Food for Thought

Sometimes, it's more than food: What makes a good restaurant good?

Sometimes, it's more than food: What makes a good restaurant good?

Houstonians eat out more than any other folks in America. On average 4.2 times a week.

I eat out about eight or nine times a week. Sometimes more.

This food frenzy is partly because of my work (I write about food, have you read my column?) and partly because Dad likes to go out to lunch every day. Every. Day.

Which is actually a good thing since I work from home and there are days when I would spend the entire 24 hours in my apartment on the phone and the computer if not for being called at 11 a.m. and asked where I want to go for lunch.

And that’s an interesting question.

Where do I want to eat? Where do you want to eat?

What makes a good restaurant, one that you want to go back to again and again? Of course with more than 8,000 choices in Houston, you could go somewhere new for, oh, 8,000 days or so. And there are always new restaurants opening; restaurants that we go to because everyone is talking about them, because we want to see and be seen (or because it’s our job).

But then after the newness wears off we wind up back at the same old regular joints.

So why do we go to our favorite spots over and over? Well, I don’t think it’s just about the food.

#1: Ambience

Yeah, food is important when you go out to eat, but it’s not the most important thing. I always prefer a restaurant that serves food, but what I’m really looking for is a comfortable setting to have a good conversation and enjoy getting out of the home office. I like a place that has little nooks and crannies where you can feel like you’re not on display in a fish bowl, but still see all the action. I want to be comfortable but not too much so. If I wanted to lie on the couch and eat I could just stay home.

 I always prefer a restaurant that serves food, but what I’m really looking for is a comfortable setting to have a good conversation and enjoy getting out of the home office. 

 I don’t know why Dad and I like the Phil & Derek’s Restaurant and Wine Bar so much, but it feels like an extension of home. Sure, the chairs have seen better days, but they are comfy, like your own worn furniture. And our table in the bar is the perfect spot for watching everything that goes on (see #3).

#2: The Food

OK, we are going out to eat, so food is kinda important. You can get just about any kind of cuisine in Houston your taste buds desire and my favorite spots range from fancy to plain. I usually like places that serve regional dishes from locally sourced ingredients but occasionally I’ll go for something that is pretty basic.

No, heck no, not fast food, but, say, Blanco’s Bar & Grill, where the burgers are cooked on a greasy grill and the chili comes from a package. Yeah, It’s not made fresh but they do add chopped white onions and shredded yellow cheese to it so it’s a step up from opening a can of Wolf Brand at home.

On the other hand, I do love the delicate tortelli di bietola — little pasta pillows stuffed with Swiss chard and goat cheese swimming in sage butter — at Giacomo’s cibo e vino.

Oh, and although we don’t eat at Tony’s every week, we do like to hang there for special occasions like, you know, it’s Friday, let’s go to Tony’s! Every dish there is a delight but for Dad it’s the fact that chef  Grant Gordon (who looks like he’s about 12, a real Doogie Howser culinary genius) can cook a hanger steak to a fraction before burned and make it still taste delicious. Because Dad and I often share an entrée, this is a real plus since I like my meat a shade less than medium rare and he likes his burnt beyond recognition. Any chef that can do a steak well done and still have it retain a succulent flavor gets four stars in my book.

#3: Entertainment

No, I do not mean there has to be a live band and Indian dancers to accompany my lunch or dinner. But I do mean there has to be something going on to engage my mind and lend something to the conversation.

One thing I’ve learned since my octogenarian pop has moved here and we’ve started lunching together is that we really have a lot in common. Not just that we both love bourbon, country music and NCIS reruns, but that we both love to people watch.

 We love to see other diners and speculate about them. 

So we often choose restaurants that have an eclectic crowd. We love to see other diners and speculate about them. That family of three generations who often come to Maria Selma Restaurant when we are there. Grandpa gets a margarita, the mother and daughter drink tea and the soccer-playing grandson has a beer. We always like to see them, almost as if they are extended family. A

And then there’s the guy with the Buddy Holly glasses who I’m pretty sure is a serial killer we used to see eating and reading the newspaper once a week at another fave spot. We like to make up stories about who they are and what their lives are like.

#4: Convenience

Yeah, I know what people say about me: that I have to get shots and a passport to go outside the loop.

But come on, if I’m heading out for a bite I really don’t want to have to deal with highway traffic and an hour’s drive just to get somewhere that doesn’t even have decent parking. I’ll pick the place I can walk to, valet park at, or get there in five minutes almost every time.

#5: Great Staff

They don’t have to scream out “Norm!” when you walk in the door, but it’s nice to be greeted warmly and treated like a rock star/regular.

I do like it when owners and wait staff know our names and ask how we are and don’t put water on the table that we haven’t asked for, but I also like it when we go to fancy places like Vallone restaurants or La Griglia (a former Vallone eatery so I’m sensing a pattern here) where the staff doesn’t recognize you but treats you like they do. And they don’t sniff because I’m wearing a dress with cowboy boots and Dad is in jeans and a Members Only jacket.

So, to sum up, eating out isn’t just about the food, it’s about the whole experience. It’s about being comfortable and enjoying a meal with someone you love while experiencing a little bit of the diversity and excitement that is Houston.

So, feel free to weigh in here. What are your favorite restaurants and why?

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Oh, and although we don’t eat at Tony’s every week, we do like to hang there for special occasions like, you know, it’s Friday, let’s go to Tony’s! Photo by James Dean
News_Phil & Derek's
I don’t know why Dad and I like the Phil & Derek’s Restaurant and Wine Bar so much, but it feels like an extension of home. Photo by Barbara Kuntz
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We love to see other diners and speculate about them. That family of three generations who often come to Maria Selma Restaurant when we are there. Photo via Maria Selma/Facebook