texas troubadours and more brings a cool new venue in an old one, a long abandoned movie theater in the Heights, which is now burgeoning with things to do after dark. Also newish and even cooler, a few miles east of this on the other side of I-45 just north of downtown is White Oak Music Hall with both indoor and outdoor stages featuring younger and edgier acts along with some great views of the downtown skyline, especially from The Raven Tower, a bachelor-pad-the-sky during the swinging 70s. A hip addition to the gentrifying Montrose neighborhood is Goodnight Charlie's that features up-and-coming Texas- and rockabilly-themed music plus an inviting and attractive setting for a drink early in the evening. It's got some local food and wine cred, being helmed in part by a top area wine pro, Master Sommelier David Keck, who is a former opera singer, to boot.
Mexican – Be sure you see “Tex-Mex” below, too. Though the borders between the two cuisines can be fuzzy in Houston, there still is a difference, and the truly Mexican restaurants can be ambitious, and expensive. Hugo’s from James Beard Award-winning chef Hugo Ortega and company is a prime example that Mexican fare can be upscale and the centerpiece of a fine dining experience. Sporting often creative dishes rooted in tradition that are done very well and attractively, an excellent beverage program that extends far beyond its terrific Hugo Rita and a boisterous setting, the only downside is that it can be cacophonous. Its sibling, Caracol, a gorgeous, multi-purpose seafood-centric spot a few blocks from the Galleria is Hugo’s only real challenger to the best Mexican restaurant in city other than Xochi. Situated downtown in the Marriott Marquis across from Discovery Green, this Oaxacan-inspired sibling to Hugo’s and Caracol, and joins them among the very best Mexican restaurants in the city. Its array of small plates – though often quite small portions – makes sampling this likely unique cuisine easy and enjoyable. If you wonder about their authenticity, they just added a restaurant in Oaxaca to their small group of eateries. Not quite the level of these two, Picos on Kirby, has been favorite of Mexican food fans for decades and can make for a very enjoyable visit with its well-executed Mexican staples like conchinita pibil and fantastic margaritas bolstered by an excellent array of tequilas. Amazingly loud. You might also try Cuchara, a Mexico City-influenced bistro in a minimalist space serving the contemporary fare of our southern neighbor’s sprawling capital that is cool, casual and something just a little lighter and little different. South of the Galleria area is a quaint, comfortable space, Saltillo, specializing in locally adapted, upscale versions of the often beef-laden dishes from the northern Mexican town of the same name, which quickly became popular with weekend travelers to the Galleria from Mexico.
Pizza – The city might not be a great pizza town, or even a very good one, but there are some pizzerias worth a visit. The best by a mile is Dolce Vita from Marco Wiles, who also run Da Marco, one of Houston’s top Italian restaurants down the street. Dolce Vita consistently excellent, thin-crust pizzas that are Italian in execution and a Neapolitan in inspiration. The pies are bolstered by an array of tempting, well-executed small plates and a terrific, nearly-all Italian wine list. Bare-bones Bombay Pizza Co. on Main Street downtown does tasty takes on oddly endearing Indian-flavored pizzas on a crusty Indian bread crust. Pi Pizza, not too far west of a drive from downtown, serves a creative, if somewhat hipster-like take on pizzas small and larger that is fun rather than off-putting; booze, too. Though inconsistent, Pizaro’s usually does enjoyable versions of Neapolitan-style pizzas in an appropriately casual setting. Convenient for convention goers, as it is a short work to the other side of the freewy, Vinny's, dishes up commendable slices that work well for an inexpensive meal, just don't look at the per pie prices, as the huge sizes result in huge prices.
Seafood – Houston has one of the biggest ports in the country, so the bounty of the Gulf is not too far away. One of the best places to savor it is at Reef in Midtown from acclaimed home-town product Bryan Caswell who offers terrific seafood showcasing the sensibilities of a top-notch chef with an international pedigree and longtime Gulf fisherman. Unfortunately, it will not reopen until November 2018. Danton’s and its influential predecessor Goode Co. Seafood offer more strictly local Gulf Coast-style seafood – which means, here, plenty of fishes and flavors from neighboring south Louisiana and Mexico. Goode Co.’s campechana, a piquant seafood cocktail appetizer, is a local favorite.
Splurge – The Pass is the fine dining concept of the two-and-one Pass & Provisions that aims higher, maybe too high for some, than nearly any other restaurant in the city, and only offers set multi-course meals with optional drink pairings. It gets extra credit for its cool secret door entry. You don’t have to splurge at star chef Chris Shepherd’s One Fifth Mediterranean, but you easily can. This third installment features the food of the Levant, North Africa, and also Turkey and Greece, giving the cuisines an upscale setting and attention that has not happened to often in this area. The eclectic and personal cuisine at Theodore Rex, successor to Oxheart that closed in the spring of 2017 that won Chef Justin Yu a recent James Beard Award, is more protein-oriented and user-friendly – a small list of a la carte offerings rather than a strict tasting menu – and is still a pilgrimage for many dedicated local diners to its location in a neglected part of downtown. If you are a visiting celebrity of a certain vintage, or enjoy spending time with the town’s society set, especially during lunch, decades-old Tony’s remains one of the city’s top restaurants, and most polished. It serves well-rendered versions current Italian fare and luxe items accompanied with an extensive wine list that's filled with trophy bottles, and is set in a posh, contemporary space featuring large works from modern art masters from the region like Robert Rauschenberg and Jesus Moroles. Opened at the start of 2017, Riel was one of the most anticipated new restaurants last year, featuring the talents of a chef who won plaudits working at Reef and Underbelly under two of the city’s culinary stars, and early on it lives up to the hype with an array of extremely well-executed and flavorful creations featuring Gulf fish, extraordinary vegetables and even superb steaks done in small plate fashion, meant for sharing. Downtown there is the new 64-seat Lucienne in the Hotel Alessandra that serves four- and six-course tasting menus featuring largely French-inspired preparations, sometimes indulgent, that are $95 and$125, respectively, when wine pairings are included.
Steak – Opened in October 2018, the most interesting steakhouse in the city is Georgia James from star chef Chris Shepherd and team, which is reprising the very popular and terrific One Fifth Steak from 2017. Big cuts of beef, superior sides and starters, a different and excellent wine list, and a whole lot to entice, even for less-than-committed carnivores. For many, the best steakhouse in the city is Pappas Bros. Steakhouse just west of the Galleria, which has a second location downtown. From the family that owns the wide-ranging chain of Pappas restaurants, their steakhouse concept is properly upscale and extravagant, very masculine in feel, and offers the requisite offerings of the genre, just done better than nearly everywhere else. These also boast the most expansive and best wine lists in the state. They also offer the Pappas trademark of an extremely high decibel level most nights. Vic & Anthony’s is from another local restaurant chain, Landry’s, and is a take on the upscale Italian-American steakhouse concept (e.g. The Palm). Even locals who swear never to eat at any of the numerous Landry’s properties seem to love Vic & Anthony’s. Located in a nearly windowless fortress-like building, it sports a proper bit of refined raffishness that comes with the Italian-American steakhouse turf. That feel not forced, as Landry’s capo Tilman Fertitta is a nephew of the Maceos, the Sicilian-American businessmen who ran the gambling and entertainment operations in Galveston some decades ago. If not quite the reputation of the other two, B&B Butchers does a good job with the expected steaks and more, including some very pricey 55-day dry aged steak and even pricier ones with A5 beef from Japan. Plus, it has a couple of things that the other two don’t, plenty of parking, and more so, a fantastic view of the downtown skyline. Killen’s STQ from Ronnie Killen of Killen's Barbecue fame brings his smoking and grilling skills along with his steakhouse experience to the big city from suburban Pearland and offers a slightly different taste on steak and the steakhouse experience in a fairly quaint setting a few miles west of the Galleria. The original location of Brenner’s near the Energy Corridor on the west side, has been serving customers since 1936 and is probably at its best and priciest ever, some years after the Landry’s empire upgraded it. All of the best upscale national steakhouse chains are here, of course, sometimes with multiple locations. West Coast-bred Mastro’s in the Galleria area, owned by Landry’s that also has Vic & Anthony’s, Morton’s and Brenner’s among their pricey steakhouse brands, which is the most luxe and over-the-top steakhouse in town boasting 12,000-square feet of interior, sixteen cuts of USDA Prime beef plus others, a dedicated sushi program, and a 20,000-bottle collection of wines, not to mention an adjacent Rolls Royce showroom. The scene is the real draw for many visitors. On the opposite end of the price range, Saldivia's in west Houston, a family run Uruguayan steakhouse, offers what is easily the best value steaks in the city along with a fine selection of beef-friendly Tannats and other wines from the home country.
Sushi – Oft-bustling Kata Rabata in the Upper Kirby District with Manabu Horiuchi leading the kitchen, does a terrific job with not just the sushi house staples but also those raw preparations touching Peru and elsewhere. One of the toughest tables in recent years has been Uchi, a transplant from Austin whose guiding light grew up in The Woodlands north of the city. Its very well-received take on contemporary, consumer-friendly Japanese cuisine has an emphasis on the raw and the cured, which are the primary draws. MF Sushi in the Museum District is set in a beautiful, modern space, an excellent setting for Chef Chris Kenji’s set-course omakase offerings that has won raves since he arrived from Atlanta a few years ago. A little humbler than these, in a quieter stretch of Montrose Boulevard is Nippon, Japanese-owned and -operated for three decades and a popular with Japanese ex-pats. The son of its owners opened Shun in late 2018 serving sushi and sashimi along with number of other Japanese and Japanese-themed preparations from a well-regarded kitchen staff. There are also outposts of Roka Akor and Nobu that do a more than commendable job with sushi and a good deal more.
Tex-Mex – Though it might not get much press attention as it once did, Tex-Mex remains very popular here; margaritas and longnecks, invariably loud settings, chips and freshly made salsas, and piquant, hearty if eminently enjoyable fare will likely be popular for quite a while. The small local chain El Tiempo is the best option for it in the area. Run by the family of Tex-Mex pioneer Ninfa Laurenzo, it does a terrific job with fajitas and other beef-laden items along with the basic frozen margarita that is just much tastier and more potent than the norm. The famed and always bustling and fun (if increasingly pricey) Ninfa’s sits across from one of the locations of her family's El Tiempo. Unfortunately, the fajitas and similar tacos al carbon at Ninfa's are shadow of what they used to be in terms of flavor and tenderness, and something else should be ordered there, though you’ll have fun, regardless. The attractive Goode Co. Kitchen and Cantina off I-10 in west Houston does the familiar Tex-Mex much better than most and with a distinctive locally attune style that has made all the Goode Co. restaurants justifiably popular. The scruffier El Patio on busy Westheimer is probably known to most Houstonians for its Club No Minors with its boisterous young atmosphere bolstered by copious amounts of strong and sickeningly sweet margaritas, but the food has actually been worth a trip itself for quit a while. A newcomer in the summer of 2018 that has been packed since opening for good reason, is the Heights's Calle Onze, an attractive and hip spot with an excellent kitchen. Sylvia’s Enchilada House has three locations, and though you should probably get one of the many enchilada preparations, but just about everything is enjoyable here. The Westheimer near Kirby location of the Austin import Chuy’shas seemingly been packed most days and evenings since it opened over a couple of decades ago and remains a very enjoyable stop for the fun, caloric fare, often with frozen margaritas, that makes a strong case for being the best outpost of the entire concept.
Thai – When you are traveling for a meal at Vieng Thai in Spring Branch about a mile-and-a-half west of the West 610 Loop, you are traveling there for the food, as there is not much else: décor, service, or alcohol. But the noticeably vibrant, always well-executed Thai fare that is seemingly more authentic than most and always worth the trip. Just remember to bring your wine or beer, as it is BYOB-only. Longer-standing and long-loved, Kanomwan a few miles south of downtown has a similar, if even starker vibe, that is likewise an excellent value. Much nicer than these two, is Songkran in Uptown Park that has all the accouterments of the typical nice restaurant while serving Bangkok-style Thai food that is often excellent. Southeast of the Galleria, Thai Gourmet has served a devoted clientele with its properly piquant and flavorful cooking for a comparative song for over a couple of decades.
Whisky / Whiskey – In what was a Citgo gas station affecting the look of cool, upscale ice house in heart of the mostly residential Heights is the coolest whiskey bar in the city, Eight Row Flint, which specializes in bourbon and rye whiskies and attendant cocktails while also serving tasty tacos on house-made corn tortillas; the one with beef cheeks is among of the tastiest tacos in town. Believe it. Even better is the greasy, messy beef taco that might be the single best food served by this multi-restaurant outfit. Public Services downtown has possibly the most intelligently curated selections of whiskies in the city in an attractive late 19th century building and setting. If without the charm or as knowledgeable staff as the previous two, Reserve 101 has the largest selection of whiskies in the city and it is closer to many of the downtown hotels. Izakaya at the cusp of Midtown serves a variety of Japanese and sensibly interpreted fusion cooking that riffs on the small-plate izakaya theme, and includes a big array of whiskies, from Japan, and the English-speaking country. Ninja Ramen on bar-centric Washington Avenue west of downtown is a restaurant focused on ramen while having what has been called the biggest collection of Japanese whiskies in the region, and it is open until at least 2 AM. Not far from there is Federal Grill, a restaurant with an impressive array of whiskies, just one of which goes into their flaming Old Fashioned.
Wine – The list at nearly all of the city’s best establishments have sported decidedly Old World-heavy lists in recent years, and that has been echoed at the top wine bars. 13 Celsius in Midtown, but blocks removed from Midtown’s animated last-night scene, this a terrific, laid-back place to explore the ever-changing world of wine, done without pretension and help from the staff. On par with it, is Camerata, which might be a little more serious, as it is a popular stop for local sommeliers, and it has a shorter, but similarly excellent curated list of wines, though far fewer by the glass. Doing double duty with spirits, Public Services has a more limited selection – it is a whiskey bar, too – but has a number of well-chose Old World producers among the 75 or so wines, and it’s the best place to drink sherry in town. A little different, located near the Galleria in Uptown Park, The Tasting Room is large space, inside and out, with as much an emphasis on the bar as the wine, and has a busy singles scene that fills up its expansive patio. Vinology, easily accessible south of I-69, is something different for the city, a very inviting combination retail space with a small wine bar that features and ever-changing array of engaging flights, usually from distinctive producers. The roughly 350 retail selections are very well chosen with an emphasis on the Old World and those from the New that emphasis balance over fruit. A summer 2017 newcomer is the champagne-centric a’Bouzy where, though a restaurant, the food is best ignored, to focus on the amazing list of sparklers, mostly from Champagne, which is usually priced below retail and the people watching featuring a largely attractive, if louche, cast of characters.
Vietnamese – Home to a large Vietnamese population since the 1970s, Vietnamese food is a staple for most regular local diners, enjoyed, in part, for the typical freshness, lightness and the ability to provide a surprisingly amount of flavor for ridiculously small amount of money. Huynh just the other side of the freeway from the downtown convention center is somewhat bare-bones, but friendly and charming, and quite a value for the quality of its fare, and it is also BYOB with a low corkage fee. Long-standing Kim Son a veritable palace a half-mile down the street from Huynh or one of its siblings, has served as an introduction to the cuisine for many Houstonians and sports a lengthy menu with more than a few options that should satisfy. Just a block away, Café TH is a much smaller place, with a much smaller menu than its neighbor, but has plenty of choices and plenty of personality, though open for dinner only on Thursday and Friday night. Les Noo'dle on Montrose is updated, cool version of the popular pho restaurant (vegan pho, too) in a quaint, hip setting, with unfortunately very little parking. Bare-bones, but a favorite of the local Vietnamese community and savvy downtown diners, Thien An churns out tasty preparations of banh mi, pho, vermicelli dishes and steamed rice rolls for a comparative song from 8:00 to 6:00 from Sunday through Friday. Quirky Cali Sandwiches not far away in Midown does nearly as good a job.
One of the excellent dishes found at Nancy's Hustle in Eado