This year has been an exciting time for new restaurants. From homegrown talent to intriguing out-of-towners, the sheer volume of openings has been tough to keep up with, even for someone who’s made a career out of doing so.
Ultimately, that quantity is why this article is titled “favorite” new restaurants rather than “best.” Simply put, really evaluating each restaurant’s quality against its peers requires multiple visits, and I simply didn’t have time to get back to as many places as I would have liked to. Frankly, some establishments might have earned spots on this list if I had the time to visit them (apologies to Karne Korean Steakhouse, Tim Ho Wan, Ten Sushi, etc.).
Instead of pretending to be objective, I’m listing the places I either found myself drawn to multiple times or, in the case of a couple of more recent openings, am most looking forward to returning to. It also has some honorable mention, because this year has been a very good time to be restaurant fan in Houston. Like other Where to Eat columns, places are listed in roughly the order by which I think people should try them, but each establishment will deliver a very satisfying meal.
As any musician knows, following up a smash hit debut can be tricky. After all, even the most successful bands are more likely to release a Pinkerton or G N’ R Lies than a Vs. All of which is a long way to say that it isn’t obvious that even a team as talented as the people behind Bludorn would create a second establishment that matches the skill of the first.
But they did.
Navy Blue takes the Bludorn approach — essentially, a French perspective on contemporary American dishes paired with refined service and an elegant atmosphere — and applies it to seafood. Meaty swordfish comes with an au poivre sauce usually seen with filet mignon. Each lobster ravioli practically bursts with what seem like at least half a claw's worth of meat. Since spaghetti with vongole should taste like the sea, chef Jarrod Zifchak ups the oceanic flavor with a healthy dose of briny sea urchin.
All that would be enough, but the restaurant also stretches to serve credible versions of Gulf Coast classics like blackened snapper, New Orleans-style bbq shrimp, and a fried grouper sandwich. Mushroom vol au vent and mussel bisque demonstrate that flakey puff pastry unites Navy Blue with its big brother (even if Bludorn's lobster pot pie isn't available). Pastry chef Marie Riddle’s desserts, particularly an ultra-tart key lime pie and well-spiced carrot cake, end the meal on just the right note.
Two years ago, chef Emmanuel Chavez announced his presence in Houston’s food scene by selling artisan corn tortillas at the Urban Harvest Farmers Market. Now, his intimate, 13-seat restaurant in Spring Branch has become an essential dining destination for anyone who appreciates Mexican cuisine.
Served every Friday and Saturday, Chavez’s six-course tasting menus showcase corn’s diversity through a rotating roster of dishes that could include quesadillas, tostadas, and even a corn consommé. While corn is the star of each dish, Chavez pairs them with locally-sourced proteins that highlight each preparation’s texture and flavor. Fluffy masa pancakes are a highlight of the more affordable a la carte brunch service.
Tatemó has also become a pop-up destination thanks to its Taco Takeovers that have featured both local up-and-comers like Thomas Bille and Neo chefs Paolo Justo and Luis Mercado as well as higher profile names like former Pujol head chef Alex Bremont and New Orleans chef Ana Castro. Taken together, those efforts are showcasing the next generation of Mexican chefs who will build on the legacies of people like Hugo Ortega and Arnaldo Richards.
Houston has a lot of Mediterranean restaurants, but none of them can quite match the style of this Israeli restaurant from the owners of Doris Metropolitan. Alongside sister concept Badolina Bakery, Hamsa brings a little bit of Dizengoff Street to Rice Village.
Dining with a group of at least four provides a way to maximize the experience, because it facilitates sharing all of the salatin (hot and cold vegetable plates), which pair well with any of the three available hummus preparations and freshly baked pita. From there, even the most carnivorous diner should sample the crispy falafel. Round out the meal with a couple of the wood-grilled skewers or step up to a shareable entree like lamb ribs or grilled branzino. Or choose the Yella Yella (Hebrew for “let’s go") tasting menu to let the kitchen guide the meal.
The stylish interior and shareable menu make Hamsa a good option for celebratory dinners. Belly dancers on Thursday nights add even more energy to the dining experience.
Sometimes, it’s easier to explain what a restaurant is by comparing it to places people are more familiar with. In il Bracco’s case, the simplest way to set someone’s expectations is to say that it’s like if Carrabba’s and Houston’s had a baby — a recognition that founders Robert Quick and Matt Gottlieb both spent significant time working for Houston’s owner Hillstone Restaurant Group.
Like Houston’s, il Bracco offers a comfortable, mid century modern-inspired interior that serves as a setting for consistently well-executed takes on familiar dishes. Instead of traditional American fare, the focus is on upscale Italian classics like chicken piccata, roasted branzino, and Caesar salad. A tidy selection of housemade pastas feature the standout spicy gemelli (il Bracco’s spin on the trendy penne alla vodka) and trompetti pasta matched with a savory mushroom masala sauce. At lunch, the Italian beef splits the difference between a French dip and the sandwich The Bear made everyone crave.
An appealing list of Italian-inspired cocktails and polished service round out the experience. Overall, it's a restaurant that’s easy to visit regularly.
A year of sold out pop-ups provides plenty of proof that Abbas Dhanani has made a successful transition from food influencer to food creator, but his brick and mortar restaurant still manages to exceed expectations. Part of the credit goes to the Vy Truong and Han Dang of Very Handsome Studio, who created the design that puts a fun, Houston-themed spin on a New York bodega that comes complete with shelves lined with fake, Houston-inspired products and a Donkeeboy mural.
Of course, most of the credit goes to the signature smash burgers that are flattened to crispy deliciousness and paired with bright, housemade pickles and the tangy Bodega sauce. The chopped cheese sandwich, two burger patties sauteed with peppers and onions, is just as craveable.
Dhanani wisely partnered with Craft Creamery’s Steve Marques to create his milkshakes. Veteran Houston burger fans will recognize Marques from his time at pioneering Houston burger joint The Burger Guys. Not only is the signature Vietnamese coffee milkshake as good as memories of it, the all-new mango lassi pays homage to Dhanani’s Pakistani heritage.
Prior to the pandemic, chef Yoshi Katsuyama had been slated to lead Hidden Omakase. Anyone who’s encountered the Tokyo-trained chef at restaurants such as Uchi, Aqui, or Soto Sushi knows that he would have been an engaging host in that intimate environment.
Yet, he seems even more well suited as the executive chef of this ambitious restaurant from the owners of Montrose favorite Kau Ba Saigon Kitchen. Not only does chef Yoshi still get to craft elaborate tasting menus, diners with more modest appetites can experience his creative fare and warm hospitality with a complete a la carte menu. Those who choose that route should include at least a few pieces of nigiri with cold dishes such as madai crudo or kanpaccio with shoyu vinegar and apple. Oysters, tempura, and chawanmushi are also worthy choices.
Beverage specialist Chris Morris, a veteran of places such as Hunky Dory and MAD, oversees Aya’s extensive wine, beer, cocktail, and spirit offerings. Who knew Sancerre would pair so well with toro? Morris does, and his customers are better for it.
David Cordúa’s four year stint in the catering business may have kept him out of the public eye, but its been time well spent. His new Midtown restaurant blends the South American flavors he’s known for with dishes that pay homage to his childhood, his professional accomplishments, and Houston’s diverse culinary landscape.
A meal at The Lymbar could start with ceviche, corn gnocchi, or the truffle “Twinkies” — buttery brioche filled with a truffle-infused egg custard — that the chef created for the first Truffle Masters competition. Tacos Arabes platters offer a choice of chicken shawarma or beef tenderloin served with freshly made pita and sauces. The Latin-Mediterranean approach is further illustrated with corn smoked lamb chops that get paired with cous cous.
Beyond the food, the restaurant’s setting — essentially a very fancy take on the chef’s grandmother’s house in Meyerland — helps tell the Cordúa family story through a series of Easter eggs hidden around the room. Add in the creative cocktails and a wine bar-worthy by-the-glass for an establishment that feels like a vital addition to Midtown and beyond.
Restaurateur Ken Bridge may be best known for Pink’s Pizza, but Mapojeong may be his greatest accomplishment. Inspired by restaurants in Seoul and his childhood home of Los Angeles, Mapojeong offers Houstonians a modern take on the classic Korean BBQ experience.
Mapojeong puts high quality meat at the heart of the meal by offering an extensive selection of Prime beef cuts that include short rib, brisket, ribeye, and strip. Marinated meats, particularly the short rib and pork belly, showcase the signature sweet and sour balance of Korean dining — and pair well with the kimchi and other banchan that comes with the restaurant’s shareable combination platters. An appealing menu of small plates that includes mandu, seafood pancake, and Korean fried chicken help round out a meal.
Best of all, the well-trained staff will oversee the grilling, which allows diners to focus on assembling the perfect bite without worrying about over (or under) cooking their meat.
Louie’s Italian American
Cafe Louie would have been at the top of this list, but the restaurant’s Italian American reboot still has a lot to offer. Chef Angelo Emiliani’s pastas remain some of the best in Houston, and they get new life when paired with classic red sauces. Chicken parmesan is pure comfort, and redfish picatta offers a Gulf Coast perspective on an Italian classic. Pastry chef Louie Emiliani, the restaurant’s namesake, not only puts her spin on classics desserts like tiramisu and gelato, she also contributes housemade breads that compliment dishes like meatballs and burrata.
Photo by Julie Soefer
Navy Blue serves a diverse menu of fish and shellfish.
I enjoyed my initial visits to Wild Oats, particularly its decadent Sunday brunch buffet, for its fresh smart perspective on Texas staples like chicken fried steak and steak tartare. However, I haven’t been back since the departures of Underbelly Hospitality founder Chris Shepherd and culinary director Nick Fine and feel like I need a check in to see how the restaurant’s faring in their absences.
Indian fine dining conceptAmrina gives the Woodlands another destination-worthy restaurant. Dishes like charred octopus, tandoori leg of lamb, and wagyu kulcha with bone marrow butter all demonstrate chef Jassi Bindra’s modern perspective on Indian fare. The gorgeous interior, polished service, and extensive beverage options all make for a splurge-worthy experience.
Grant Cooper and the Big Vibe Group have achieved something special with Flora, the Mexican concept that occupies the former Dunlavy space on Buffalo Bayou. The 40 chandeliers add a sense of occasion to any meal. House made corn tortillas and moles demonstrate Flora's commitment to getting the details right. Its extensive selection of tequila and mezcal demonstrates a willingness to show people a good time.
Chef Masaru Fukuda deserves credit for his persistence in evolving Pacha Nikkei from a stand at the short-lived Politan Row food hall into a full service restaurant in the Westchase District. Other restaurants have served Nikkei-style dishes, but none have delved into the Japanese-Peruvian fusion as deeply as Pacha does. Creative maki rolls, flavorful ceviches, and staples like lomo saltado all make this restaurant worth visiting.
If all Gatlin's Fins and Feathers did was provide a permanent home to executive chef Michelle Wallace's gumbo, it would be a positive addition to Houston. Of course, it does much more than that by serving fried chicken, roasted oysters, blackened catfish, bbq shrimp, and other Southern-inspired fare. Don’t skip the biscuits.
At Dinette, chef Cole Hoang blends his Vietnamese heritage with his experiences working for James Beard Award finalist Christine Ha at both The Blind Goat and Xin Chao to create a fresh perspective on modern Vietnamese fare. Dishes like Bánh Xèo, corn ribs, and turmeric and dill cod are highlights, as is the restaurant’s intimate atmosphere. Creative cocktails, a trait shared with sister concept Hando, provide another reason for Heights diners to embrace the restaurant.
As a person who enjoys a good steak, I appreciate Marmo both for its dry-aged Prime beef and its Italian-inspired pastas and small plates. Indeed, the Italian dishes are so compelling that someone might not realize it’s a steakhouse — at least until they see the tomahawk ribeye at the next table. Tony’s veteran Scott Sulma’s presence in the dining room ensures every meal goes smoothly.