This year, fifteen years into the new millennium, was a fun one for Houston diners, especially those looking the newest and shiniest, as there were more notable newcomers than in many years (see “The 10 best new Houston restaurants of 2015”). The local restaurant scene continues to evolve, and mostly for the better. Customers have become more knowledgeable and more demanding in this increasingly diverse dining landscape. More numerous, too; the city continues to grow while Houston restaurant-goers remain about the most avid in the country.
The most digestible way to present the highlights and assorted observations might be dividing them between the most significant goings-on concerning what makes it onto the menu, and then what transpired with the broader business of the Houston restaurant scene.
From the kitchens and inside the restaurants:
- There are even more eclectic menus than ever. This can lead to some fun finds, but can also result in poorly executed dishes in lesser kitchens.
- Raw bars have become more widely found, often including dramatic – and dramatically priced –seafood towers. State of Grace, SaltAir, Bernadine’s are a few of the new spots with them.
- Small plates continue, and relatedly, portion sizes seem to have decreased, or become more sensibly sized.
- More pizza; everyone loves pizza and they have the added bonus that the ingredients are inexpensive for restaurant owners.
- Hamburgers seem to be a must, at least on the lunch menu. And, burgers here are better than ever.
- Steaks are still popular, not just at the new steakhouses like Bistecca and B&B Butcher Co., but at most restaurants, too.
- More restaurants are offering Southern themes. Southern Goods, Big Eyed Fish (a very late 2014 addition), The Moonshiners, Lee’ Fried Chicken and Donuts, Bramble (of sorts), and State of Grace joined Lucille’s and Punk’s offering a collection of Southern-inspired dishes. Shrimp and grits, to name the biggest example, has shown resonance here; Houstonians like shrimp.
- More octopus to be found including enjoyable versions like the grilled octopus at Helen Greek Food & Wine and the octopus carpaccio at Bistecca.
- Wine lists that are becoming increasingly more Old World-emphatic, as restaurants offer more consciously food-friendly wines. Old World wines generally complement food much more readily than their New World brethren.
- There are more wines by the glass offered than even, and these glasses are more expensive, too. The average price for a glass of wine at a nice restaurant in Houston is now about $14.
- Cocktails are still necessary at most places, or rather “signature cocktails.”
- Unfortunately, the shortage of restaurant personnel became more noticeable, especially in the front of house. There is a lot of amateurish and uninformed service here, even at some highflying newcomers.
Highlights and keenly random observations about the Houston restaurant business:
- Replications included arguably the best steakhouse (Pappas Bros. Steakhouse) and Thai restaurant (Songkran) along with the most acclaimed Chinese (Mala Sichuan), plus Oporto at the northwestern edge of Midtown.
- Several bars masquerading as restaurants opened this year: La Grange, Pour Society, Southern Goods, and Bovine & Barley. These can be fun, actually, as these are bars that pay some attention to food.
- The Treadsack group, which began inauspiciously with Down House in the Heights a few years ago, added three very interesting and promising new concepts in the fall of with Hunky Dory – the city’s best new restaurant, seafood-centric Bernadine’s and Foreign Correspondents, which features northern Thai cooking, new for Houston. Well-chosen, eclectic and complementary wine lists were also part of the package at each.
- Clark-Cooper Concepts (Brasserie 19, Coppa, Punk’s) opened two new spaces this year, the seafooder SaltAir, featuring a frenetic bar scene, and The Dunlavy, a smart counter-service café and events space that is part of the attractive upgrade to Buffalo Bayou Park west of downtown.
- Downtown might be turning the corner with the fall opening of a second local location of much-loved Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, a destination restaurant that might draw locals into the city center. Might be. Construction, including residential and hotel construction, continues at a feverish space, but projections for continued low oil prices on the still heavily oil- and gas-dependent local economy might forestall any hope for that an expansive and interesting downtown dining scene.
- More and better barbecue – Jackson Street Barbecue across from MinuteMaid downtown from Bryan Caswell and company and a physical location not too far away in EaDo for Montrose-favorite Pappa Charlies. Recent-years favorite Gatlin’s, known for its pork ribs and beef brisket, also reopened after a half-year or so hiatus little further north on 34th Street.
- Post Oak Lane just north of the Galleria – and the estimable duo of Caracol and RDG + Bar Annie – got busier with the arrival, most notably, of Peska from restaurateurs from Mexico that might be somewhat like sleek and trendy Spanish-accented Oceanaire that similarly sources seafood from the world. It joined a branch of North Italia, part a chain of contemporary-clad Italian-themed eateries from Arizona drawing customers to the upscale shopping center.
- Montrose – and Inside the Loop, overall – goes from zero to two authentic Chinese restaurants, and two seemingly authentic Szechuan restaurants, to boot – first, the second outpost of Mala Sichuan across from Underbelly and then Cooking Girl hidden in the heart of Montrose on Fairview.
- New digs, most notably with Killen’s Steakhouse in Pearland, the aforementioned Gatlin’s, and with MF Sushi, a new life in a beautiful spot in the Museum District.
- The Heights and environs continues to grow, now even as a destination with Hunky Dory, it’s fraternal Siamese twin, Bernadine’s and Foreign Correspondents joined Southern Goods and two-in-one Black & White as newcomers to the once forlorn area.
- Voss and Del Monte has become a mini-dining nexus. Bramble, one of the best new restaurants of the year, and another newcomer The Del joined Roegel’s Barbecue and Arturo Boada Cuisine.
- The longstanding restaurant location of 2300 Westheimer near Kirby (and dining-dollar-laden River Oaks) sees two nice restaurants close in less than a year, first the oddly named 60 Degrees Mastercrafted and then its similarly steak-heavy Harwood Grill. The slow road work on Westheimer around the address certainly didn’t help business for either one.
- At the site on Durham just north of Washington that was a casual Cajun eatery for years – Floyd’s then Mardi Gras Grill then a Woodrow’s version – its last occupant, Woodrow’s, best known for kitschy, ice house-themed settings and buckets of beer, went upscale and expensive (entrées average comfortably over $30) with a re-purposed New American restaurant, The Durham House, as the emphasis around the Washington Corridor moves more to restaurant from a twenty-somethings bar scene.