Meet the Tastemakers
Houston's 9 best neighborhood restaurants make us feel right at home
Casual, affordable, accessible — neighborhood restaurants may not show up on most best-of lists, but they’re the restaurants that most people dine at every day. Whether it’s getting a pick me up after a bad day at work or a family dinner when sports practices run late, neighborhood restaurants are there for us whenever we need them.
We asked our panel of industry experts to identify their favorite neighborhood restaurants by stipulating that places should be: relatively affordable, open at least six days per week, and serve both lunch and dinner. That they're all inside the loop suggests that our experts actually do eat at these restaurants that are close to the places they live and work.
A couple of our finalists break these rules in one way or another, but all offer the welcoming atmosphere and everyday comfort that makes neighborhood restaurants such an important part of people’s lives. Which restaurant did our panelists select? Find out on April 18 at the Tastemakers Award party at Asia Society Texas. Tickets are on sale now.
Aladdin Mediterranean Cuisine
Located in the heart of Montrose, this Middle Eastern restaurant serves a diverse mix of braised meats, grilled kebabs, and enough vegetable options to make meatless Mondays appealing. The lamb shank will always be a signature, especially when wrapped in some freshly baked pita bread with a swipe of creamy hummus. Prices are affordable, which is another reason the dining room is frequently full. 912 Westheimer
Giacomo's Cibo e Vino
Chef-owner Lynette Hawkins’ casual Italian restaurant may not regularly appear in the media spotlight, but that’s only because there’s near-universal agreement about the restaurant’s overall excellence. Whether a diner is seeking a light lunch of small vegetable plates after an indulgent dinner or a multi-course meal built around the excellent pastas (both house made and imported), Giacomo’s offers a variety of consistently appealing choices. Giacomo’s well-priced list of Italian wines makes it so easy to spend a day lingering on the patio that we’re including it in this category even though it’s only open five days per week. 3215 Westheimer
Good Dog Houston
Houstonians may be obsessed with burgers, but Good Dog has spread the message that hot dogs can be great, too. Owners Amalia Pferd and Daniel Caballero have grown the business from a food truck to brick-and-mortar locations in The Heights and Montrose on the combination of Pferd’s creative condiments and Caballero’s front of house expertise. Going brick and mortar also allowed Pferd to expand the menu, which now includes non-hot dog sandwiches, salads, and what may be the best fish and chips in Houston. A well-chosen selection of craft beer, Texas wines, and the essential fizzy mint lemonade make the beverage choices are just as appealing as the food. 903 Studewood; 1312 W. Alabama
Helen Greek Food & Wine
Local and national acclaim has made Helen so popular that it can be hard to snag a reservation, but the restaurant that taught Houstonians to appreciate Greek wine, pork gyros, and the merits of Greek brunch fulfills the neighborhood restaurant criteria of being an essential destination for Rice Village residents. While the show-stopping dishes can get pricey, sitting at the bar to linger over a glass of whatever new vintage sommelier Evan Turner is excited about while snacking on a plate or two created by James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year semifinalist William Wright still provides sufficient pleasure to battle the sometimes problematic parking. Soon, the team will learn whether Helen’s success translates to a second location by relaunching Arthur Ave as Helen in the Heights. 2429 Rice
Ninfa's on Navigation
Ninfa’s could probably remain popular if it served nothing but fajitas, enchiladas, and margaritas, but recent renovations have the iconic restaurant flying higher than ever. An extensive kitchen remodel means the tacos al carbon are, for the first time, actually cooked over wood, which gives the grilled meats an appealing whiff of smoke. Customer comfort has also been increased with a new dining room and a dedicated waiting area (no more standing awkwardly around the hostess stand!). 2704 Navigation
Executive chef Alex Padilla has expanded the menu to include more seafood and vegetarian options, which makes the restaurant more useful than ever. While a frozen Ninfarita will always be a good way to cool down on a hot day, an expanded selection of tequila and mezcal has kept the restaurant current with the latest trends in spirits, too.
For almost 20 years, Paulie’s has been providing Montrose residents with classic Italian-American fare. With dishes that include a variety of house made pastas, salads, sandwiches (including the legendary shrimp BLT), and those signature iced shortbread cookies, Paulie’s menu offers big flavors and good value. Even those customers who only come in a few times will find they’re greeted by name. As a diner, the only downside to all that success is the restaurant can get so crowded during prime dinner hours that it can be hard to snag a table. 1834 Westheimer
With its sprawling patio, well-priced cocktails, and creative menu, Southern Goods offers a lot of value to Heights residents. Although it doesn’t serve lunch, the restaurant does offer brunch and a late night menu on the weekends that would, at least theoretically, allow a diner to eat multiple meals there on the same day. The menu changes regularly, but chef-owner Lyle Bento can be counted on to feature seasonally-appropriate, locally-sourced ingredients, backed up by a smoked item or two prepared by sous chef Patrick Feges. 632 W 19th
State of Grace
In a way, it’s a shame the crowd that flooded the restaurant when it first opened have moved on, because this River Oaks restaurant is better than ever. Like Helen, State of Grace offers the ability to have either a blow-out, high-priced dinner or a more casual weeknight bite, which suits the River Oaks crowd that uses it as a neighborhood gathering place. Executive chef Bobby Matos regularly adds new dishes to the menu based on the seasonal availability of local proteins and produce. Those dishes are served in one of Houston’s most attractive dining rooms by a staff that’s led by general manager Matt Crawford, who recently earned the prestigious Advanced Sommelier certification. 3258 Westheimer
Whether at the River Oaks original or Tinys No. 5 in West University (and coming soon to Austin), these two restaurants demonstrate the merits of well-prepared classic bistro fare. Diners can come by for a croissant and coffee at breakfast, a salad or burger for lunch, or wood-roasted mussels at dinner and know that each visit will be consistent. Last year’s expansion, which provided a dedicated outlet for the signature chocolate chip cookies, which demonstrate the perfect balance of a crispy edge, soft middle, and just the right level of salt, as well as baked goods, ice cream, and beverages, only further enhances the brand. 3614 W Alabama; 3636 Rice