Houston's best neighborhood restaurants: Tastemaker standouts offer great comfort food
Many people love sitting down to a multiple course dinner at a fine dining establishment where the staff takes care of customers as if they're a rich uncle who may include you in his will if he's properly coddled. But realistically, no one, other than CultureMap executive editor-at-large Shelby Hodge, eats that way very often.
While the exact definition can be tricky, people instinctively know a neighborhood restaurant when they see it: casual, affordable, open all day, diverse menu, etc.
Mostly, people turn to casual restaurants in their neighborhoods when work runs late or someone forgot to defrost the chicken or the thought of cooking in a Houston kitchen in July sounds about as appealing as a trip to the dentist.
On those nights, a good neighborhood restaurant is a lifesaver: offering comfort and sustenance. While the exact definition can be tricky, people instinctively know a neighborhood restaurant when they see it: casual, affordable, open all day, diverse menu, etc.
Our panel of restaurant industry experts think the restaurants below both exemplify and elevate what people love about neighborhood restaurants. Who will join Down House as a CultureMap Tastemakers Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year winner? Find out May 13 at the party we're throwing to celebrate the winners. Tickets are going fast.
The nominees are:
Bernie's Burger Bus
So often restaurant owners complain about the high cost of real estate inside the loop, but they stubbornly insist on opening there anyway. When Justin Turner decided to open a brick and mortar location of his ultra-popular food truck, he bucked the trend by finding a space in a strip center in the Bellaire triangle. The result has been a smash-hit in an underserved neighborhood and a destination for burger-lovers from across the city. Also, turns out that sitting and waiting for your burger to be delivered is a lot more pleasant than standing around a parking lot listening for your name over a scratchy speaker.
This Italian-inspired spot from Revival Market principles Morgan Weber and chef Ryan Pera features an evolving menu, reasonable prices and a sophisticated selection of wine, beer and spirits. Coltivare charms diners by being casual and comfortable, especially when the weather is nice enough to sit on the patio adjacent to its 3,000 square-foot garden. Even if it doesn't satisfy the requirement to serve lunch, its status as the current holder of the unofficial title of "the restaurant Houston chefs dine at on their own time" sets it apart. Maybe that's why — spoiler alert — you'll see it again when our Restaurant of the Year finalists are announced.
Located at the same intersection that's home to Gratifi, Max's Wine Dive and Boheme, Cuchara brings the comfort foods of Mexico City to the heart of Montrose. The charming dining room features art by owner Ana Beaven's sister Cecilia that gives the space a vibrant atmosphere. The daily, $15, three-course lunch specials offer exceptional value for high-quality food, and the dinner menu contains enough variety to appeal to just about everyone. The idea of paying for salsa may be anathema to most Houstonians, but these are worth the $8 fee every time.
Many people consider Hugo's to be one of Houston's best restaurants, but our panelists note that people who only see it as a special destination are missing out. After all, Hugo's is open for lunch or brunch every day, and almost everything on the menu costs less than $30. Pop-in for a ceviche or a couple of small plates at the bar for a change of pace. The celebrated Sunday brunch will still be there when the time is right. Probably best to go soon — if chef/owner Hugo Ortega finally wins a much-deserved James Beard Award, tables will be a lot harder to come by.
Liberty Kitchen and Oysterette
Liberty Kitchen's River Oaks outpost offers more than just one of the city's best-looking dining rooms. A crowd-pleasing menu that's equally adept at carefully-prepared cold seafood dishes and hunks of meat carved tableside means everyone can find a dish to enjoy. Knowledgeable, efficient servers keep the demanding crowd happy. No wonder ownership group F.E.E.D. TX is opening at least two more locations in Houston and one in Austin.
Paulie's is the only back-to-back nominee in this category, and the reasons it's so well-liked are easy to understand. Reasonable prices, well-executed food and a spirit of true hospitality from the all-barista staff help Paulie's stand above other counter-service restaurants. Whether popping in for a salad at lunch or indulging in the Thursday night osso bucco special with a bottle of red wine from its well-chosen list, Paulie's flat out delivers. If it doesn't win this year, expect it to keep getting nominated until it does.
The Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen
Five years ago, this Anglo-Indian pub in Upper Kirby was one of the first Houston restaurants to blend innovative cuisine with a well-chosen selection of craft beer and cocktails. Even as the trend has caught on, the Queen Vic has remained popular. Credit chef Shiva Patel for delivering classics like Beef Wellington and fish and chips that are both well-executed and presented in a modern way. Besides, who can say no to a Scotch egg wrapped in lamb curry and topped with tomato curry masala? Not our panelists, that's for sure.