The CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year nominees may vary in cuisine and location, but they have certain things in common.
They are casual, comfortable places that people go for an affordable meal. The sort of restaurants a diner might visit once a week or more, where the staff greets regulars by name.
Their menus are built around staple dishes that are simply prepared and well-executed. Additionally, they're more or less always open. Our panel of industry insiders selected only restaurants that serve both lunch and dinner and are open at least six days per week.
When a restaurateur succeeds in opening a new neighborhood restaurant, the business could stay open for 10 years or even longer, as multiple generations of customers make them their second homes, and this year's five outstanding finalists are no exception. By serving dishes people want to eat at an affordable price with friendly service, they seem poised to have tenures.
Bernie's Burger Bus
I've often argued that one sign a newcomer is becoming comfortable with Houston is when he or she gets into a passionate argument about where to find the best burger in town. While that question will never have one definitive answer, many people choose Bernie's Burger Bus. Although chef/owner Justin Turner has traded his three school buses for two brick and mortar restaurants in Bellaire and Katy (with a third coming this fall to The Heights), the Chopped champion's commitment to freshly ground beef, creative toppings, and crispy fries remains stronger than ever. The basic principal burger remains a solid option, but Turner's monthly field trip specials keep things interesting for repeat guests.
Good Dog Houston
Speaking of restaurants that started out as food trucks, this Heights hot dog joint from co-owners Amalia Pferd and Daniel Caballero has developed a passionate following for its Houston-inspired hot dog toppings. Sure, the classic Chicago-style or chili dog are solid options, but those feeling slightly more adventurous should give the Guac-A-Dog or the signature Ol'Zapata a try. Sandwiches, salads, and one of Houston's best versions of fish and chips round out the menu. A rotating selection of Texas craft beer is hard to resist, but the milkshakes, made with Fat Cat Creamery ice cream, are pretty hard to resist, too. An upcoming expansion will allow Montrose residents to share in the experience.
Stop by this Montrose-area restaurant at lunch on any random weekday and find some of the city's most prominent chefs and bartenders chowing down on the fresh salads and housemade pastas. The affordable prices are a big draw — almost nothing costs more than $15 — as is the friendly service, the well-chosen selection of beer and wine, and the carefully-prepared, locally roasted espresso drinks. Of course, no visit to Paulie's is complete without an iced shortbread cookie.
Even beyond the food, Paulie's supports its community. Owner Paul Petronella allows up-and-coming chefs to hold pop-ups at the restaurant and regularly donates to worthy causes. Those efforts build the sort of loyalty that explains the restaurant's consistently full dining room.
Open every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, this Upper Kirby restaurant defines the utility that marks a great neighborhood restaurant. Its ambitious menu of Indian-inspired fare offers something for vegetarians, gluten-free diners, and old fashioned omnivores. Picking a favorite dish is tricky, which is what makes the signature thails so appealing; they offer a sampler of different tastes for a reasonable price and are easy to split between a couple of people.
The upstairs Bake Lab provides a wide array of sweets as well as to-go items. While New Yorkers will soon get the chance to learn what Houstonians already know, the original will remain a destination for years to come.
Weights + Measures
If one of a neighborhood restaurant's signature qualities is its timelessness, then perhaps it's fitting that only one restaurant that opened in 2015 earned a spot as a finalist. Open for lunch (or brunch) every day and dinner six nights per week, Weights + Measures's eclectic menu starts with classic dishes likes meatballs, chicken liver mousse, and a range of pizzas, but the cuisine is also fresh and innovative. Just consider the roast carrot pizza with Egyptian spices that helped define dining in Houston in 2015.
A lack of demand may have scuttled the restaurant's weekday breakfast service, the companion Slow Dough bake shop still offers fresh baked pastries, doughnuts, breads, and more every morning starting at 6 am. Any restaurant that's willing to serve its patrons that early in the morning deserves extra credit.