You may have thought of the Texas seaport of Galveston as a convenient respite from Houston with an ample selection of fish-fry restaurants. End of story. But, in the last few years, a marked gourmet influence has come to the island. Gourmet, not just in terms of restaurants, but also in accommodations and local produce as well.
On a recent media visit organized by the Convention and Visitors Bureau, I got the chance to talk to many of the producers and they frequently cited the more relaxed lifestyle that ‘island time’ afforded them as the reason to be there. So don’t just go to Galveston to board a cruise ship, or visit impressive Moody Gardens with its aquarium and rainforest, check out the gourmet scene as well.
The focus of our long weekend was new gourmet destinations in town, so old standbys like Rudy & Paco’s and Leon’s BBQ, were passed by, but that isn’t to say you shouldn’t include them on your itinerary.
The nearest commercial airport is Houston Hobby, so you are likely to drive from there. Interstate 45 crosses a causeway that spills into the island, becoming the main drag, Broadway. After some unmemorable urban landscape it becomes an impressive divided boulevard, edged with some of the best Victorian residential architecture in Texas.
A way to learn about these is Galveston Island Historic Tours (led by a history faculty member from a nearby junior college). The tour, unless you pepper the guide with questions, is a gatling gun delivery of the minutest details on just about every significant building and statue that you pass. The other historical must-do is the 30 minute film at Pier 21 about the great flood of 1900, which (measured by the death toll) was the worst natural disaster ever to hit the United States. It led to major grade changes in the city.
Where To Stay
If you want the grandest accommodations on the island then the choice is easy. The Wyndham Hotel Galvez (named after Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid, Count of Gálvez) is simply magnificent in its scale and refined in its style. Its long circular drive and period architecture make it look like a European mansion.
The Wyndham Hotel Galvez and Spa truly deserves the word ‘grand’ to describe its frontage.
This historic building in the same league as other grand hotels in Texas like the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas or The Houstonian in Houston. Expansive, manicured grounds lead to an impressive porte-cochere and imposing doors opened by uniformed doormen that lead to to a welcoming and warm ochre-walled lobby. One quick trip through to gauge the feel made me realize that, for dinner, this is a very buzzy see-and-be-seen place.
For modern luxury, the San Luis Resort is also on the beach (south) side of the island, along the sea wall from the Galvez.
We stayed at the Wyndham Tremont House Hotel, a significant piece of history in its own right. The building was originally a dry goods warehouse. As a result, it has a Portman-style atrium through the center that looks as though it was squeezed across one dimension, until it was only 20-feet across. The Tremont has a pool/exercise sharing arrangement with the Wyndham Hotel Galvez and Spa, a mile away on the south coast of the island.
The restoration has decorated the rooms in a functional, formal, and historic style. There is a traditional dresser, a compact bathroom, a flat-screen TV with satellite service, and free Wi-Fi. The beds are first rate in the comfort department.
My original room has no desk but the hotel moved me to another one without a hitch. You can also ask the hotel to bring you a complimentary refrigerator if you have items that need to be kept cool during your stay. I had some wine bottles, so took advantage of this.
The other advantage of the Tremont Hotel emerges as our visit unfolds. It is in the heart of downtown. The Strand Historic District to be exact. This National Historic Landmark District is not only the location of dozens of architecturally significant buildings but they are now repositories of art galleries, bars, restaurants, and even a significant ice cream factory (more later).
Blake’s Bistro, San Luis Resort
I don’t know who Blake is/was but he must have done something very important to have such a swanky space named in his honor. The extensive buffet breakfast covers not just the “hotel brunch” staples such as scrambled eggs, but also fresh cooked smoked ham, omelettes on demand, better bacon than hotels are known for, and local preserves. The coffee is good as well.
Farley Girls Café
Farley Girls Café is, as they say, my kind of place. This tile-floored, brickwalled turn of the century establishment, a short distance from the University of Texas Medical Branch, offers all of the staples of the classic southwestern American brunch. Eggs Benedict, Huevos Rancheros, omelets, pancakes, and waffles. However, Farley’s executes them so well. I tried the usual morning culinary tripwire (due to the hollandaise sauce) Eggs Benedict. The kitchen proved unruffled. Dishes came out expeditiously to our pernickety group “not this, more of that”, all prepared to a tee.
Farley Girls Café, which also does a thriving lunch and dinner business, is the work of sisters Rosmond Duzich Thormahlen and Ryanne Duzich, and ‘Farley’ is their mother’s maiden name. The family has a long history in the restaurant business, which may explain why Farley Girls Café, while homey and hokey in appearance, is one smooth-running operation.
This is one of the best known and popular restaurants in Galveston, having opened in 1999. Although praised in reviews for its friendly service we lucked out as we got the heavily pierced staff who didn’t see the importance of that.
The server snapped out my total as I was filling my own coffee cup from the provided urn without as much as a “when you’re ready”, let alone “sir”. Some people who came in after us sat down waiting to be served as they were unaware of the policy that you place your own order at the counter. Did the server think to tell them?
Thankfully, the cooks are more focused and Mosquito Benedict was a truly filling eggs benedict to start the day, complete with special touches like artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, and sautéed shrimp (which were cold, unfortunately) on the homemade scones. Shrimp, egg, spinach and grits are layered with two ‘sunny side down’ eggs on top. It was a winner.
This funky building is open all day and boasts reasonable prices on all its menus. The food is not complex, but it is prepared with care.
The Hotel Galvez should get an honorary mention here. Its Sunday brunch is an institution, rather than just a meal, due to its massive buffet selection. This is a must do if you are in galveston on a Sunday.
This bare bones, independently owned sandwich joint does sandwiches with more attention to quality than most sandwich bars. For example, the open-face sandwich (called a tartine) is on seeded multigrain bread. Sandwiches and panini come with either a small dressed sandwich or kettle chips. Choose the salad. The basic range of drinks includes, nonetheless, Paulaner Hefeweizen — which really does get brewed in Munich and complies with the 1516 German beer purity law.
Oddly, for an establishment that extols localism on its web site, there is not a single Texas wine among the eight wines offered. Why not comparably priced Duchman Trebbiano instead of Zonin Pinot Grigio and Llano Estacado Cabernet Sauvignon instead of Beaulieu Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon?
Oasis Juice Bar and Market
No food scene can be considered truly diverse until it has ingested the vegetable smoothie craze of the hippy era, nowadays re-amped by yoga mums. Galveston’s entry is Oasis Juice Bar & Market on 25th St. where the thoughtful and attractive Kathleen DiNatale doubles as cafe owner and instructor at The Yoga Haven. The menu comprises a column of juices squeezed from some 20 fruits, vegetables, and even garlic and parsley. Pride of place goes to wheatgrass, which is accorded something of a first-among-equals status. We also tried some of the list of creative smoothies.
Monkey N Around (banana, almond butter, apple, chocolate almond milk) satisfies the inner bananaholic and Berry Good (blueberry, strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, banana, and almond milk) is a fruit hit. The remaining repertoire at Oasis is a large selection of teas, fresh-made coffee, soup and sandwiches. It’s a quirky, unusual space that oozes authenticity. People come and dwell here, partly thanks to the free Wi-Fi.
Casual, Or Not
Part of living in a beach resort is that it is not very formal. The strictest it gets is ‘no shirt, no shoes, no service’. Hence formal dress is really not required anywhere on the island. That puts a lot of proper sit-down restaurants in an amorphous category that we will call ‘casual, or not’. Alphabetically...
Chef Chris Lopez brings over 15 years of experience to this popular bustling seafood spot. Totally casual in ambience but serious about the seafood. There is an emphasis on local sourcing of the latter. I recommend Blvd. Campechana ($10), a seafood cocktail of shrimp, crab, avocado and tomato ostentatiously served up in a sundae glass. It is visually so desirable it could become the logo for this place. The Chowder ($10/$14), Smoked Salmon Crostini ($9), Crafty Clams ($15) are also all superior. The Fish Tacos ($11), lunch only, are popular as well. At dinner, enquire about the Exotic Game Specialty (Mkt.), which seems to be there as a personal indulgence of the chef. Good for him. For a state so addicted to hunting we need more use of game on menus.
How is this mother of all institutions (opened in 1911) faring after five generations in the same family’s ownership? Pretty well, I would say, based on a fast lunch trip which featured bisque and gumbo. Watkin’s bisque ($7 cup/$9 bowl) was the best dish I had in the first two days of dining in Galveston this year. It had a seafood cream base with puréed carrots and tomatoes giving it a stunning ‘sunset’ color. Swimming in the viscous depths were baby shrimp, added late so as to retain their plumpness. Precisely tuned with respect to flavor and viscosity, this is the bisque that another, disappointing establishment, Willy G’s, should have made. Brooks’ Gumbo ($7/$9) may have the apostrophe in an odd place but everything else (okra, shrimp, and spices) was positioned perfectly. The kitchen is on song here after so many years.
Service was special too. Our waiter, Mr. Mac, was canny about how long he had worked at Gaido’s but explained that from zero to forty years you were considered a ‘rookie’ and he still was one. Despite us being maybe the millionth group of tourists that he has explained the Gaido’s story to, he did the whole ritual with class and aplomb.
The Gumbo Diner
An unpretentious gumbo and American breakfast place situated in an old Waffle House building on the seawall. It’s hopping, and, sinking into a large bowl of the gumbo, I see why. Tasty, intense, piquant shrimp, crab and oyster make the seafood gumbo ($9.99/$14.99) an original comfort food. The non-gumbo items are less winning. An omelette has a Denny’s-esque leather texture to it that you would not find at Farley Girls Café.
Ocean Grille and Beach Bar
This is mainly seafood but has an eclectic blend of Tex-Mex, American, and middle eastern dishes as well. The seafood is the best choice with tuna flatbread ($13), crab cakes ($13), and fresh market fish. The larger than expected wine list has some good choices (Ramey Chardonnay $48, Patz & Hall Dutton Ranch Chardonnay $47, Blackbird Vineyards Merlot/Cabernet Franc, $60 and, at the top end, Pahlmeyer, Jayson, Napa red blend $80 ) but no Texas wine, Seawall views out into the gulf.
What a pleasant surprise. At the east end of the island is Beachtown, a vacation home development. There, Porch Café serves lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch. Chef Stephen Griffith already had a reputation before he opened Porch.
He now offers a New American take in a seafood-leaning menu with choices like Lobster Crepes Mornay ($40), Pumpkin Seed Crusted Snapper ($36), and Wagyu 16 oz Chili-Rubbed Sirloin ($48). There is a range of good flatbreads and straightforward sandwiches. The best way to go here may be to choose two appetizers (small plates, in the menu’s idiom) such as bloody Mary ceviche ($12), fried oysters ($15) or lollipop lamb chops ($10). It would be helpful to see the provenance of the ingredients on the menu.
This is the place for popular Italian food, particularly on or near the Strand. The main emphasis is on the ‘red sauce’ favorites, but there some items outside that orbit (for example, Cioppino, $28, Veal marsala, $29). Pasta is homemade. The wine list has some interesting selections, especially among the Italian wines (for example Batasiolo Gavi, $30, Bruno Rocca Langhe-Chardonnay, $65, Allegrini Valpolicella, $40).
Best For Formal Dining
Galvez Bar and Grill
The best formal dining in town is at the Galvez Bar and Grill in the Galvez Hotel and Spa. The luxurious setting provides comfortable seating with enough room for private conversation. The restaurant just had a seven-figure makeover and the attached pictures reflect new, more modern furnishings.
The menu wisely puts locally caught seafood front and center of the dining experience. A stipulation on the lunch/dinner menu reads “We proudly offer the freshest fish available. These items were caught today, cleaned today and cooked today….”. The shrimp, grouper and red snapper that we enjoyed was uniformly tasty and succulent. For the landlubbers, there are Angus steaks, pork chops, and free-range chicken. Desserts are sinful pleasures like bread pudding, house cheesecake, and chocolate walnut brownie.
I would bet that the opulent bar here has some some pretty good cocktails too, but we returned to the Tremont where the rooftop bar, with its spectacular views of downtown, was hopping.
Almost back to the foot of the causeway and Pelican Rest Marina is Number 13 Prime Steak and Seafood, a multimillion dollar investment of the RK Group, a San Antonio catering and events company. It is an attempt to create a steakhouse that would fit right into a big city. There is USDA prime grade steak, a publicly visible dry aging room (steak is in there 28 days), lots of polished wood and metal and dramatic mood lighting.
On the menu, an extensive raw selection is highlighted on the day of our visit by Winter Point Maine oysters ($3 each) served, at that time, in only four restaurants (one of them being Daniel Boulud). If the lottery cash is burning a hole in your pocket, consider the caviar selection by Petrossian ($80-$300).
Among the appetizers, the Wagyu steak tartare ($19) is not just a salivation provocateur, it is also a spectacle because it is prepared tableside with an old-fashioned hand grinder. Preparation accompanies it with classic garnishes.
Choose dry or wet-aged steak. A dry-aged 18 oz ribeye will set you back $50 and its wet-aged 14 oz counterpart from 44 Farms Ranch (Cameron, TX) $39. 44 Farms is Angus beef, but you can also order Wagyu from Akaushi cattle reared by Heartbrand Beef in Harwood, Texas. This richly marbled steak is for those who prize quality over quantity.
A 6 oz filet is $60. As is often the case, steaks come with a choice of sauces but sides are à la carte, each $9 ($12 split). Kudos to Number 13 for including choices like forager wild mushrooms instead of the bland button mushrooms (perversely still ubiquitous in steak houses nationally)..
An oddly-named menu section ‘Composed’ contains the non-steak full-meal choices. We liked the grouper which came on a bed of creamy melted leeks accompanied by a crispy potato galette. The mild flavors of grouper were brought out by the leak crème while the galette contributed a contrasting texture component.
Axis venison has thrived in the Texas Hill Country and Number 13’s preparation is a real showcase of medium-rare slices. The confit potato and brussels sprouts provide solid accompaniment, and the juniper salt is an unusual variant of the traditional fruit and game synergy. If you want to eat down, this section of the menu is where you can find a darned good burger – the Deluxe 13 Burger. It is huge, made from premium beef, and served on brioche accompanied by pommes frites.
Where would I fault this impressive restaurant? Well, the local focus could be pursued further. Gulf oysters for example, are at their peak in the first quarter of the year. Just that day I had twelve magnificent examples for lunch at Gilhooly’s. Yet Number 13 highlighted east coast oysters. Nice though they were, the gulf ones were better.
Also, the wine list does not have a single Texas wine. That situation is almost impossible to find in a major Dallas steakhouse. Management put that down to a rushed opening a few weeks earlier and the inability to find acceptable examples from distributor representatives. That problem is real for restaurateurs, so here is the official cheat sheet to choose an example of one of the state’s best white grapes, Viognier. Here is the equivalent for Tempranillo, one of the state’s the best red grapes.
The Pelican Club
Formerly a private club, in 2014 the Pelican Club became a public restaurant. Executive chef Ross Warhol graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and later worked at El Bulli, Alinea, and the French Laundry. With such a background, Warhol’s food is understandably eclectic.
Snapper Crudo came diced in a savory compote with avocado, pico de gallo, pickled red onion, queso fresco, serrano pepper, and cilantro. The serrano added an assertive bite and the queso an emolliating creaminess to this vibrant fresh appetizer.
Unfortunately, pickling solution from the otherwise rich sweet red onions collected in the bottom of the serving dish, creating the feeling of eating from a puddle. Either deep-six the onion rings or use a flat plate to eliminate this off-putting phenomenon.
Salmon Scotch Egg was conceptually inspired but executionally flawed. It was egg wrapped not in sausage, à la traditional scotch egg, but in salmon paste. A panko coating supplied a crispy exterior. The operational problem was that the panko was not the only part of the scotch egg that was crisp. The salmon itself was baked to hardness, detracting from what had started as a good idea.
Pan Roasted Grouper with seaweed salad, adzuki beans, country ham broth, puffed quinoa, and cumin foam was a novel asian-inspired presentation of grouper and one that chef Warhol should continue to refine. Should ham, rather than fish, broth be here? And would the, purely visual, cumin foam be better replaced by a twirl of cumin-infused crème fraîche? Maybe.
Oven Roasted Wagyu Beef was a tour de force. Covered with an intense sauce chasseur embedded with trumpet mushrooms it melted in the mouth and effused all manner of umami sensations. The accompanying white cheddar grits brought a soft creamy touch and the brussels sprouts a firm vegetable crunch to the dish.
Finally, a dessert, Variations of Chocolate, featured malted milk ganache, espresso foam, and mascarpone ice cream. Alas, my mascarpone ice cream had melted before it arrived on my plate so I missed it at its finest.
With the law changing to allow brewpubs to make off-premise sales, Beerfoot Beach Bar is set to become more of a micro-brewery. Micro will be the operative word unless they expand the diminutive side room that functions as the 2-3 barrel brewery right now. They release a new beer each week and when it’s gone, it’s gone. That beer accompanies a carefully crafted selection of about 100 brought-in beers from all over the world. They even hand the reins over to a guest Brewmaster of the Month who brews its own beer and has it sold in the pub.
Galveston Island Brewing
Since my visit to Beerfoot Beach bar two years ago the head brewer Mark Dell’Osso left to form Galveston Island Brewing, opening in the summer of 2014.
Galveston’s Own Farmer’s Market
That’s GOFM, in the argot. Held twice a week in two locations, the Sunday morning downtown location is the most convenient. All products must be sourced within 150 miles and only producers are allowed to sell. Since its founding in 2012, this modest market has shown steady growth. It now has the critical mass for a customer to do nearly all of their weekly food shopping. There is easy parking and friendly people.
Haak Vineyards and Winery
Not actually on the island, Haak is the nearest quality winery and on the way from Houston. Best known for world-class dessert wines that invented the category in Texas viticulture. Haak now sources the best fruit for its table wines from the Texas High Plains, where three quarters of the state’s wine grapes originate. Stop in the tasting room in Santa Fe (Texas!) on the drive down to purchase supplies.
Katie’s Seafood Market
Katie’s accounts for 25% of the gulf catch landed in Texas. A steady stream of boats arrives at the dockside warehouse, each unloading its bounty. On the other side of a busy processing area a steady stream of customers, trade and public alike, comes by purchasing their seafood supplies for the day. Amid all the kerfuffle pelicans scarf fish parts off the floor. The pelicans are protected, and may not be fed by man (of whom, they have no fear), however their own advisors have told them they can waddle into the processing warehouse and claim anything that has fallen to the floor.
During our visit a boat arrives and the crew unload 2,000 pounds of red snapper from the hold. Katie’s employees sort the fish by size (all are over 13 inches long as smaller fish must be thrown back when caught in order to sustain the supply) and place it on ice. Customer orders for filleted, or otherwise prepared, fish are satisfied at an adjoining table.
One of the interesting activities is the traceability tagging program. Each fish is tagged with the name of the fisherman, date of catch, and place of catch. In a world where, for example, two-thirds of the crawfish served in New Orleans restaurants come from Vietnam, this assures buyers of the local provenance of its seafood.
La King’s Ice Cream
On the Strand stop at La King’s (an institution) for first-rate homemade ice cream.
Should You Go?
Absolutely. It's a great location for a long weekend or midweek trip if you want to discover an off-the-beaten-path sunny destination where the diverse food scene continues to get better and better.
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