Meet The Tastemakers
Houston's 10 best restaurants lead city's culinary movement toward greatness
The final category reveal in the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards is the most prestigious of all: Restaurant of the Year. As selected by our panel of industry insiders, these are the 10 establishments that are leading Houston's culinary movement.
Our panel of restaurant industry insiders recognizes the standards they set in providing their customers with consistently excellent food and service. Whether for a weeknight meal or to celebrate a special occasion, these restaurants deliver.
Who wins? Find out tonight at the Tastemaker Awards party at Asia Society Texas. A few last-minute tickets remain. Don’t miss out.
BCN Taste & Tradition
In our casual world, people may find fine dining to be intimidating, but few restaurants capture a sense of place better than BCN. At an intimate house in Montrose, chef Luis Roger serves intricately prepared Spanish cuisine that utilizes the highest quality ingredients he can source. While the prices put BCN in special occasion territory for most people, the front of house led by general manager Paco Calza ensures everyone feels welcome.
Bernadine’s and Hunky Dory
In a normal year, Treadsack’s twin restaurants would deserve separate entries, but our panelists’ recognition of their success also comes at a time when the restaurants are in transition. Mothership Ventures LLC, the company that owns the concepts, declared bankruptcy last month, and both restaurants announced this week that they’ve stopped serving lunch.
Despite the well-publicized struggles, both restaurants still serve a diverse array of food — Hunky Dory has a new steak-oriented direction under the direction of Graham Laborde, while Bernadine’s mix of Gulf Coast-inspired meat and seafood dishes remain one of Houston’s most satisfying meals — and include hard-working staffs who want to do a good job of pleasing their customers. Hopefully diners can put the negative publicity aside and allow both concepts to succeed or fail based on their own experiences, rather than what they’ve read online.
All of Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught’s four restaurants are excellent, but Caracol’s diverse, seafood-oriented menu and comprehensive beverage program make it stand out a little bit from its siblings. Dishes like the signature wood-roasted oysters with chipotle and the whimsical El Coco dessert (which involves smashing a chocolate shell with a mallet) ensure that meals there start and finish on a high note. Sunday brunch, with its well-dressed see-and-be-seen crowd, provides one of Houston’s prime people watching opportunities.
Coltivare Pizza & Garden
Since it opened in 2014, this restaurant that blends Southern and Italian flavors has become widely heralded as one of Houston’s best restaurants. Most of the credit for that goes to chef Ryan Pera’s menu, which utilizes high-quality, rigorously-sourced local ingredients, including items from the restaurant’s 3,000-square foot garden.
While it’s easy to get caught up in staples like the black pepper spaghetti or housemade charcuterie, the restaurant’s salads, which evolve seasonally, offer the most satisfying vegetable preparations in Houston. Combine the standout cuisine with creative cocktails and a well-priced wine list, and the result is a restaurant Houstonians are willing to wait for.
Benches outside are the most obvious change since Himalaya’s brush with celebrity — it was one of only two Houston restaurants featured by Anthony Bourdain on his show, Parts Unknown — but thankfully the restaurant’s food remains unchanged. Well, mostly unchanged: chef-owner Kaiser Lashkari is a relentless tinkerer whose recent mashups of classic Southern dishes like fried chicken, chicken fried steak, and crawfish etouffee with Indian spices have taken the restaurant to a creative high. The no frills decor and BYOB policy help ensure that even the most extravagant meal at Himalaya won’t break the bank.
Certainly it’s a sign that Hugo Ortega’s peers respect his work so much that they nominated two of his restaurants for this award. The good news is that Hugo’s, Ortega’s restaurant devoted to interior Mexican cuisine, might be better than ever. From delicate raw dishes to moles that deliver layers of flavor, Hugo’s menu offers intriguing options for every taste, and the pioneering tequila program remains one of the city’s best. No wonder that the restaurant remains popular with diners and professionals alike.
The Pass & Provisions
With Oxheart closing and moving away from its tasting menu format, The Pass becomes the only restaurant inside the Houston city limits (we see you, Curate) that serves a tasting menu. Given that chef-owners Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan have received James Beard award semifinalist nominations each of the last two years and that the restaurant is the only Houston establishment recognized in the prestigious Opinionated About Dining survey of America’s top 200 restaurants, it stands as the city’s premier destination for innovative cooking.
But don’t let all the accolades obscure that Provisions delivers simpler pleasures, too; just sit at the bar while enjoying an expertly-made, wood-fired pizza and a cocktail or two to experience how excellent even the restaurant’s casual side can be.
State of Grace
Having already discussed State of Grace’s charms in three other Tastemaker-related articles, this entry will be brief. Shortly before it opened, I stood in the mostly empty restaurant with owner Ford Fry. “I hope I haven’t made a (very expensive) mistake,” he said. Even though it has been open for less than two years, the restaurant’s wide-ranging menu and beautiful dining room have made it feel like an essential part of Houston from day one. Definitely not a mistake.
Five years into its tenure, Underbelly, James Beard award winner Chris Shepherd’s restaurant that tells “the story of Houston food” by interpreting the dishes created by the city’s immigrant communities, still has the power to inspire strong opinions. A recent social media kerfuffle — triggered by a diner who was upset at not being allowed to order from the bar menu in the dining room — brought out both fans and detractors.
And yet, at a time when Houston’s culinary diversity is attracting unprecedented levels of national attention, the restaurant’s mission to tell “the story of Houston food” through the use of locally-sourced ingredients and dishes inspired by the city’s immigrant communities, remains as important as ever. Although Shepherd likes to describe the restaurant as “consistently inconsistent,” this recognition by its peers, and its nomination in four other Tastemaker Awards categories, demonstrates that it it still succeeds in its overall goals.