In the past few years, Houston has gone from "that city where the Bush's go to Astros games" to a nationally recognized culinary destination. And, like Vernon Maxwell in the Genesis NBA Jam, it's continually heating up. From game-changing cocktail joints to the preferred places to scoop up bites of molten queso, these are the best spots to eat and drink like a local. But if you find yourself needing even more, head to Thrillist Houston for hot openings and the rest of our longtime favorites.
Where the locals eat and drink in Houston
If the constant line out the door proves anything, it’s that even in a city full of tacos, the full-flavored breakfast and lunch tacos at this orange shack on Washington shine (and the same can be said for its other two locations). Line up at the steam table for the softest handmade tortillas stuffed with chorizo, barbacoa, and chicharrones, just like your abuela used to make.
Monster Gulf Coast oysters are the name of the game at this old-fashioned Creole and Cajun haunt. So are killer seafood gumbos, platters of steamed or fried clams, shrimp, and crab, and NOLA favorites like crawfish etouffee and catfish po’ boys. These guys always bring that Third Coast soul, which becomes especially evident during the Sunday jazz and blues brunch.
When adjoining sister restaurants The Hay Merchant and Underbelly opened up shop near Montrose and Westheimer in 2012, we saw a glimpse into the now-thriving block’s future. Craft brewpub The Hay Merchant continues to draw crowds with its badass selection of on-tap brews and funky fare (sweet & spicy pig ears, anyone?).
Next door at Underbelly, chef Chris Shepherd tells "the story of Houston food" through an ethnic mosaic of seasonal shared plates. And since it’s Shepherd, said plates feature the best farmers' market produce, fresh seafood, and locally raised meats (which are butchered in-house, because of course) around.
Since opening just two years ago, this spirited 31-seater in the Warehouse District has been challenging meat-centric palates one MoMA-worthy plate at a time. There’s meat too, of course -- think grass-fed beef sausage with pickled beets in dried offal sauce -- but the four- and seven-course tasting menus focus heavily on brilliantly prepared vegetables. And shockingly, no one seems to mind one bit.
With USDA prime and Kobe beef that literally melts in your damn mouth, plus slabs of smoked brisket and ribs that rival any ‘cue in the country, we couldn’t choose just one of these local masterpieces. After years of success with his homegrown steakhouse, chef Ronnie Killen killed it with his line-down-the-block barbecue pop-up this past year. Thankfully, that pop-up finally manifested itself, Pinocchio-style, into a full-fledged restaurant in February. Now our only problem is deciding which one to visit next.
Though these dual-concept, space-sharing restaurants -- one refined and one spunky -- haven’t been around long, they feel wholly Houston. Enter a secret door to indulge in a five- or eight-course tasting menu that’s both polished and edgy at the white tablecloth-laden Pass; or nosh on equally-as-thrilling pizzas, pastas, and shared bistro plates at the urban-rustic Provisions. Some serious cocktail and wine programs push the two restaurants to the next level of insanity, as does Julia Child’s Muppet voice playing on repeat in the unisex bathroom.
Housed in Downtown’s oldest building, this dark-and-dingy-in-a-good-way wine bar feels like a time warp to the 1800s. Candelabras and antiques line every nook and cranny, creating a sexy vibe along with the exposed brick, dim lighting, and intimate seating. If this place doesn’t help you get laid, we don’t know what will. Just make sure to bring cash, you’ll need it to pay for the classy selection of beer and wine that you’re about to house.
With an eccentric list of over 40 craft brews and equally as cool cocktails, it didn’t take long for hopheads to be all over this Brooklyn-esque hotspot. And unlike last Saturday’s unfortunate "sleepover", it wasn’t because of bad lighting and beer goggles. This place never fails to bring some serious game, unlike you last Saturday when you totally... you get the point.
If you like expertly crafted, spirit-forward cocktails and fun, this trendy industrial refuge is the place for you. Housemade bitters, sodas, infusions, and liqueurs keep you feeling dapper while you indulge in some seriously heavy-handed drinks. They also have a rotating selection of hard-to-score craft brews.
We’ll admit this sinfully divey hole-in-the-wall is weird as hell, but not even the oddball décor (no really, at one point one of the paintings read "bloody whore murder party") can keep fans away. You’ll learn to appreciate the dive (and that bathroom) with time; time you'll likely spend drinking. Come here to rock out to the best underground acts, drink cheap drinks, and revel in whatever strangeness the night may bring.
Garden Oaks/Oak Forest
This no-frills, GOOF-area watering hole may be Houston’s oldest craft beer bar (if 2007 counts as old... wow), but thanks to a solid rotation of interesting, hard-to-find brews, it remains one of the finest. Beer geeks flock to the converted gas station to fill up their tanks -- and by tanks we mean guts -- by the pint, or if they’re really cool, by the growler. The laid-back patio and standout bar food don’t hurt either.
Tequila is the name of the game at this Downtown mezcalería named after the French/Mexican conflict that began when... just look it up. Come for top-notch small-batch tequila and mezcal that’s broken down by agave, nearly 20 different kinds of Mexican beer, crazy good cocktails and margaritas, and absolutely no pastries.
Ample rooftop for smokers? Check. Pool table for losing some money? Check. Kickass jukebox for dirty dancing or just tapping your foot awkwardly while you stare at that hot girl across the bar? Check. All of the above make this gritty two-story bar a popular industry hangout, or a place to go if you’re just plain cool. Stiff, expertly-crafted cocktails are the poison of choice, but you’ll have just as easy a time finding cheap beer and shots, if you’re into that thing (and why wouldn't you be?).
This creamy white dip is made with four kinds of real cheese, making it about four times as awesome as regular queso. The bowl’s already boasting grilled jalapeño, olives, and roasted peppers along with its melted Beemster, sharp white cheddar, Gruyére, and Kefalograviera (go Greece!); but if you want to make it even better, throw on some cinnamon and nutmeg-spiced kibbeh. Do it.
The city’s oldest Tex-Mex joint claims to be the O.G. of this silken, spicy meat and cheese dip. Some story about a waiter named Jose throwing taco meat into a bowl of chile con queso and BOOM. Magic. We don’t care if it’s true or not. Jose is a genius and his dip is magic.
While we are surprised that something this good has come out of Austin, the real surprise here is the guacamole hidden inside this chain’s chunky cheese goo. It makes for a thicker, creamier dip, but the loads of green chiles, Diablo sauce, and queso fresco don’t hurt either.
What happens when an oak and maple-smoked barbecue brisket gets "caught banging" a bowl of green chile-spiked asadero cheese? You get the "Knocked Up" smoky queso -- a cheesy, beefy lovechild that only a "gastropub meets Texas icehouse” could conceive. Trust us when we say you want to eat this lovechild.
1. Oxheart1302 Nance St, Houston
2. Danton's Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen4611 Montrose , Houston
3. The Pass & Provisions807 Taft St, Houston
4. Killen's Steakhouse6425 W Broadway St, Pearland
5. Killen's BBQ3613 Broadway St, Pearland
6. Laredo Taqueria915 Snover St, Houston
7. MKT BAR1001 Austin St, Houston
8. Beaver's2310 Decatur St, Houston
9. The Pastry War310 Main St, Houston
10. The Hay Merchant / Underbelly1100 Westheimer Rd, Houston
11. Petrol Station985 Wakefield Dr, Houston
12. notsuoH314 Main St, Houston
13. Mongoose Versus Cobra1011 McGowen St, Houston
14. La Carafe813 Congress St, Houston
15. Grand Prize Bar1010 Banks St, Houston
16. Anvil Bar & Refuge1424 Westheimer Rd, Houston
This 31-seat modern eatery from husband-and-wife team Justin Yu and Karen Man is the gold standard for tasting menus in Houston, with each course thoughtfully composed and painstakingly plated. The menus are vegetable heavy but crafted in a way where omnivores will really appreciate what meat is present. Just don’t forget to save room for Man’s celestial desserts.
Occupying the bottom floor of Montrose's Chelsea Market, Danton's Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen is a timeless 200-seat seafood restaurant with both a dining room and a separate oyster bar. You won't find any fast-fleeing trends in the atmosphere or the food here, just a constant after-work dinner rush and a menu full of Southern favorites. Big groups can usually be found around a platter of fresh-shucked oysters, and temptation for grilled fish or steak rarely bows out.
Two-faced in the best way possible, The Pass & Provisions in Montrose offer you a choice between a more refined experience, or a more relaxed one. The Pass will serve you polished five- or eight-course tasting menus over a white table cloth, or Provisions will provide hearty pizzas, pastas, and shared bistro plates in more rustic surroundings. Some serious cocktail and wine programs push the two restaurants to the next level of insanity, as does Julia Child’s Muppet voice playing on repeat in the unisex bathroom.
Chef Ronnie Killen's home-grown steakhouse features melt-in-your-mouth USDA Prime and Kobe beef with sides like seared foie gras and even mac and cheese. Killen’s will remind you of a small-town roadhouse, but one with white tablecloths and a killer wine list. To say that his unctuous, bronto-sized beef ribs are good is an understatement, but you’ll be sorry if you don’t save room for the kitchen’s super moist and decadent bread pudding— the sweet stuff reaches galactic levels of excellence when mixed with seasonal flavors, like the pumpkin spice number topped with caramel sauce.
This Pearland brick-and-mortar barbecue joint, born from the success of Chef Ronnie Killen's immensely popular pop-up, delivers mouth-watering 'cue like slabs of smoked brisket, pulled pork, and homemade sausages. Killen has training at Le Cordon Bleu and does the BBQ classics in a way that exceeds Texas standards of size and taste. Try some of the more unexpected menu items, like brisket tamales or fried chicken.
This bright orange shack is hard to miss -- right off of Washington Ave with a line out the door as a result of their seriously delicious breakfast and lunch tacos -- get in line and prepare for some fluffy, handmade tortillas stuffed with chorizo, barbacoa, and chicharrones.
Live music, pizza, brunch, booze -- there aren't many desirable things in this world that MKT bar doesn't have. Creative takes on American (read: Southern) staples like crispy chicken and waffles, braised lamb tacos, and ground chuck cheeseburgers will have you stuffed, but you'll make the room for a couple drafts from the Lone Star state or a bottle of something sparkling.
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.
Seventeen Mexican beers join vintage tequila on the menu at this cantina, named after the French and Mexican war. While you won't find any pastries, you will find flavored agave spirits and spirits with worms, scorpions, or other insects. Strings of tea lights, colorful stained glass, and vibrant murals line the wood-paneled ceilings and walls and you'll always find a crowd packed around the colorful backlit bar.
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 palette, consider pairing your dish with one of the aged barleywines on tap.
Petrol Station used to be exactly that: a gas station. Now, this refurbished counter-service spot is dishing up of the tastiest burgers in Houston. You'll also find a fantastic craft beer list that's divided into beginner, intermediate, and expert levels. Once you've made your burger and beer picks (a favorite is The Rancor, a 10-napkin burger topped with cheddar, smoked bacon, and a fried egg), you can enjoy your meal out on the patio.
This dive bar enforces a slight time-warp aesthetic from the moment you step inside. Separated from the bar next door with a thin wall and red curtain, the decor stays quirky and oddball while the stage hosts everything from poetry slams to live music.
40 taps at this wine and craft beer bar make the Midtown spot a definite contender for the after-5pm crowd. While there's no full kitchen in the back, you can fill yourself up on pretzels the size of your head, as well as sauerkraut and bratwurst.
Settled inside Houston's oldest building, La Carafe looks as if it's about to fall to pieces on the outside, but is rife wth history on the inside. Miraculously still level and smattered with antiqued photos and mementos, La Carafe's been close to shut down on the basis of broken fire codes many times since the '80s, but its jazz-bumping jukebox, impossible to imitate ambiance, and massive wine selection have kept it alive.
This grungy two-story bar in the Museum District features rooftop access, a pool table, jukebox tunes and whatever sneakily strong drink is churning in the mixer at the moment. It's got a Jekyll and Hyde-like personality that’s half serious cocktailery, half low-key dive bar, and the happy hour deals are always great.
This ever-evolving, cool-as-hell industrial Montrose space offers up expertly crafted, spirit-forward cocktails made with house-made sodas, infusions, liqueurs, and even flames. Make your way through the bar’s “100 list,” a refreshed library of classic drinks the barkeeps think everyone should try at least once in their lifetime. Speaking of the bartenders, all of them are highly trained and skilled, and many Anvil alums have gone on to open their own bars.