In today’s society, some would say that every restaurant is important to Houston -- but we grew up in an era without participation trophies. From longtime legacies to modern spots flexing their culinary muscles and changing the game, these eateries have played a major role in shaping how the Bayou City eats. And for that, they win a real award. Here are the 16 most important restaurants in Houston:
In 2002, while Tex-Mex heavy restaurants were ruling the city, this Montrose haunt from award-winning restaurateurs Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught was introducing Houston to the bright, fresh flavors of interior Mexican cuisine. To say Houston caught on quickly is an understatement. With light, refreshing ceviches and dark, complex Oaxacan moles, Chef Ortega’s love for old Mexico can be seen in every aspect of his inspired food. But even more inspiring is his story. The chef worked his way up from a dishwasher and crossed the Mexican border three times before opening his trio of successful restaurants (Hugo’s, Backstreet Café, and Caracol). It’s the epitome of the American dream.
With over-the-top service (and an expense account-required menu to match), Tony Vallone’s namesake Italian restaurant is the kind of old-school fine dining that is all too rare these days. Open since 1965, the timeless see-and-be-seen resto has hosted the likes of Tony Bennett, Oscar de la Renta, and seven sitting presidents. It’s also spawned powerhouses like Ciao Bello, Vallone’s, La Griglia, and Grotto (the latter two of which were sold to Landry’s Restaurants in 2003). Tony’s soaring black truffle soufflé goes unmatched, as does its world-class wine list.
Fun fact: this retro diner -- opened in 1967 -- was one of the first establishments in the burgeoning Pappas Empire. One could argue that without its success, Houston wouldn’t have Pappas Bar-B-Q, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, Pappasito's Cantina, and Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen (to name a few), and the Pappas family may not have expanded to over 80 locations in seven states. Luckily, we don’t have to argue that. Because to this day, Dot still serves up scratch-made biscuits and jumbo chicken-fried steak 24/7... and that’s all that really matters, isn’t it?
As discussed, the Pappas are local legends. And at the very top of their bona fide empire lies this quintessential Texas steakhouse, with culinary nods including “Top 5 Steaks in America” (Food Network) and “No. 1 Steakhouse” (Texas Monthly). Its steaks can’t be rivaled, thanks to superior cuts of beef, in-house butchery, and an intense 28-day dry-aging process, also completed in-house. The result is finely marbled, nutty, and rich USDA prime steaks that you can slice like butter.
The span between 2012 to 2013 was a special time for Houston. With a trinity of homegrown restaurants garnering titanic levels of recognition on the national stage, our culinary landscape was finally getting the attention it deserved. This dual concept number from Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan was (and remains) a vital part of the holy three. Hit the urban-rustic Provisions if you’re feeling shared plates, house-made pasta, and blistered pizzas. Or put on your fancy pants and enter a secret door to The Pass for a five- to eight-course tasting menu that tiptoes the edge between polished and edgy the way no other can.
James Beard Award-winning Chef Chris Shepherd is a Houston titan. So it’s no surprise his lower Westheimer restaurant -- serving what is dubbed “The Story of Houston Food” -- has been a standout since inception. Another one of the 2012 breakout stars, UB blends ethnic cuisines with refined Creole and down-home Houston charm. Sit back as the open kitchen sends outs plates of Korean-braised goat dumplings, whole-roasted fish, and locally raised beef (butchered in-house, because obviously). Everything is best eaten family-style, that way you can order the entire lineup, all the way to dessert.
This intimate 31-seater is from husband-and-wife team (and native Houstonians) Justin Yu and Karen Man. The progressive eatery is the gold standard for tasting menus in Houston, with each course thoughtfully composed and painstakingly plated. It also set Houston’s veggie revolution ablaze. Though it serves some terrific meaty specialties -- think lightly smoked wild boar with pork thailande, and fermented mustards -- it is revered for its brilliant four- and seven-course vegetarian offerings. Oh, and pastry chef Man’s celestial desserts.
This landmark restaurant, sister to the Crescent City’s Commander’s Palace, brought “haute Creole” to Houston in 1967. Since then, it has sparked the Creole-Cajun trend and helped launch the careers of revered chefs like Chris Shepherd (Underbelly), Mark Holley (Holley’s Seafood), Jamie Zelko (Zelko Bistro) and Randy Evans (of the former Haven). The menu flawlessly mingles throwbacks like turtle soup with bold Bayou City-inspired dishes like Texas pecan crust Gulf fish. Whichever way you go, loosen that belt and finish your meal with tableside-flambéed bananas Foster.
This Asiatown staple helped Vietnamese crawfish earn their place on the Bayou City’s roster of indigenous cuisine. Since then, a million Viet-Cajun mudbug spots have spawned, but C&N’s garlic-butter-soaked, spicy and succulent version remains the crown jewel. Get the hall of fame-worthy mudbugs along with whole-fried Dungeness crab in a fiery tamarind sauce. And make sure you order hunks of bánh mì so you can sop up allllllllll the juice.
Who knew a place that started as a humble taco stand in 1973 could prompt a fajita frenzy that ultimately introduced Tex-Mex to the entire country? Original owner “Mama” Ninfa made her fajitas the only way they should be made -- with outside skirt steak sizzling on an impossibly hot cast-iron plate. The original location of Ninfa’s remains the greatest (its predecessors were sold off and never quite lived up to the hype), so hit it to get Mama’s legendary fajitas alongside scratch-made tortillas, bigger-than-your head frozen margs, and Chef Alex Padilla’s noteworthy Tex-Mex plates.
This relative newcomer has ushered in a new way of thinking about Italian. You won’t find your nonna’s red sauce staples or uptight, fine-dining veal chops. Instead you’ll find sharable plates speckled with sibling resto Revival Market’s in-house charcuterie and fresh produce picked right from its side yard garden. You’ll also find yourself drooling over bowls of cacio e pepe, charred chile basil chicken wings, and wood-fired pies with your crew. It’s the kind of neighborhood spot Houston was craving long before the city even knew it.
While joints like Gatlin’s, Brooks’ Place, and Corkscrew ignited Houston’s barbecue flames, it’s Chef Ronnie Killen’s Pearland barbecue spot that really put HOU ‘cue on the rest of the country’s radar. Killen takes care to make sure every pound of bronto-sized, salt-and-pepper-kissed beef ribs; meltingly tender, fatty brisket; and snappy, juicy, house-made links exceeds Texas standards. It does.
Houstonians love grubbing at dives, but it’s not just because the food is greasy as hell and we’ve had a few drinks. It’s because places like this gastro pub-meets-Texas icehouse exist. Backed by serious local talent (chefs Jonathan Jones and Monica Pope and bar god Bobby Heugel are just a few of its famous alumni) the bar and kitchen set out to bring a diverse community together through clever and playful food and drink. Judging by the crowds scarfing down tempura-fried pickles and sloppy chick-wiches on any given night, we’d say it's reached its goal.
The overwhelming success of the Houston outpost of Austin’s famed Uchiko let savvy restaurateurs know one important thing: Houstonians know good food… and they’ll pay to eat it. Since Uchi's opening merely four years ago, Houston’s seen an influx of eateries trying to make their mark, some without success. It’s Uchi’s willingness to blend its standby Japanese flavors with our fresh, local vibe that has allowed it to survive here so effortlessly. Only the best will endure, but Houstonians don’t seem to mind giving deserving restaurants a shot.
Don’t let the name fool you. The specialty here isn’t the barbecue (though that’s pretty good, too); it’s the cracking Southern fried chicken. The dish helped put Houston on the map with national praise from Food & Wine magazine, Travel & Leisure magazine, and even us (we named it one of the 21 best fried chicken spots in America). That exposure has helped, but locals, who have been hitting the landmark hard since 1946, didn’t even need it to know they had a good thing going. Not even a 30-minute chicken-fried wait time can stop them from showing this legend some love.
Landry's Inc., the nation’s fastest-growing restaurant group, has over 450 operations and 40 unique brands under its belt, including Chart House, Morton's – The Steakhouse, and Rainforest Cafe. The culinary kingdom all started when Tilman Fertitta, president and CEO of Landry's Inc., opened this seafood spot in Katy, Texas in 1980. It has since become the flagship restaurant for the brand, not only shaping the way Houstonians dine out, but shaping the way the entire nation does.
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1. Hugo's1600 Westheimer Rd, Houston
2. Tony's3755 Richmond Ave, Houston
3. Dot Coffee Shop7006 Gulf Fwy, Houston
4. Pappas Bros. Steakhouse5839 Westheimer Rd, Houston
5. The Pass & Provisions807 Taft St, Houston
6. The Hay Merchant / Underbelly1100 Westheimer Rd, Houston
7. Oxheart1302 Nance St, Houston
8. Brennan's of Houston3300 Smith St, Houston
9. Crawfish & Noodles11360 Bellaire Blvd Ste 990, Houston
10. Ninfa's on Navigation2704 Navigation Blvd, Houston
11. Coltivare3320 White Oak Dr, Houston
12. Killen's BBQ3613 Broadway St, Pearland
13. Beaver's2310 Decatur St, Houston
14. Uchi904 Westheimer Rd, Houston
15. Barbecue Inn116 W Crosstimbers Rd, Houston
16. Landry's Seafood House22215 Katy Fwy, Katy
At this Montrose hotspot, authentic Mexican cuisine is served up in a 1925 building designed by Joseph Finger, the same architect responsible for Houston’s City Hall. Chef tktktkkt’s menu is centered on traditional regional dishes, like lime-cured snapper ceviche with cherry tomatoes, cilantro, cucumber, jalapeno, and olives, bacon-wrapped quail stuffed with chorizo, tomatillo salsa, butternut squash, ayocote beans, and quinoa, and sautéed shrimp in garlic and lime-infused oil with chipotle pepper, arroz blanco, and nopales salad. The real gem at Hugo’s, though, is the Sunday brunch, where you can fill and refill your plate with all the chilaquiles, carnitas, tamales, braised brisket, chorizo ancho chiles, ceviche, tres leches, and Mexican hot chocolate churros that your heart desires.
This high-end Italian restaurant, named for Tony Vallone, has been serving elegant and elevated dishes since 1965. With a world-class wine list and fine art adorning the walls, this establishment offers an incredibly upscale experience for all dining patrons.
Opened in 1967, this 24-hour diner was one of the first establishments in the Pappas Empire. Comfort food, coffee and classic Southern dishes star here, and the homemade biscuits are a necessary component of any and all orders.
The Pappas are local legends, and at the top of their bona fide empire is this quintessential Texas steakhouse. Its steaks can’t be rivaled, thanks to superior cuts of beef, in-house butchery, and an intense 28-day dry-aging process (also completed in-house). The result is finely marbled, nutty, and rich USDA prime steaks that you can slice like butter. The retro-posh décor, private booths, and pampering service feel old-school cool and romantic.
These two sibling restaurants, one more casual and one on the classier end, actually share one kitchen. Boasting some killer cocktails, basketball flooring and accessible dishes, Provisions is an intimate neighborhood spot, while The Pass is best for those with their fancy pants on.
A joint venture, The Hay Merchant and Underbelly operate separately but are attached via a butchering room that’s fit to hold a whole hog, a cow, and other large, meat-bearing animals. Hay Merchant, a craft beer bar, boasts 75 draft beers that range in style from cask-conditioned American porters to sour and funky wild ales. Underbelly, the more upscale of the two, is a restaurant and wine bar serving up juicy burgers and meats, like roasted pig’s head and smoked brisket. No matter how adventurous your palate, consider pairing your dish with one of the aged barleywines on tap.
North of Downtown Houston sits Oxheart, a fine dining establishment that is luxurious in the simplicity of its American, seasonally dependent fare. Two menus are offered nightly and change frequently, never ceasing to flash ingredients you’ve never tasted (or, more often than not, heard of), but are confident will be absolutely divine, like vadouvan spices, muskmelon sorbet, mung bean pancakes, and alliums. Presentation of each dish is inspired from colors and shapes you can find in nature, an ethos also echoed in the simple preparation of ingredients – spiced, pickled, or left altogether raw. Décor is similarly lo-fi: wooden tables were crafted by a neighborhood carpenter and come fit with hideaway drawers that reveal the lot of silverware you’ll need for the meal, and in place of an esoteric art collection, walls are adorned with spray-paint graphics, the mark of a local graffiti artist.
This upscale resto is an offshoot of The Commander's Palace in NOLA (but has no relation to Brennan's of NOLA) and originally opened in 1967. The Texas-creole menu turtle soup, roast oysters, shrimp & orka gumbo, gulf fish pontchartrain, and honey roast duck.
Crawfish & Noodles serves up an unexpected combination of Cajun and Vietnamese food to west Houston. On the corner of a Bellaire Ave strip mall, C&N impresses with bowls of piping hot, garlic-butter-soaked crawfish alongside the likes of slow-simmered beef and pork meatball pho. This joint's also got a massive dining space with ample seating and even a dance floor, which makes it a prime spot for private parties and events for the whole family.
The fajitas at the original Tex-Mex outpost on Navigation earn their cook the title of Mexican fare experts. Alongside the fajitas, staples like mole enchiladas, Oaxacan-style pork tamales, and jalapeño-stuffed Shrimp Diablo (not to mention the head-sized frozen margaritas) take some serious culinary chops, which means these dishes go far above and beyond Houston's other Tex-Mex eateries.
This fresh-from-the-garden eatery (Coltivare means "to grow") in Heights puts a welcome spin on traditional Italian fare. Everything tastes incredible fresh, because many ingredients come directly from the garden on premises. There are plenty of shareable plates and charcuterie boards in addition to heartier paste entrees and wood-fired pizza. The space has a great neighborhood charm to it and is very romantic in the evenings.
Killen's BBQ is a Pearland brick-and-mortar barbecue joint born from the success of Chef Ronnie Killen's immensely popular pop-up. It delivers mouth-watering Texas-style barbecue like slabs of smoked brisket, pulled pork, and homemade sausages. Killen trained at Le Cordon Bleu and his Texas classics far exceed the Lone Star state's standards of size and taste. Be sure to desserts like banana pudding, carrot cake, and buttermilk pie.
Although this Sixth Ward BBQ spot offers top notch ribs and brisket, it has two main attractions: the first is a smoky queso (made with smoked asadero cheese, green chillis, and pico de gallo), while the second is a bacon omelette biscuit: an expertly crafted cheese omelette stacked with copious amounts of bacon and sausage with a chipotle honey and cream gravy blanket. Other menu items include Southern-style fare like fried pickles, barbacoa empanadas, and creative mac 'n' cheese.
Located in Montrose, from acclaimed Austin Chef Tyson Cole, Uchi is Houston’s outpost of the Austin-based Japanese hot spot. The intimate, upscale restaurant is constantly bustling with sushi- and sake-craving diners, and because reservations are hard to come by, be prepared to wait for a taste of the inventive Japanese cuisine. Or, beat the crowd and arrive early for their daily Sake Social, where for an hour and a half, you can sample the highlights of the menu, accompanied by copious amounts of sake (or beer, or wine), at a fraction of the cost.
Barbecue Inn's menu has been mastered for over nearly 70 years, by tweaking and perfecting their family recipes. Their fried chicken is out of this world, and it’s not even the best thing on the menu! People drive in from all over just to enjoy their fried shrimp! With either pick, you are going to enjoy a homemade batter so crispy and tasty that it will be hard to go home and tell granny that hers still the best.
This seafood spot, opened by Tilman Fertitta in 1980, was the start of a restaurant group that now has over 450 operations and 40 unique breands. This flagship location serves fresh Gulf Coast seafood and succulent steaks with consistency that tons of loyal fans have come to love and rely on.