What’s the best restaurant to open in Houston this year? Even though it’s almost November, a slam dunk consensus pick hasn’t emerged.
After last year’s bumper crop of high-quality openings, this year has been a little more subdued. This year’s best restaurants — places like State Fare, Ritual, Arthur Ave, Kuma Burger, Killen’s Burgers, Pi Pizza, Morningstar, and The Pit Room — improve on existing genres (comfort food, Italian, burgers, pizza, doughnuts, barbecue) rather than redefine categories or push things definitely forward.
Maybe the best new arrival comes from out of town. After all, places like Steak 48, Cane Rosso, and Snooze are packed. New York-based Invest Hospitality turned the ho-hum Table on Post Oak into the highly satisfying La Table.
Of course, the situation is about to get both more complicated and more interesting. Since CultureMap's last round up of upcoming openings in June, several of Houston’s best chefs, including the city’s two most-recent James Beard Award winners, a perennial James Beard nominee, Houston’s king of meat, a renowned seafood chef, and the current CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Chef of the Year have all announced plans to open new restaurants between now and Super Bowl LI.
If that’s not enough, a number of rising stars with serious resumes are also preparing to make their debuts. In addition, out of town restaurants continue to see opportunity in Houston, with strong candidates from both coasts that are poised to make a splash. A few Houston-based restaurants are expanding with second and third locations, and, of course, the city’s barbecue boom shows no signs of slowing down.
In other words, Shake Shack isn’t the only imminent arrival that people should be excited about.
What follows below isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list of every restaurant opening between now and the Super Bowl, but it does offer a sense of the highest-profile, most-exciting new openings that people will be talking about between now and February. Keeping up will be almost impossible, but isn’t that part of the fun?
Heavy Hitters - New concepts from established chefs
Underbelly chef-owner Chris Shepherd has partnered with Hay Merchant co-owner Kevin Floyd, financial guru Steve Flippo, and Houston Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus to open an innovative new restaurant. Located in the former home of Mark’s American Cuisine on Westheimer, One Fifth will change its concept (including menu, staff uniforms, wine list, and decor) every year. The restaurant’s first incarnation will be a steakhouse that blends Southern-style sides like creamed collards (instead of spinach) with locally-sourced meat and an extensive raw bar.
Still unknown: who the chef de cuisine will be, how much of Mark’s iconic decor will remain after remodeling, and how Houstonians will respond to a steakhouse that wants to serve more than filets and ribeyes.
Ronnie Killen will blend elements of both Killen’s Steakhouse and Killen’s Barbecue at his new restaurant that will replace Bramble. Look for dishes similar to what Killen has served at one-off dinners and competitions that combined smoked meats and live fire cooking with elegant plating and refined service. If all goes according to plan, the restaurant will elevate Killen’s reputation to the same level of national prominence enjoyed by culinary stars like Chris Shepherd and Justin Yu.
Unnamed Bobby Heugel and Justin Yu “Neighborhood Business”
For his first post-Clumsy Butcher project, Anvil co-owner Bobby Heugel has teamed up with his longtime friend, Oxheart chef-owner Justin Yu, to open a “neighborhood business” at the former home of Dry Creek Cafe. Other details are light: the duo haven’t revealed why they aren't referring to the project as a restaurant, what the name will be, who will be working there, what they will serve, or when it will open (construction and permit delays could mean it might not actually qualify for this list). Still, given the acclaim both have earned, whatever they come up with merits watching.
Xochi/Marriott Marquis/Avenida Houston
A number of new restaurants are coming to the area around Discovery Green before the Super Bowl’s arrival. Of these, the most interesting is Xochi, a new concept from five time James Beard finalist Hugo Ortega that will allow the chef to take an even more creative approach to Mexican cuisine than he's displayed at either Hugo’s or Caracol. Could that mean he learned a few modernist tricks from visits by the Roca brothers of acclaimed Spanish restaurnt El Cellar de Can Roca? Hopefully, yes.
Joining Xochi at the Marriott Marquis will be the hotel’s signature restaurant, now dubbed Walker Street Kitchen, that will serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner; a sports bar in partnership with Houston Astros Hall of Famer Craig Biggio; and a wine bar called Cueva that will feature 200 selections.
Avenida Houston, the new name for the area around Discovery Green and the George R. Brown convention center, will also add a number of new restaurants including a Pappadeaux; a re-imagined version of Grotto built around Neapolitan-style pizzas and “one of the largest Grappa collections in downtown Houston;” Bud’s Pitmaster BBQ, which will feature traditional Texas meats like brisket and ribs as well as wild game; and Kulture, a new concept from Breakfast Klub owner Marcus Davis that’s inspired by African American culture.
Kristalla and Osso
The Italian restaurants Reef partners Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd are opening in the 500 Crawford apartment complex with Astros owner Jim Crane have new names and a new projected opening of December. Casual Brocca has become Kristalla, and upscale Il Panchina is now known as Osso. Whereas the old names were Italian riffs on “batter” and “pitcher,” Crane tells the Chronicle the new names are inspired by his nicknames for his children.
Other details are still a little light, but surely one of these days Caswell will address questions such as how these two restaurants are different from what he served at Stella Sola and who the chef de cuisine will be.
Originally slated for a summer opening, the new location of the popular Indian fine dining restaurant should open in November at the new Kirby Grove building on Richmond Avenue. When it does, Kiran’s will be approximately 1,000 square feet larger than its original location, with an expanded bar and a reinvented dinner menu.
Brasserie Du Parc
Etoile chef Philippe Verpiand and his wife Monica will expand on the success they’ve had in Uptown Park with an authentic French brasserie. Slated to open in January in the One Park Place building that’s also home to Phoenicia, the restaurant will also feature a crepe concept within the restaurant.
Triniti chef Ryan Hildebrand will open a new burger joint on Shepherd Drive just north of Washington Ave. The basic burger is similar to Shake Shack: a quarter-pound patty topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, and “secret sauce,” but the overall concept will be fairly sophisticated with a full bar — including boozy milkshakes — and a spacious patio. Diners can get a first taste of the FM Burger at Triniti during happy hour.
Pax Americana chef Adam Dorris has teamed up with Southern Goods partners Charles Bishop and Taylor Lee to open this family-friendly lunch and dinner spot in the former Java Java Cafe on 11th Street in The Heights. The expansive patio will feature a stage for live music and two gardens. Look the menu to offer “reinvented takes on Texas and regional classics,” which hopefully means the off-the-menu chicken fried steak that briefly appeared at Pax will make a permanent return.
With Pi Pizza and State Fare, Cherry Pie Hospitality has already opened two of this year’s most promising newcomers, and that looks set to continue with this seafood-centric restaurant coming to the former home of Bradley’s Fine Diner. According to a statement about the concept from Cherry Pie, partner Lee Ellis will “bring his eclectic style and flare for originality to the décor and ambiance” at Starfish. Chef Jim Mills will ensure the food tastes pretty good, too.
Mike Tran, the chef-restaurateur behind acclaimed Chinatown restaurants Tiger Den and Mein, has partnered with former Ambrosia chef Rikesh Patel on this new restaurant that will feature curries from across Asia. A tidy, rotating menu of five or six curries will be the primary draw, along with a few grilled items, fried snacks, and salads. Expect a November opening.
Rising star chefs that are stepping up
After honing his skills at Underbelly and Reef, chef Ryan Lachaine will step out on his own at this restaurant that occupies the former Te House of Tea space Fairview. The succinct menu of approximately 15 items will blend the Southern and Asian influences Lachaine has absorbed professionally with the Canadian and Ukranian influences of his childhood, but don’t expect a rotating pierogi special. Joining him will be sous chef E.J. Miller (SaltAir Seafood Kitchen, Down House) and general manager Chris Fleischman (Pax Americana).
Houstonians may know Martin Stayer from his time as a bartender at Coltivare, but his cooking resume includes stints at acclaimed Chicago restaurants like Moto and L20. Stayer will bring those fine-dining chops to open a casual neighborhood restaurant in the former Au Petit Paris space. Look for an expansive menu that blends raw items, bar snacks, shareable plates, and large format entrees. Vintage stereo equipment will set the mood.
Field & Tides
Former Liberty Kitchen chef Travis Lenig will demonstrate that he knows how to make more than poke bowls and ultra-expensive gumbo with this new restaurant that will replace Zelko Bistro on 11th Street in The Heights. Lenig is still working on his menu, but the restaurant will utilize Texas ingredients and feature an extensive selection of oysters. Partner Christopher “Chico” Ramirez says his goals for the restaurant including having the best patio in the neighborhood and a lively weekend brunch.
Barbecue Boom Continues
Harlem Road Texas BBQ
Swiss-trained chef Ara Malekian will meld French technique with a love of all things Texas at this barbecue joint in Richmond. Malekian has hosted a number of pop-ups around town where he’s served luscious beef ribs, peppery brisket, and house made sausages. If he can execute consistently, the Sugar Land area will have its first destination barbecue joint.
After seemingly interminable permitting delays, passionate pitmaster Grant Pinkerton finally looks poised to open his barbecue joint in The Heights. Pinkerton made a splash at this year’s Houston Barbecue Festival by serving smoked alligator, but the brisket, ribs, and sausage he’s offered at a series of pop-ups suggest the restaurant will be Houston’s next barbecue sensation.
Houston restaurants that are adding new locations
Popular German restaurant King’s Biergarten will expand from Pearland to The Heights with this sister concept. Whereas the original King’s feels a little bit like a German theme park, the BierHaus will be a slightly more upscale affair with craft beer, fully-landscaped outdoor seating, and a more diverse range of food offerings.
Bernie’s Burger Bus - The Heights
The third location of the food truck turned burger restaurant is currently under construction on Yale Street. Since day one, the concept has been built around chef Justin Turner’s custom-blend patty, house made condiments, and top-notch fries. First-rate milkshakes and a tidy list of craft beer add to the appeal.
The Rice Box
Owner John Peterson has been quiet about his plans to open a stand alone restaurant in The Heights, but City of Houston permits and a TABC license indicate that the popular food truck will open in the former Chirps Chicken space on 20th Street. The restaurant’s Greenway Plaza location has made a number of improvements that bode well for the second location, including cooking all of its food in woks and adding beer and wine.
The transformation of Texadelphia into a second location of the popular comfort food and cocktail spot is nearly complete. In addition to familiar fare like the classic chicken fried steak and Beaver Nuggets dessert, the new location promises to upgrade its barbecue game significantly. While the concept will be very family friendly, the “Beaver Den” will provide an adults-only cocktail bar and hangout space.
Heights Bier Garten/Worcester’s Annex
Having established Wooster’s Garden and VrSI as two of Midtown’s more compelling destinations, the Kirby Group will turn its attention to The Heights with these twin craft beer and cocktail concepts that will occupy the corner of 14th Street and Shepherd Drive. Expect lots of outdoor seating, an extensive beer list, and food by culinary director Brandon Silva (Uchi, Holley’s).
Flo Paris Rice Village
After establishing itself in the Galleria-area, the French bakery and cafe will expand to Rice Village. In addition to the familiar sandwiches and pastries, Flo Paris will add French wine and cheese plates to make it a happy hour destination.
Local Foods Downtown
For its fourth location, the popular sandwich shop will add an extensive seafood bar with raw selections. Located in the former Georgia’s Market at the corner of Main and Prairie, the large space will allow Local Foods to cater to downtown offices and host private events in its basement.
Other locally-owned restaurants of note
Chapman & Kirby
Part of the East Village development near Dynamo Stadium, this restaurant and bar unites four partners who’ve operated a number of successful concepts in Houston, including Hughes Hangar and Christian’s Tailgate. The 9,000 square foot space will serve both lunch and dinner, as well as host private events. On Friday and Saturday nights, it will transform into an upscale lounge and attempt to capture some of the nightclub crowd that’s already flocking to Midtown.
Katie Adair Barnhart and Nick Adair, the siblings behind Adair Kitchen and the recently opened Eloise Nichols, will add to their portfolio with this juice and coffee bar in River Oaks. In addition to juice, Eloise Nichols chef Joseph Stayshich has developed a number of egg dishes, light salads, and sandwiches that will make it valuable at both breakfast and lunch.
Former Tarakaan owner Piran Esfahani has reunited with chef Rob Frisas to transform the former 55 Bar & Restaurant into a ramen shop. Look for the restaurant’s beef short rib broth to be a signature item, as will the izakaya-style yakitori skewers. Rice students on spontaneous Yik Yak meetups will probably fill the patio.
Out of towners making their way to Houston
SumoMaya Mexican-Asian Kitchen
The Arizona-based restaurant that fuses Japanese and Mexican flavors has slipped from a summer opening to “moving target” status, but it’s still the last restaurant that’s confirmed to open in the white hot River Oaks District mixed use complex. Expect to have passionate arguments on Facebook about whether anyone should eat dishes like pork al pastor pad thai and Mexican pho with roasted pasilla chile broth.
Bosscat Kitchen & Libations
The California-based restaurant that serves comfort food and whiskey looks headed for a late November or early December just east of River Oaks District. A whiskey room that contains more than 350 selections and private lockers for VIPs will help make it the Galleria-area’s premier craft cocktail destination.
Unless you’ve been living underground, you know that the New York-based burger juggernaut will finally open its first Houston location in November. Will Houstonians fight Galleria traffic and parking hassles for a burger? If the 1,200 people who showed up to this month’s preview pop-up is any indication, the answer is yes.
The Hakkasan Group will bring its Michelin-starred dim sum restaurant to The Galleria’s “jewel box” expansion. In addition to dumplings and other dishes prepared in woks, the restaurant also serves French pastries.
The Austin-based breakfast and lunch favorite will open its first Houston-area location on Washington Ave. Whether it's better than Torchy's is a matter of passionate debate, but Houston can never have enough high-quality taco options.
The stoner-themed pizza restaurant has already found success in Spring, and it will expand its Houston-area operation with a location at the corner of Shepherd Drive and 20th Street in The Heights.
Permit delays have pushed the upscale steak and sushi concept from the third quarter of this year to the first or second quarter of 2017, but it’s still coming to the River Oaks-area at 2929 Wesleyan eventually.
The Hawaii-based ramen restaurant has ambitious plans to open three Houston-area restaurants by the end of the year: one on Westheimer, one in the Energy Corridor, and a third in the former Christian’s Tailgate at Washington Avenue and the Katy Freeway. In addition to its signature 22-hour tonkotsu broth, Agu will serve Hawaiian-style dishes like spam masubi and poke salad.
Bayou & Bottle
Richard Sandoval, a chef with over 40 restaurants all over the world, has joined forces with the Four Seasons hotel for his first Texas restaurant. Similar to the restaurants he operates with the same ownership group at the Four Seasons in Punta Mita, Bayou & Bottle is a license concept, which means the chef is creating the menu but leaving the day-to-day operations to the hotel. Given its proximity to Reserve 101, opening a bar with a whiskey theme seems somewhat quixotic, but the Four Seasons’ well-heeled patrons probably won’t care.
The California-based grilled cheese and cheeseburger fast casual chain will arrive in Baybrook Mall this November and eventually grow to 20 Houston-area locations.
Which of these are you most excited about? What's missing? Sound off in the comments.