Nine out of this year’s 10 categories in the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards are decided by our panel of former winners and restaurant industry insiders. The only exception is Best New Restaurant.
That’s where you come in. Every year we pit the 16 finalists against each other in a bracket-style head-to-head tournament — powered by Whole Foods Market — that’s voted on by CultureMap readers.
The results always produce some surprises along the way, and we're sure this year's group will be no different. Read about the Round One matchups below and vote for your favorites.
The polls in the first round close at 11:59 pm on Sunday, March 18, so don't delay. One vote per person per day, please. Results will be closely monitored to ensure a level playing field for all competitors.
Maison Pucha Bistro vs. Alice Blue
Let’s kick off the competition with these two Heights newcomers. At Maison Pucha Bistro, chef Manuel Pucha, pastry chef Victor Pucha, and mixologist Cristian Pucha serve classic French fare with a few elements of the Ecuadorian roots. Manuel has a long history in Houston (Philippe, La Table, etc), but his brothers moved to Houston to achieve their dream of working together.
Restaurateur Claire Smith transformed Shade, her Southern-inspired restaurant on 19th Street, into Alice Blue, with a new look that features an expanded bar/lounge area. Chef Kent Domas’ menu looks to Europe with a selection of housemade pastas, shareable items, and an extensive wine list.
Field & Tides vs. Better Luck Tomorrow
Prior to opening Field & Tides, chef-owner Travis Lenig spent years honing his craft at places like Mark’s, Ibiza, and Liberty Kitchen. Those skills are on display throughout the restaurant’s diverse menu, which features everything from a fried fish sandwich to seared scallops with shrimp and crab risotto. Partner Chico Ramirez oversees the front-of-house, and beverage director Monique Cioffi-Hernandez’s cocktails are not to be missed.
Better Luck Tomorrow is definitely more bar than restaurant, but when a culinary talent like Justin Yu is overseeing the food, it deserves consideration in this category, too. The menu covers greasy bar food (the instant classic Party Melt), as well as lighter fare like chicken salad and roasted turnips. With an Anvil-quality cocktail program (courtesy of Bartender of the Year nominee Alex Negranza), a solid wine list, and a relaxed atmosphere, it all adds up to make Better Luck Tomorrow a fun place to drink, dine, or both.
Doris Metropolitan vs. Roka Akor
Both of these steakhouses defy the genre’s usual conventions, but they do it in very different ways. At Doris Metropolitan, the Israeli-inspired menu matches dry-aged beef with vegetable-oriented starters and sides and the best bread offerings in Houston. Japanese-inspired Roka Akor serves up a full sushi menu alongside its beef, including Japanese wagyu from three different prefectures.
Both restaurants feature quality cocktail programs, stylish dining rooms, and top notch service. Their execution is so good that no one will miss standard dishes like a wedge salad or creamed spinach.
Pappa Delta Blues Smokehouse vs. Feges BBQ
Pappas Restaurants puts its spin on Central Texas-style barbecue at this Webster restaurant. In addition to serving expertly smoked meats (the housemade sausage is particularly strong), the menu also offers a diverse array of Southern comfort food and USDA Prime steaks. That’s all backed by legendary Pappas service and a bourbon-oriented cocktail program.
It’s probably a little absurd to nominate a restaurant before its open, but Houstonians have spent the past six years eating pitmaster Patrick Feges’ barbecue at pop-ups and other events. When it finally debuts in Greenway Plaza (next week, hopefully), Feges BBQ will feature a full range of meat selections along with vegetable sides that are hearty enough to be a meal on their own. Erin Feges, Patrick’s wife and a talented enough chef to have won an episode of Chopped, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Star Fish vs. Yauatcha
At a time when other seafood restaurants have closed, Star Fish has thrived thanks to its diverse menu of whole fish, shellfish, meat entrees, and vegetable sides. Dishes run the gamut from crudos and raw oysters to a whole fried snapper. The stylish dining room (a signature of partner Lee Ellis) and a beverage program built around gin cocktails and sparkling wine help make Star Fish equally appropriate for a special occasion or a weeknight dinner.
Few restaurants have arrived in Houston with as much fanfare as Yauatcha, courtesy of its Michelin-starred sibling in London and prime location at The Galleria. As one would expect, the dumplings are first rate; who knew hai gow could actually taste like shrimp? Those dishes would be enough to earn a spot in this competition, but the intricate French pastries make for some of Houston’s most satisfying sweets.
Theodore Rex vs. Potente
Justin Yu converted the space that had been Oxheart and transformed it into Theodore Rex. Tasting menus and a chef’s counter have been replaced by a bistro-style a la carte menu and a four-seat bar that’s reserved for walk-in diners. Of course, the chef’s commitment to sourcing high quality local ingredients remains firmly intact, so the dishes are still first rate.
Potente, Astros owner Jim Crane’s fine dining Italian restaurant, benefits from savvy veterans in both the kitchen and the dining room. Chef Danny Trace blends Gulf Coast ingredients with Italian traditions on the menu, while Bill Floyd (Reef) oversees the wine list and service. Together, they’ve made the restaurant one of the city’s most satisfying places to celebrate a special occasion.
Night Heron vs. A’Bouzy
After opening three concepts in The Heights, Agricole Hospitality has opened Night Heron in Montrose. The restaurant brings a global approach to traditional bar food with dishes that range from a cheeseburger to chicken liver mousse and a soba noodle salad with sirloin steak. Beverage options include an extensive selection of cocktails, a diverse wine list, and an eclectic range of beers.
See-and-be-seen types have been flocking to A’Bouzy, the champagne-fueled concept from former Brasserie 19 general manager Shawn Virene. A ridiculously low wine mark makes it easy to order a second bottle, as evidenced by the shouts of “a’Bouzy!” everytime another cork gets popped. An eclectic menu that’s heavy on shareable items provides plenty of fuel to keep the party going.
Emmaline vs. Nancy’s Hustle
Few restaurants get greeted with the kind of fervor that Emmaline has received. Part of the credit goes to owner Sam Governale’s dynamic personality and the following he built during his tenure at Fleming’s in Upper Kirby. Credit also goes to the perfectly executed dining room and chef Dimitri Voutsinas’ European-inspired menu, which offers a range of options to suit just about any mood.
Speaking of hits, chef Jason Vaughan and beverage specialist Sean Jensen have created something special at Nancy’s Hustle. The room’s retro style — which features wooden table and bar tops made from the former Palace Lanes bowling alley — and crystal clear sound system set just the right mood. Vaughan’s menu features familiar dishes that get a lift from creative touches, but diners should also save room for pastry chef Julia Doran’s desserts.
Be sure to vote for your favorites now.