Alison's top 100

Breaking down Alison Cook's list of Houston's top 100 restaurants: winners, losers, and more

Breaking down Alison Cook's list of Houston's top 100 restaurants

Alison Cook Houston Chronicle
Alison Cook at 2014's reveal event. Photo by Eric Sandler

Houston Chronicle restaurant critic Alison Cook published the sixth edition of her list Houston’s top 100 restaurants Wednesday night. Once again, she chose Oxheart as the city’s best restaurant.

That’s certainly a valid opinion. After all, Justin Yu, the chef-owner of the 31 seat, tasting menu-only restaurant in downtown’s warehouse district, did recently earn a James Beard Award for his work.

“I really think that this is the strongest list I’ve ever put together,” Cook said in a video at the Chronicle’s party to announce the list. “Over the six years I’ve been doing it, I’ve noticed that the list seems to improve and get more formidable every year. This is the best yet.”

But is it really? After all, only Oxheart and The Pass & Provisions have ever taken the top spot. Both of those restaurants opened in 2012. Is it really possible that with all of the new openings and new talent that have opened dozens of new restaurants in Houston in the last four years that none have exceeded the heights reached by those two establishments?

Kind of a depressing thought, really, at least to someone like me who craves new experiences and is paid to search out the next big thing. Does Alison Cook really think Houston dining peaked in 2012?

The list hasn’t always seemed so staid. In 2014, four new restaurants made the top 10 and Pax Americana landed at number 12 despite only having been open for six weeks. This year, Gulf Coast restaurant Bernadine’s is the only newcomer to make the top 10. La Table, the French restaurant led by the New York-based Invest Hospitality group that also oversees legendary chef Joël Robuchon’s American restaurants, British-American tavern Hunky Dory, and farm-to-table Thai restaurant Foreign Correspondents are the only other new restaurants in the top 25.

As much as I would like to break down the number of new restaurants in the top 50, I can’t. For the first time, Cook only ranked the top 25. Everyone else is tied for 26, so to speak, and listed alphabetically.

“In years past, it’s felt increasingly absurd to parse rankings down into the 70s, 80s and beyond, as if I were some ancient medievalist calculating the number of angels who could dance on the head of a pin,” Cook writes in an essay introducing the list. “So I’m trying out the theory that though it’s fun — and even instructive about the state of the local culinary arts — to sort out the top tier, it’s better to leave the rest of these worthy restaurants to stand on their wildly diverse individual merits.”

Despite that justification, the move feels like a cop out. After all, Cook spends over two months crafting the list. She didn’t publish a review between July 4 (Cooking Girl) and Monday (Cane Rosso). Even in a city with thousands of potentially eligible restaurants, the expectations for someplace listed at 26 will be wildly different from 82.

Readers have come to expect a full ranking, and that’s what they deserve. What does the new method mean for a restaurant like Triniti, which dropped from 12 to the not-ranked portion? Would it have made the top 30, or does Cook think the restaurant is on more precarious footing?

Other than Triniti, Killen’s Steakhouse, Hubcap Grill, Radio Milano, Kuu, Pho Binh Trailer, Dolce Vita, Etoile, and Good Dog all fell out of the top 25. Peska Seafood Culture dropped from 37 to being off the list entirely. Tony’s dipped from fifth to 14. No, those restaurants didn’t magically get worse in the last year, but these lists are always somewhat arbitrary. Newer options can seem shinier and more appealing, even to a venerable food critic.

Of course, it’s probably better to be ranked than not. Restaurants that are outstanding in their category like Kenny & Ziggy’s (a deli that holds its own with New York’s finest), Blacksmith (classic Southern breakfast fare with a modern twist), and Tiger Den (my vote for Houston’s best izakaya) probably all deserve a spot somewhere.

On the plus side, applause, applause to chef Hugo Ortega and his wife/business partner Tracy Vaught for being the only restaurateurs with two establishments in the top 10 (Hugo’s, No. 2 and Caracol, No. 8). Credit also to the Heights-based Treadsack group on landing all three of its fall openings in the top 25. Other big movers include SaltAir Seafood Kitchen and Helen Greek Food & Wine that jumped from the low forties up to the teens. 

The list may be problematic, but it’s still relevant. A Facebook Live video of the reveal has almost 6,000 views as of Thursday morning. According to the Chronicle, 900 people paid a minimum of $100 each to attend last night’s reveal party where many of Houston’s best chefs served bites. As long as it’s making that kind of money for the Chron, it isn’t going anywhere.

Just don’t pretend it’s the final word on dining in Houston.