As expected, the fall's first chill sent Houstonians flocking onto restaurant patios across the city. After hiding in the air conditioning for the last five or so months, it's nice to be able to enjoy a sunny day without risking heat stroke.
There's something about meeting a group of friends for a meal and lingering over drinks in the sunshine that just epitomizes fall. It's the reward for suffering through summer.
With that in mind, here's CultureMap's list of Houston's 10 best restaurant patios.
Two items to note. First, patio dining is about the totality of the experience. This list isn't simply "the best food served on patios" but about patios that provide the appropriate atmosphere for relaxing and celebrating. That doesn't mean the food is irrelevant, exactly, but it's not the first priority its been for other lists.
I was skeptical that a spot next to a busy bus stop could feel like an escape. Happily for patio fans, I was totally wrong.
Second, patios that are merely tables in front of a parking lot are disqualified. Brasserie 19 may have great service and a buzzy atmosphere, but smelling exhaust while slurping oysters just won't do.
For 30 years, Backstreet Cafe's patio has served as a source of respite for Houston diners. Although it's located near the busy intersection of Shepherd and Allen Parkway, the restaurant's patio transports people to another, quieter, more civilized place. Then again, maybe that's thanks to the cocktails from beverage director Sean Beck or the innovative cooking from James Beard Award finalist Hugo Ortega and his team.
Regardless, for people looking to make a proper occasion out of patio dining, Backstreet is Houston's top spot.
Simply put, there's no way to exclude a restaurant that put the word "patio" in its name. Over the years, El Pueblito's patio has expanded to include a series of cabanas that are definite party spots. The drinks served in coconuts further enhance the party vibe.
Sitting on the comfortable couches and savoring the fruit-spiked salsas adds a festive atmosphere to any gathering. Service can be languid, especially when the restaurant's crowded, but the Mexican seafood entrees are worth the wait.
Although Brooklyn Athletic Club is a relative newcomer to be on a best of list, Shepard Ross's ode to his New York roots has already become a Montrose destination. First, there are two distinct patio areas: One up front by the intimate dining room and than the more expansive BACyard. Regardless of where one chooses to sit, the menu of kicked up comfort food in oversized portions awaits.
The tender, rich porobucco is large enough to split, particularly if one orders an appetizer and saves room for some s'mores bread pudding. Ross's other restaurant, Glass Wall, is known for its extensive wine selection. While BAC doesn't quite have that variety, the list is fairly extensive, and there are plenty of craft beer and cocktail alternatives, too.
Admittedly, the Provisions patio is next to a parking lot, but it's a rear parking lot away from the street that most people don't seem to know about, although I did once witness a possibly inebriated customer in a large pickup truck back into a wall and then speed away without alerting the restaurant, but I digress. The point is that Provisions's patio is sufficiently secluded to be a proper spot for the sort of languid dining that makes eating on patios great.
Also, the menu's structure that encourages sharing helps bring a group of friends together. Splurge on a good bottle of wine and tackle the whole lobe of foie gras. That's a recipe for a memorable evening.
I remember the first time I saw the fenced in plot of dirt and weeds that would become Batanga's massive patio. Although owners Brian and Hank Fasthoff promised it would be look different once the bricks, tables and place were in place, I was skeptical that a spot next to a busy bus stop could feel like an escape. Happily for patio fans, I was totally wrong.
That's why I write about restaurants instead of opening them. Batanga's patio makes for a perfect happy hour or weekend brunch spot. There's an extensive cocktail menu, and the discount on tapas from buying it six, eight or 10 ($46, $58 or $69) dishes at a time encourages a big group to order a lot and share it. With both vegetarian and gluten-free options, everyone in the group should find something to enjoy.
That Brennan's took the prize for favorite outdoor dining at the recent My Table awards shouldn't surprise anyone. The Midtown bastion of Creole cuisine has been providing Houstonians with superb service and delicious delights for almost 50 years. In contrast to a meal in the opulent dining room, the patio provides a more casual setting for cocktails and bar bites.
In contrast to a meal in the opulent dining room, the patio provides a more casual setting for cocktails and bar bites.
Every day from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. there's a menu of cocktails, glasses of wine and bar bites for $7 each. They're perfect either for a long afternoon of playing hooky from the office or as a weekend interlude away from errand running. No jacket required.
Hidden off Memorial Drive along Buffalo Bayou, Brenner's bucolic setting provides a true getaway for the urban dweller who needs a break from Houston's concrete jungle. After all, the location sits next to the Bayou Bend mansion. If the setting was grand enough for Houston heiress Ima Hogg, it's certainly appropriate for cocktails and snacks.
The Blue bar provides an upscale, modern contrast to the pastoral setting, and all of the food items on its menu are only $5 each during the week from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Discovery Green is one of the best reasons to go downtown, and The Grove's patio is the ideal spot to enjoy the park's atmosphere and skyline views. While the food can be a little hit or miss, sticking to the more classic items on the menu is the safest way to ensure a good meal. Whether as an after-work destination, as part of an afternoon of downtown exploring or as a prelude to a Houston Rockets game, the Grove serves whether one is dressed casually or looking for a more upscale experience.
For a patio that's truly a destination, head down to San Leon to this classic Texas oyster dive. What Gilhooley's lacks in restaurants standards like speedy service or smoke-free inside seating, it more than makes up for in atmosphere.
Is that order of roasted, cheese and garlic-topped oysters Gilhooley taking a long time to come out? Order another bucket of Shiner and relax. Upset about the strict no children policy? Revel in the joys of a properly medium rare patty melt and think of the day when your child is old enough to make his or her first visit.
The imperative to head south only becomes greater as fall continues and the idea of sucking down a couple dozen raw Gulf oysters becomes even more tempting.
Admittedly, Cottonwood is more bar than restaurant, with its extensive craft beer selection and cocktail menu, but to disqualify it for that reason would be to exclude one of the city's most festive patios. Between the games like corn hole and giant Jenga along with the occasional live music or football game on a big screen, a visit to Cottonwood has the potential to be a party.
The food here transcends the typical pub grub, especially the thick, gourmet burgers. It's dog-friendly, which is a definite plus. Whether it's family-friendliness is a plus or not will depend on whether one plans to bring kids along. Cottonwood can get crowded on the weekends, but that's just a reason to play hooky from work one afternoon, right?
Even with a new wave of patio bars in Midtown, this fun, comfort food spot on Main Street remains a personal favorite of the CultureMap staff. Although the horse that lived on the property when Natachee's opened has been chased off by humorless health inspectors, the relaxed, casual vibe remains.
Reasonable prices and friendly service add to the appeal. Whether interested in some food before cocktails at Double Trouble or preparing for a concert at the Continental Club, Natachee's provides a perfect starting point for Midtown adventures.