"What's your favorite restaurant?" That question, sometimes phrased as, "What's the best restaurant in Houston?" is the one CultureMap readers ask me most often.
For the entirety of my six years at CultureMap, I haven't had a comprehensive answer to that inquiry. Our Where to Eat Right Now series provides a monthly snapshot, the annual Best New Restaurants list provides more definitive rankings for a single year, and our annual Tastemakers Awards offers a perspective on the year in dining from restaurant industry leaders.
Consider this list — CultureMap's Top 100 — a more thorough accounting of the current state of the dining scene. Or, to adopt the rubric of our headlines, the 100 best Houston restaurants right now.
That phrasing is important. Generally, the list looks at our city's dining scene from a CultureMap perspective. Specifically, that means it prefers culinarily ambitious casual concepts to fine-dining temples and Inner Loop favorites over suburban hot spots. In other words, the restaurants on this list that are beyond the Beltway are really, really good. Veteran establishments have to be operating at a high level to merit consideration; longevity is not a substitute for quality.
Serving delicious, well-prepared food is only the first hurdle a restaurant has to clear for a spot on this list. A restaurant should also provide excellent service and an appealing atmosphere. Smart, focused beverage programs and innovative dishes made with thoughtful techniques and high-quality ingredients all helped elevate some establishments over others. The results reflect an overall assessment of their quality based on food, service, atmosphere, and overall excitement.
Generally, readers may think of the ranking as follows:
- 1-30: The city's most outstanding restaurants regardless of price, cuisine, location, or style.
- 31-60: Restaurants that are outstanding in their category (the best burgers, barbecue joints, steakhouses, Tex-Mex, etc.).
- 61-90: Restaurants that do most things very well and generally make Houston a better, more exciting place to dine.
- 91-100: Restaurants with one or two outstanding dishes or that I feel a personal affection towards (for example, the French dip at Houston's, which is an outstanding dish at a restaurant that I feel affection for).
This list is based on my personal experiences visiting all of these restaurants since 2018 — the vast majority in 2019. Since June, I've been on a dedicated hunt to round this list out by visiting places I had overlooked in the past (Hai Cang and Aga's being two examples), trying places I had heard good things about but that didn't make the list for one reason or another (Habanera and The Guero), and revisiting places I really liked previously that came up a little short in their current iteration (sorry, Tiger Den).
With that acknowledgement come some frank admissions: in a city with more than 10,000 restaurants, I can't visit every possible place that might deserve a spot. For example, despite the urgings of a member of the CultureMap sales team, I didn't take the time to visit Artisans. I also didn't revisit places where my prior experience didn't match its lofty reputation, including a well-known Montrose restaurant with a very strict footwear policy. To Da Marco fans, I say, have you been to Potente? Have you tried the pastas at Weights + Measures? You really should.
It also skews toward my personal taste. This list is heavy on barbecue, steakhouses, and other meaty places. While it pains me not to have any Thai, Korean, or West African restaurants, I didn't find any that stood out. Flood my inbox with suggestions. I'll try them by next year.
One other admission: This list will start to feel outdated by the end of the year. Summer and fall's new arrivals — Rosie Cannonball, Rosalie Italian Soul, The Annie Cafe, Guard & Grace, Toukei Izakaya, Musaafer, Penny Quarter, etc. — all have the potential to occupy spots on a list like this one. That's just a testament to how dynamic the city's dining scene is and how talented the people are who work in it. Things move pretty fast around here.
I'm excited for people to read and react to the list. I hope my work guides CultureMap readers to great meals at places they've never tried before or prompts people to revisit a familiar place that's slipped off their radar.
As for the No. 1 spot, my esteem for Riel is hardly a secret. Ryan Lachaine's Montrose restaurant continues to improve in all aspects. Consider this summer's butter burgers, which have become a social media sensation, or the new cocktails general manager Nicholas Nguyen has added to the menu. I am always excited about dining there, and I have never left disappointed. It is, in my educated opinion, Houston's best restaurant. For now.
Use CultureMap's Top 100 list to visit the most outstanding institutions, old-guard favorites, and neighborhood gems in Houston.