where to eat right now
Where to eat in Houston right now: Our favorite new restaurants for 2021
What a year its been for Houston restaurants. Despite numerous challenges, an incredible crop of newcomers offers diners more high quality choices than ever before.
This year has seen tasting menus come roaring back to prominence with no fewer than five restaurants devoted to the format. At the same time, a group of bar-forward concepts like Winnie’s, Night Shift, and Roots Wine Bar serve dishes capable of luring teetotalers complete with plenty of zero-proof options that go far beyond Topo Chico.
A commitment to blending traditional techniques with modern perspectives has driven enormous creativity in Mexican cuisine at restaurants like Chivos, Papalo Taqueria, and the tasting menu offered by Tatemo chef Emmanuel Chavez.
Similarly, some of the city’s most creative meals are happening outside of a traditional restaurant. Consider Neo, the Japanese-inspired omakase that operates inside a Montrose clothing store, or Golfstrommen, the thrilling seafood concept that’s luring in-the-know diners to the Post Market food hall. One of the year’s most talked about burgers emerged from a pop-up held at The Tipping Point, a coffee shop and vintage store in downtown.
More than anything, it’s impossible not to admire the resiliency of restaurant industry owners and workers. They’ve adapted to operating during a global pandemic that’s undermined some people’s willingness to dine out, turned other customers into entitled jerks, and disrupted fundamental economic models with rising prices and supply chain disruptions. In the past few days, the Omicron variant has prompted unexpected closures as already short staffed restaurants and bars lose key employees to breakthrough infections.
In such a diverse and challenging environment, picking a list of best new restaurants becomes even more difficult than usual. Really, any restaurant that’s operating at a profit and treats its employees with respect deserves some sort of acknowledgement.
Still, some places go above and beyond. They reset diners’ expectations of what restaurants are capable of through a combination of creative food, exceptional service, and thoughtful decor. In a highly competitive environment, they’re the places that make people want to go back again and again.
What follows is a highly subjective list of the new places I have personally been most excited about this year and most look forward to revisiting in the year to come. They’re the businesses I’ve raved about on my podcast and championed on social media. Consider it more of a list of “favorite” new restaurants of 2021 than the “best” — ranked in the order in which I think people should try them.
Don’t be surprised that a seafood restaurant and market in a food hall takes the top spot. Something really special is happening here. A collaboration between Norwegian chef Christopher Haatuft and Texas chef Paul Qui, Golfstrommen applies the focus on sustainability that Haatuft champions at his fine dining restaurant Lysverket to a Gulf Coast context.
The results speak for themselves. Meals at Golfstrommen start with dishes from a first rate raw program that covers a range of oysters, clams, caviar, crab claws, and sashimi made with sustainability-sourced fish like Atlantic bluefin tuna and Ora King salmon. Hot dishes get similar levels of attention, as in a recent meal that featured a whole snapper that Qui split into two halves: one fried and the other roasted and topped with a French-inspired pecan brown butter. At lunch, look for a range of “snitters,” Norwegian-style toasts topped with a range of different proteins.
While some might object to the casual furniture or full wattage lighting, Golfstrommen has steadily improved its overall operations. The restaurant now takes reservations via Resy, and sommelier Lila Salibhas has expanded its wine and beer selection. Simply put, I don't think there's a more exciting restaurant in Houston right now, and it will get even better in the future.
Of all the tasting menu concepts to open this year, none can match the ambition or scale of Goodnight Hospitality’s Mediterranean-inspired restaurant. With its bespoke furniture and museum-worthy art, March announces its intentions to wow customers from the moment they enter.
For each region that March focuses on — first the Maghreb in Northwest Africa, then the Spanish regions of Andalusia & Murcia, and, beginning in February, the Occitania region of France — chef-partner Felipe Riccio and his cooks dive deep into the area’s history and ingredients. The results are precisely executed, intricately plated creations that are as flavorful as they are eye-catching. Of course, the dishes are paired with expertly crafted cocktails and a deep wine list sourced by partner and master sommelier June Rodil and her team.
While the Michelin Guide has yet to send its inspectors to Texas, March operates with a level of quality and ambition that would surely earn their attention. Even its lounge ranks as one of the city’s best cocktail bars. Esquire magazine’s naming it the country’s sixth best new restaurant seems like the first of many national accolades that will come its way.
Although this East End spot opened in December 2020, most people didn’t discover its many charms until this year. More casual than its sister concept Nancy’s Hustle, the restaurant celebrates fermentation in all its forms, which means microbes are the “tiny champions” for which the restaurant is named. Both the understated dining room and expansive patio make for a comfortable setting that’s equally appropriate for a catchup dinner with friends or a cozy date night.
Thin crust pizzas — including a take on a Hawaiian that ought to settle the pineapple debate once and for all — and freshly made pastas anchor the menu. While a meal at Tiny Champions would feel incomplete without a pie (or two), some of the most memorable dishes are shareable items such as roasted and chilled eggplant and braised butter beans with pickled peppers and garlic toum; these small plates offer incredible depth of flavor, revealing something new with each bite. Housemade ice creams end every meal on a sweet note.
Like Nancy’s, Tiny Champions offers a smart list of mostly natural wines and creative cocktails that pair well with its food. Enthusiastic, welcoming service helps make it a place worthy of visiting again and again.
Da Gama Canteen
Chefs Shiva and Rick Di Virgilio, the couple behind Midtown’s Oporto Fooding House, have once again created a compelling dining destination with this Portuguese-Indian restaurant. Located in the M-K-T development, Da Gama features a bright, open dining room with a patio that looks out onto the Heights Hike and Bike Trail.
Each visit reveals a new favorite dish. One time, it might be three chili paneer or prawn ambot tik (Gulf shrimp in a sweet and spicy chili tamarind sauce); on another, it might be the delicate crab pani puri, a beef skewer with East African spices, or any of the compelling vegetable preparations. A range of light, well-balanced cocktails (both alcoholic and zero proof) and carefully selected natural wines offer a range of pairing options. Finally, its affordable weekday lunch service helps make Da Gama one of this year’s most useful new arrivals.
Speaking of useful, few restaurants cater to as many different needs as James Beard Award winner Hugo Ortega and restaurateur Tracy Vaught’s casual, street food-inspired concept in Uptown Park. The all-day restaurant’s setting features a lively interior and plenty of patio seating.
Whether going in the morning for coffee and breakfast tacos or tucking into tacos and shareable plates at lunch and dinner, Urbe’s vast menu will satisfy almost any craving. Dishes like the pastor tacos, the queso flameado (served with housemade tortillas, naturally), and campechana are all standout takes on their respective iterations, as are the housemade pastries and sweets. The full selection of cocktails, including beverage director Sean Beck’s first take on frozens, offer plenty of refreshment.
After earning a spot on last year’s version of this list for his work at Belly of the Beast, chef Thomas Bille returns with this more polished restaurant in the Heights. Pitched as a Mexican American concept that’s distinct from both traditional Mexican cuisine and Tex-Mex, Chivos applies inspiration from other cultures to Mexican flavors and techniques.
A meal might begin with Sichuan-inspired pozole dumplings in a flavorful pork broth or fluffy flour tortillas paired with truffle butter and trout roe. Mains like duck breast with fig mole and grilled shrimp with tomatillo curry demonstrate the concept’s potential to combine flavors Houstonians enjoy into a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
Tableside service touches, including a bar cart loaded with a tempting array of Mexican spirits, elevates the experience and further sets Chivos apart from nearby Tex-Mex restaurants and taquerias. While Belly of the Beast was short-lived, hopefully Heights diners embrace this ambitious establishment.
This New York-based, French fine dining concept has made the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston a legitimate dining destination. Created by Alain Verzeroli, a veteran chef who held three Michelin stars at Tokyo’s Château Restaurant Joël Robuchon, Le Jardinier offers a vegetable-forward take on modern French cuisine. Its spacious, opening dining room features a dramatic tapestry and a view of the museum’s sculpture garden.
Preparations vary by season, with Verzeroli and chef de cuisine Felipe Botero adding in some Texas and Gulf Coast ingredients to the dishes that earned Le Jardinier’s New York location a Michelin star. Those seeking a more curated experience may opt for the five-course tasting menu. The gluten-free breads and whimsical desserts show a level of creativity and thoughtfulness that makes Le Jardinier feel more welcoming and accessible than might be expected from an establishment at its price point.
This year has seen a wave of new Italian restaurants that range from hip, stylish Concura Italian Bites and then fine dining Alba Ristorante to this posh newcomer from veteran restaurateur Ben Berg, the proprietor of establishments such as B&B Butchers, The Annie Cafe, and Turner’s. A comprehensive set of renovations has completely transformed the former Presidio space into a lush environment backed by an open kitchen with a wood burning oven.
Executive chef L.J. Wiley may have been ahead of the culinary curve at the late, lamented Yelapa Playa Mexicana, but he’s right on time with Sofia’s crowd pleasing menu. In particular, pizzas with the right amount of char and housemade pastas shine, especially the classic cacio e pepe and bucatini with Sicilian pesto.
Julep owner Alba Huerta created the restaurant’s cocktail menu, which provide Italian accented riffs on classics. A smart, Italian-focused wine list provides plenty of pairing possibilities.
Limited to just 18 seats, this sushi counter offers one of Houston’s most intimate dining experiences. Chef Niki Vongthong (Uchi, Aqui)’s 12-course, $175 menu offers an updated take on the familiar sushi progression, taking diners from oysters through different pieces of nigiri before ending with wagyu and (at both my visits) uni pasta. Housemade condiments and sauces allow each fish’s flavor to shine.
Part of what makes the experience so memorable is the close interaction with the chefs. A soundtrack of mostly ‘90s hip hop keeps things lively.
A project that unites former Bernadine’s chefs Graham Laborde and Chris Roy with Johnny’s Gold Brick owner Benjy Mason, Winnie’s brings a fresh perspective to po’ boys and New Orleans-inspired cocktails. Billed as a bar, Winnie’s offers food that’s as compelling as any restaurant, complete with full service that makes it a comfortable place to dine for lunch or dinner.
Sure, the signature peacemaker features expertly fried shrimp and oysters with just the right amount of dressing, but the menu really shines with creative riffs such as the BLT Katsu Sando (braised and fried bacon paired with pickled green tomatoes) and the Fried Chicken Crunchwrap Supreme that’s the ultimate cross between Popeyes and Taco Bell.
Cocktails focus on an appealing mix of frozens and updated versions of New Orleans classics that are lighter and less hangover inducing than the originals. Selling them for just $5 before 5 pm makes them even more compelling.
Honorable mentions and notable omissions
In the interest of full disclosure, the new restaurant I visited most often is The Taco Stand. I appreciate its affordable prices, drive-thru convenience, and, most importantly, chef Matt Pak’s flavorful take on classic street tacos that are enhanced by housemade tortillas and vibrant salsas.
As noted above, several bar-forward concepts served compelling food this year. Multiple visits to Night Shift prove that chef Danny Leal consistently demonstrates both creativity and consistency with his dishes. The bar’s churros are one of my favorite dishes of the year.
Having first encountered ChòpnBlọk as a pop-up in an apartment building’s common area, I am extremely impressed by its first brick and mortar location at Post Market. The charm and enthusiasm proprietor Ope Amosu displayed in those early days remains intact, but the West African-inspired fare is better than ever. Anyone who visits the food hall without tucking into a Trad Bowl has missed out on something special.
As a devoted carnivore, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Gatsby’s. Its combination of retro style and well-executed steakhouse fare makes it a compelling alternative to any of the national chains.
Two omissions to note. First, my last visit to Degust took place prior to Brandon Silva departing the restaurant. While I recognize that chefs Javier Beccera and Rico Mackins led the kitchen when it earned a spot on Esquire’s best new restaurants list, I need to experience it myself to have an updated opinion.
Finally, Georgia James Tavern gets an incomplete until incoming executive chef Nick Wong puts his stamp on the place. Having ranked UB Preserv as a top five Houston restaurant in 2019, I feel confident that the chef will do good work at his new home and look forward to my first meal at the new GJT.