Being out and about recently leads to one obvious conclusion — Houstonians have resumed dining in restaurants.
The signs of a surge in dining are everywhere. Weekend reservations at popular spots book up a week or more in advance. A manager at one Inner Loop hot spot recently shared that revenues currently exceed 2019’s strong sales.
Places might be even busier if they could hire more staff, but a complicated combination of factors means most restaurants are running a little short handed. Please show employees a little extra courtesy; they really are doing their best to manage the crowds.
Despite the challenges, new restaurants continue to open, and diners continue to patronize them. Most of the places listed below have only been open since March or later, but a couple go as far back as December, which is still “new” for those who only recently resumed dining out.
As always, these are roughly ordered by the priority I would give to trying them, but all of the entries on the list have something to offer. Write-ups are based on actual experiences dining at the listed restaurants (sometimes more than once). They’re less formal reviews than a guide of what to expect along with some suggestions for what to order and what to avoid.
Da Gama Canteen
Chefs Shiva and Rick Di Virgilio, the couple behind Midtown’s Oporto Fooding House, recently opened their new Anglo-Indian establishment in a prime location in the M-K-T Heights development that backs onto the Heights hike-and-bike trail. The restaurant features a clean, modern design by Texas architect Michael Hsu, who also designed Oporto.
Da Gama’s tapas-style menu has been separated into vegetables, seafood, meat, and bread. Favorites from dinner included three chili paneer, prawn ambot tik (Gulf shrimp in a sweet and spicy chili tamarind sauce), lamb rib mattar, and a whole mackerel grilled Asado-style. Also, the bullet naan can be upgraded with bacon, which is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. Best of all, most of the dishes run $12 to $18.
Pair the dishes with any of the selections from the list of organic and natural wines or the short list of thoughtfully-conceived cocktails that includes a vegan milk punch made with cashew milk and a colorful riff on the obligatory gin and tonic. With lunch and brunch still to come, Da Gama looks to be one of this year’s most exciting new arrivals.
This new French restaurant in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Kinder Building comes with a Michelin-starred pedigree courtesy of a sister location in New York City that holds one star. It, along with Cafe Leonelli (more on that later), come to Houston via the Bastion Collection, which also operates La Table near the Galleria.
Chef Alain Verzeroli has added some Texas touches to the menu with ingredients such as Gulf shrimp and Texas wagyu beef, but most of the dishes source globally. As long as the results are as flavorful as the tasting menu’s French white asparagus with pickled green strawberries and expertly seared Maine scallops with carrot jus reduction, that’s all to the good. A dessert of yuzu mousse adorned with a puff pastry butterfly seems destined to become the city's next culinary Instagram sensation.
All of the elegant plating (and expensive plateware) seems appropriate for a room dominated by an oversized tapestry and a view of the museum’s sculpture garden. It’s an impressive setting for a restaurant serving elevated French cuisine at a level that’s rare for Houston.
One quibble is that the bottles on the short wine list are dominated by familiar names with high price tags (no thanks, $154 bottle of Veuve). Most people should stick to cocktails or the by-the-glass list until the selections expand.
The Taco Stand
Houston doesn’t lack for quality taco options, but people will always embrace a high-quality newcomer. No surprise then that the Heights has embraced this new spot from Burger Joint partners Shawn Bermudez and chef Matthew Pak.
Like the Burger Joint, the Taco Stand doesn’t aim to reinvent tacos; it simply wants to serve well-executed, affordable versions of classics like carne asada, barbacoa, carnitas, and more. Pak gets the details right by making both corn and flour tortillas in house and allowing diners to choose from a selection of housemade salsas that include a spicy (but not too spicy) jalapeno as well as a standard red table salsa that goes well with chips.
Personally, I think the flavors come together better in the tacos and quesadillas than the burritos, but fans of the larger form have that option available. Canned cocktails made with real tequila and a drive-thru for easy to-go ordering only add to the convenience.
Chefs Gary Ly and Lung Ly (no relation) seem poised to bring some stability to the space at 1601 W. Main St. that’s been home to a series of concepts over the last few years (Sophia, Lowbrow, and Night Heron). Inspired by the Japanese bars they frequented while working in New York, 93 ‘Til has an intimate, lounge-y vibe paired that's enhanced an upbeat soundtrack fueled by a wall of carefully chosen vinyl records.
The menu only offers about a dozen shareable plates, but they’re all well conceived and well executed. Highlights included a flavorful Gulf crudo, flatbread topped with Feges BBQ brisket and housemade chili crisp, and fish topped with a sweet and tart asparagus relish that captured spring flavors — at $24, it’s the menu’s most expensive dish.
Don’t miss the crawfish boil salad that incorporates all of the flavors from a backyard boil into one boil. The Denver steak was chewy, but some people will appreciate the beef's texture.
Lance Fegen helped establish The Heights’ reputation as a dining destination with Glass Wall. Now, he and his partners have transformed the original Liberty Kitchen into this intimate establishment where the veteran chef pays homage to classic American fare and his Italian roots.
Fegen (not to be confused with barbecue family Feges) has always showed a deft touch with seafood, and the kitchen offers shrimp at least three ways — cocktail, grilled, and fried — all of which proved to be very good examples of classic fare. Alternatively, indulge in the Italian side with properly garlicky linguine with white clam sauce. Now that the restaurant has added lunch and brunch, I’ll be back to try the pizza, the chicken parm, and Fegen’s take on Sunday gravy.
Opened in December, the Second Ward seafood spot has found its footing under chef Kenneth Hamilton. A veteran of places as varied as Helen, Reef, and Blanco Tacos + Tequila, Hamilton brings both skill and Louisiana roots to an expansive menu that runs the gamut from gumbo and grilled oysters to fried seafood and steaks.
Crab cakes feature plenty of crab, with just enough breading to hold them together. Fried items arrived properly hot, crispy, and juicy; they're well paired with po' boy bread sourced from Bread Man Baking Co. Redfish ragout in a savory tomato sauce packs plenty of umami that holds up well with the fish’s meaty texture.
The restaurant’s comfortable bar and expansive patio have already established Acadian Coast as a happy hour destination. Once people learn more about Hamilton’s skills, lunch and dinner will start filling up, too.
Tonight & Tomorrow
A recently completed $10 million renovation has La Colombe d’Or looking better than ever, and that includes the boutique hotel’s new bar and restaurant. To bring the concept to life, the Zimmerman family recruited chef Jonathan Wicks (Hotel ZaZa) and front-of-house veteran Chris Fleischman (Riel, Pax Americana).
Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Wicks keeps some of hotel’s classics favorites like crab ravigote (natural sweetness balanced with good acidity) and rack of lamb (properly medium rare with no gaminess) but also adds new options such as vadouvan curry carrots and Gulf crudo. An intriguing snapper preparation with vermicelli, sorghum-lime vinaigrette, and a pile of fresh herbs brings a fresh, flavorful perspective to the familiar fish.
The bar has already emerged as a favorite after dinner destination for those seeking a nightcap. Prices will probably keep the restaurant in special occasion territory for most people, but I’ll be back to try the cheeseburger and other casual dishes during the day.
No wonder this Thai restaurant has emerged as a favorite among the members of the Memorial Area Eats Facebook page. From fiercely spicy larb seasoned with lots of lime juice to rich garlic butter shrimp, Zaab Der serves flavorful fare that’s a cut above standard Thai restaurants. Offering BYOB with no corkage offers diners the opportunity to grab a favorite bottle of Riesling or sparkling wine to pair with their meals.
Acme Oyster House
The New Orleans-based restaurant’s arrival in Montrose has been greeted with a frenzy by Houstonians, who have packed into the former El Real space and so overwhelmed its parking lot that even valet haters would probably utilize the service rather than explore the neighboring streets for a spot.
Those who overcome the hour-plus wait at peak times will find that Acme has quite a bit to offer. Jumbo-sized grilled oysters arrived bubbling with plenty of garlic and cheese, and the Captain’s Platter loaded with fried shrimp, oysters, fish, and soft shell crab could have easily fed three or four instead of the advertised two. Seafood gumbo with a medium roux made for a satisfying starter. Skip the Boom Boom Shrimp, which we found soggy and bland.
My interest in Bastion’s casual, cafeteria-style companion to Le Jardinier is less “is this a welcome amenity for museum goers,” which it absolutely is, and more “would I pay $10 to park in the museum garage to have lunch here,” which is more dubious. Like Le Jardinier, Cafe Leonelli arrives with first-rate credentials courtesy of has a sister location in New York executive chef Jonathan Benno’s Italian restaurant Benno that holds a Michelin star.
A friend and I ordered a few dishes from the menu, including lasagna, a slice of focaccia pizza, a porchetta sandwich, and the locally sourced mushrooms Benno mentioned during his appearance on the “What’s Eric Eating” podcast. While the lasagna had an appropriately creamy sauce and offered plenty of meat between its layers, it simply wasn’t hot enough in temperature to be as delicious as it could have been. Similarly, the pizza might have benefitted from a minute or two in a hot oven the would have crisped up its edges.
The decadent desserts, particularly an ice cream sandwich dipped in icing and decorated with sprinkles, ended the meal on a positive note. Once the kitchen’s dialed in and nailing the details, I’d go back to try chicken cacciatore and more of those sweets.