In the literal sense, an institution is little more than a building or organization — but in the figurative sense, an institution is a cultural icon: A place that helps to define a city and inspires fond memories and nostalgia.
Here are 13 Houston restaurants that have captured our hearts as such. Some of them are among the oldest restaurants in the city, while others were born under Jimmy Carter, but all of them hold a special place in Houston's culinary lore.
How many of these Houston institutions have you been to? And what are your recommendations to add to the list?
James Coney Island
Calvin Coolidge was our President in 1923 when James Coney Island first opened its doors in Houston. And despite tremendous success, JCI maintained only its original location (at Walker and Main Street downtown) until the second shop opened in 1968.
Sadly, the flagship spot closed last year, but there are 21 offshoots of this Bayou City classic remaining, so surely there’s one near you. Mmmm, chili-cheese dogs!
You’ve probably seen the catchy vintage-looking sign on Highway 59, but did you know that Prince’s has truly been around since 1934? The place has evolved from a drive-through to a burger stand to the current restaurant model today — but the outstanding burgers are still the same.
It has moved locations a few times, but the Avalon Diner has graced our fair city since 1938. The place is known for its burgers and fries, but we think the best part is the milkshakes. That, and the salty waitresses who’ve all been working there for decades.
This glorious Fourth Ward burger joint has been around since 1939 and still operates according to its core principle: “Nothing small, nothing healthy, and nothing fast.”
Though it’s been updated over the years, Lankford manages to maintain its original feel. And it’s a good thing: the place offers one of the homiest, happiest meals around. Don’t miss the biscuits and gravy on Saturdays!
It’s hard to believe that when Molina’s got started in 1941, there were only about five other Mexican restaurants in town. And while hundreds, if not thousands, of others have popped up since, Molina’s maintains its status as Houston royalty.
After all, the Jose’s Dip — a deep bowl of queso topped off with a heaping helping of spicy taco meat — is still legendary.
The restaurant has changed locations (once) and owners (once) since it opened in 1941, but Cleburne Cafeteria hasn’t otherwise evolved all that much. The average diner here can probably remember both Eisenhower’s inaugural address and JFK’s assassination, but they sure still like reminiscing in the homey ambiance over casual, homemade food.
The Barbecue Inn has been fixin’ up favorites in Houston since 1946, and they’ve got the original menu on the wall to prove it. After all these years there’s still a line out the door at meal times of hungry folks who’ve come to worship Houston’s holy trinity: fried shrimp, fried chicken, and chicken fried steak. So make a point to stop by this local gem (but go ahead and leave your diet at home).
The Nielsens, a third-generation family of Danish deli owners, opened up their happy shop in Highland Village in the 1950s. They moved to the current Richmond location in 1974, but the awesome egg salad is still the same. Stop by for a sammie at this Houston spectacular, and don’t forget to ask for plenty of their famous “yellow sauce,” the celestial housemade mayonnaise.
It might have changed locations a time or two, but the venerable Tony’s has been serving some of Houston’s most prominent residents since 1965. It’s storied and mysterious, respected and enduring.
The fancy-pants food is certainly not for the faint of pocket book, but there’s also a $17 “express lunch” for those looking to get in on the secret.
Ninfa’s on Navigation
The urban legend of Mama Ninfa and the origin of the fajita still looms large in Houston lore. It was she, reportedly, who created the Tex-Mex staple back in 1973. Whether or not this is actually true remains anyone’s guess, but most Houstonians seem to enjoy the possibility. The quail and softshell crab are local favorites, but beware of the celebrated Ninfaritas.
When Brennan’s was destroyed by fire in 2008 during Hurricane Ike, it was as if we lost a confidant, a warm soul that had been a part of our Houston family since 1967. Repairs and a warm remodel have brought the local legend back to life, and thank goodness — we missed our seafood gumbo, Bananas Foster, and silver-plated pralines.
Bellaire Broiler Burger
Fewer places in Houston inspire as much nostalgia as the outstanding Bellaire Broiler Burger. A neighborhood fixture since 1972, the place is still family owned and operated — and still home to more Little League dinners than any other restaurant in the nation. Well, that’s probably not true, but you get the idea.
There’s no denying the Goode family’s influence in Houston. You’ll find plenty of Houston legends and lore among the barbecue joints, seafood shacks, and taqueria — plus some pretty good grub, too. They’ve been in biz since 1977.
Oh, a few things have changed since Levi Goode took over for his father Jim, but the pecan pies are still deliciously the same.