What is a neighborhood restaurant? It's those casual spots that are the workaday lifeblood of a city's dining scene. The kind of places where people become regulars. Or, perhaps more accurately, the kind of restaurants people go to when they've had to work late, there's nothing in the fridge and the thought of cooking is too awful to ponder.
They serve food that is comforting, if not exactly comfort food. Best Neighborhood Restaurant nominees are affordable, consistently good and welcoming. Everyone needs a restaurant like that in his or her life, and it's that utility that we celebrate.
These are the neighborhood restaurants to eat at right now:
In some ways, no restaurant better illustrates the neighborhood restaurant than Paulie's. This casual, counter-service plce on Westheimer serves straightforward, Italian-American food.
Consistent execution and close attention to small details are just two of the many reasons Paulie's has become a favorite spot for so many people in Houston's restaurant industry, particularly at lunch. Instead of buying dried pasta, Paulie's makes its own. Pass & Provisions chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan developed the recipes for three of the pasta dishes.
Carefully trained baristas serve locally roasted Greenway Coffee from a high-dollar espresso machine while providing friendly, efficient service.
For dessert? It's Cloud 10 ice cream from Tastemakers Best Pastry chef nominee Chris Leung or one of the restaurant's signature iced shortbread cookies with designs that vary based on the time of year.
As a food truck, the Eatsie Boys earned a rabid following for chef Matt Marcus's wittily named dishes that made the most of the truck's small kitchen. While the Montrose brick and mortar location isn't huge, it has allowed Marcus to further define his casual cuisine that blends Houston's various culinary influences into a coherent whole.
Matzah ball pho was supposed to be an opening week special, but the Jewish/Vietnamese matchup proved so popular its been a staple. Crispy falafel on a challah bun provides a sweetness that's typically missing from the usual pita preparation. Of course, the "frozen awesome" ice cream in flavors like Vietnamese coffee and Shipley's glazed doughnuts are practically irresistible.
If only Texas would amend the laws that prevent the cafe from selling 8th Wonder beer.
Sometimes a neighborhood restaurant needs to provide the sort of comfort that only comes from alcohol. In those instances, Down House excels, since it serves liquor, wine and craft beer from 9 a.m. until 12 a.m. seven days a week. Need a Bloody Mary on a Tuesday morning? Down House is there.
Need a Bloody Mary on a Tuesday morning? Down House is there.
The food is good, too. Chef Mark Decker's menu serves up a variety of locally-sourced ingredients in a globally influenced menu. The cauliflower chaat appetizer is one example: a seasonal ingredient prepared with a Hillcroft twist. The regular burger is also among Houston's best.
No wonder the place draws consistent crowds of Heights residents at every time of the day.
Nick Adair and his sister Katie Adair Barnhart grew up in the restaurant business, and they bring that lifer's devotion to this casual comfort food spot in Tanglewood. Open every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the menu is built around familiar flavors using local ingredients, with an emphasis on lighter, healthier fare.
It's certainly found an audience — at all times of day folks wander in for coffee or a sandwich, catching up with friends and neighbors.
This craft beer and sausage spot may be a little rough around the edges, but that just means it fits in well with the up and coming Second Ward. Moon Tower sets itself apart with high-quality, housemade sausages that feature exotic ingredients like wild boar and duck. The burgers are equally off-beat.
This craft beer and sausage spot may be a little rough around the edges, but that just means it fits in well with the up and coming Second Ward.
With 66 craft taps, lots of specials (BOGO burgers on Wednesday) and late night hours, Moon Tower is a great spot to hang with friends, drink some beer and relax.
If Dolce Vita only served the best Neapolitan-style pizza in Montrose, it wouldn't merit a nomination in this category. That it does so while also serving top-notch vegetable sides, flavorful pastas and Italian wines helps push Dolce Vita over the top. Even better, the high-quality food is served in a family-friendly atmosphere, particularly the large patio along Westheimer.
After all, teaching kids about the alternatives to delivery pizza is an essential role in any neighborhood.
Houston's best burger joint has evolved from a hidden gem downtown to a craft beer destination in the Heights. Later this month, owner Ricky Craig will open in Kemah, adding a coastal breeze to the mix. The success comes from never-frozen beef, fresh baked buns and creative toppings that often times sounds weird but always come together.
Philly cheese steak on a burger? Peanut butter on a burger? Yes and yes. Fresh cut, twice fried potatoes are also among the best in Houston.
As more and more people head north to The Woodlands, the sprawling community's dining scene is growing to meet the ever-increasing demand. Hopefully, that means more restaurants like Fielding's Wood Grill, where the familiar craft beer and burgers formula gets raised above the competition.
Fielding's prepares all of its ingredients in-house in an open kitchen: from grinding meat to baking buns to curing bacon. The wide variety of non-beef burger options makes it approachable for vegetarians, pescetarians and anyone who simply wants to keep things healthy.
High quality sides and boozy milkshakes (with in-house spun ice cream, natch) only enhance its appeal.
As the Heights restaurant scene grows, it's easy to overlook a solid option like Zelko Bistro, which had a high-profile opening in 2010 but has since faded from the media spotlight. That would be a mistake, as Jamie Zelko's restaurant that serves up well-executed comfort classics with creative local twists remains as reliable as ever.
Her cooking still features carefully sourced local ingredients, including the signature honey from the restaurant's own hives. The crispy, never greasy Captain's Chicken is among the best fried chicken dishes in town. A carefully selected wine and beer list always contains a few unexpected surprises.
For the residents of the Memorial Villages, Jonathan's the Rub has become an essential destination. Credit the diverse menu, which runs the gamut from classic Italian-American fare to steaks to seafood and more. It gives the restaurant a something for everyone utility that makes it equally acceptable for a family dinner or a more extravagant affair with a favorite bottle of wine (BYOB!).
Chef/owner Jonathan Levine and his family handle the crowds with a smile. The restaurant has become so successful that it will expand to a new, larger space later this year.