Before I first ventured to Houston, nearly a decade ago, I naively envisioned it as an oil-rich cowboy haven big on barbecue. While there’s no denying the city’s wealth (take a detour to mansion-peep in affluent River Oaks), its iconic rodeo, or penchant for smoked brisket (save the pulled pork cravings for the next time you visit North Carolina), the half-dozen times I’ve been here since continue to astound with its cosmopolitan feel anchored by a world-class (and funky) arts scene.
Each time I visit, it’s the booming restaurant culture that captivates me most. Houstonians love to dine out, whether it’s to queue up at El Real (former Next Iron Chef contender Bryan Caswell’s new Tex-Mex joint) for bubbling queso, tuck into grouper and jalapeno polenta on the terrace of Restaurant Cinq at the La Colombe d’Or hotel, or plop down at Robert Del Grande’s RDG + Bar Annie and knock back a pre-dinner “Country Western Manhattan.”
On my most recent trip, this spring, I noted an alluring simplicity. I returned to a few classic places but I also blissfully witnessed the city’s burgeoning cocktail movement and saw restaurants shine a light on ingredients grown at myriad Texas farms.
Here are a few not-to-miss spots the next time you plan on eating and imbibing in America’s fourth largest city:
Anvil: When Anvil Bar & Refuge opened, mixologist Bobby Heugel and team completely transformed the way Houstonians think about drinking. The modern-industrial space (the bar is housed in a former tire store) is just as comfortable as a neighborhood watering hole, yet the cocktails served at the weathered steel bar are masterpieces, with fresh, local ingredients and Prohibition-era recipes on offer. Here, Houstonians clamor for “The Bayou Horchata” (Tequila, popcorn rice, pecans, allspice dram) and “Zydeco Fiddle” (gin, Cajun-inspired Trinity syrup, lemon, apricot brandy, celery bitters, house ginger beer) off Anvil’s “Summer of the South” menu, which also features regional small plates by Chef Chris Shepherd.
Shepherd has joined forces with Heugel’s crew to open the powerhouse restaurant Underbelly later this year.
Benjy’s on Washington: Yes, Benjy Levit attracts customers to his restaurant in The Heights (the original, Benjy’s in the Village, is near Rice University) for the modern-American cuisine — pistachio-crusted goat cheese cakes, short rib pizza from a wood-burning oven, Mom’s chocolate pecan-iced cake — but Levit himself is also a reason to linger.
The affable host weaves from table to table, chatting with guests and ensuring they’re content. He also created a coveted bar menu, luring in diners with his Texas New Aged Cocktails, which are welcomed twists on the barrel-aged drink phenomenon. Next up? An aged sangria with cucumbers, Sauvignon Blanc, and apricot brandy. Enjoy a glass in the subdued lounge upstairs. (Photo courtesy of Jack Thompson)
Brennan’s of Houston: Heartbreak swept the city when a fire caused by Hurricane Ike destroyed the roof and interiors of Brennan’s — the legendary Texan-Creole sister restaurant of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. After a 16-month restoration, Brennan’s reopened last year with its original brick walls intact, a new courtyard-view bar serving up “Pimm & Propers” (Pimm’s No.1, Gosling’s ginger beer, fresh lemon juice), and shrimp & tasso corn dogs, and a revitalized sexy wine room.
The effusive hospitality for which the restaurant is known also hasn’t wavered. Old-world Brennan’s may be too fancy to become a nightly habit, but after feasting on pecan-crusted gulf fish and Bananas Foster — and snagging fresh pralines as a parting gift — it’s be hard to forget. (Photo courtesy of Brennan's of Houston)
Haven: As you would expect of a native Texan reared on a farm, Randy Evans is a champion of fresh, seasonal ingredients at his restaurant, Haven. Evans seeks out local purveyors, many of whom appear in the parking lot of his restaurant on Saturday afternoons to sell their goods at the intimate After Market Market. The result is a menu highlighting a regional bounty — free-range deviled eggs and bread-n-butter pickle relish, pan-roasted Gulf oysters, and wild head-on shrimp and andouille. Justin Burrow, one of the founding partners of Anvil, is behind the stick here now, so look for well-executed cocktail classics including the Pisco Sour and Last Word to boot.
Philippe: France and Texas collide at Philippe Restaurant + Lounge. Houstonians eagerly anticipated this sexy space replete with antique mirrors and a zinc bar for Philippe Schmit’s equally seductive food. Having worked in New York kitchens from Le Bernardin to Orsay, this self-professed French Cowboy understands refined European cuisine. However, he’s also a fan of melding that finesse with bold flavors.
An open kitchen and a video camera turned on so curious guests can steal a glimpse of the cooks at work show Schmit's extroverted side. He whips up dishes that are at once grounding and inventive like the Moroccan-spiced beef tartare with almonds, raisins, and harissa, the Sauternes and Armagnac-marinated foie gras served out of a jar, an rib-sticking Burgundy beef cheeks with bacon and mac and cheese. (Photo courtesy of Shannon O'Hara)
Pondicheri: For many, breakfast means scarfing down a bagel until lunch beckons. Anita Jaisinghani, the stunning proprietress of modern Indian restaurant Indika, however, has given the most important meal of the day new meaning at the colorful Pondicheri, her more casual eatery where the warming aroma of spices greets guests upon entry. Slide into a booth and begin the day with an invigorating Masala chai and warm, carrot-studded paratha. Then, dig into a mess of savory eggs scrambled with piquant Indian spices and veggies alongside potato curry. Grab a lentil cornbread from Jaisinghani’s Bake Lab for a mid-morning snack. (Photo courtesy of Pondicheri)
Revival Market: A locavore’s dream, Revival Market’s shelves are filled with regional foodstuffs, from local okra and pickled watermelon to Houston Dairymaids cheese to Fluff Bake Bar moon pies. Founders Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber (Weber also runs the sustainable-driven Revival Meats in Yoakum, TX,) haven’t only created a grocery store, though. Stop at the butcher counter for lusty marbled pork collar. Or grab one of the few tables and tuck into a Mangalitsa hot dog nestled in a pretzel bun; stay for a while with a brewed-to-order cortado using Houston’s own beans.