When it comes to new restaurants, this year has been an exceptional one. Overall, the city’s restaurants continue to build on the momentum of 2018 when newcomers like UB Preserv, Indigo, and Blood Bros. BBQ all opened and went on to garner national attention in the year that followed.
At a time when it’s become easy to complain about well-funded out-of-towners crowding out independent operators, this year’s crop of new restaurants demonstrate that locally owned businesses still lead the way in creativity and overall quality. Of course, this list also makes room for a couple of establishments that started outside the Lone Star State — after all, good is good.
As always, this list strictly adheres to restaurants that opened in the calendar year of 2019. It’s also based on impressions formed during multiple visits, which excludes a restaurant like Guard & Grace that might have made this list if I’d had more time to visit it.
Teasing out themes can be tricky, but a couple do emerge. First, I’m pretty happy there’s lot of new pizza options; five of this year’s restaurant serve traditional pies and one more just introduced a Sicilian variation. Restaurants with something new to add to the conversation about two of Texas’ most popular cuisines, barbecue and Tex-Mex, also make the list. Warm, knowledgeable service, desserts that are more than an afterthought, and comprehensive beverage programs all elevate some restaurants over others.
Honorable mentions: Ouzo Bay for its sophisticated preparations and Evan Turner’s Greek wine list; Politan Row for its eclectic vendors and stylish interior; Bori for elevating the service experience of Korean barbecue and giving diners the option of ordering higher quality, dry-aged meat; and the Gypsy Poet for its flavorful pizzas and fun atmosphere. Bar-forward concepts like Penny Quarter, Monkey’s Tail, and The Toasted Coconut will appear on a separate list.
These are Houston’s best new restaurants of 2019:
No restaurant opened this year with higher expectations: a wine list created by two master sommeliers, a chef whose work history includes time at the best Italian restaurant in the world, a pastry chef who worked at three, three-star Michelin restaurants, a front of house manager who worked at Eleven Madison Park, and a ground-up build with attention to detail so thorough that the paper towel dispensers in the restroom have been powder coated green to match the decor. In less deft hands, Felipe Riccio’s menu of Italian and Spanish-inspired dishes could have seemed obscure, David Keck and June Rodil’s wine selections could have been intimidating, and the service could have been stuffy and humorless.
But the people that power Goodnight Hospitality’s ambitious neighborhood restaurant are too smart for those kind of slip ups. Signature dishes like the Focaccia di Recco (a crispy flatbread with gooey robiola and salty mortadella), charred brassicas, and tortellini in brodo demonstrate both careful technique and comforting flavors. Shawn Gawle’s desserts — whether something as simple as mint gelato or the luscious Basque-style cheesecake — end the meal on a strong note.
From the complimentary sip of sparking lambrusco that begins every meal to the mints that accompany the check, Rosie’s service is consistently welcoming. The staff is knowledgeable about how the dishes are prepared and well-educated enough to suggest pairings.
Most importantly, it seems to get a little better on each successive visit. Exceeding sky-high expectations — that’s the way to earn the title of best new restaurant.
For their follow up to Better Luck Tomorrow, Bobby Heugel and Justin Yu brought together a talented team and guided them to success. The former Southern Goods space received a comprehensive set of renovations that incorporate elements from both owners’ other projects — such as a brass bar top (like the one found at Anvil) and tables with integrated silverware drawers (just like Theodore Rex).
Uniting chef Mark Clayton with baker Drew Gimma produced a European-inspired menu full of dishes that showcase both of their respective skillsets. For example, consider the marinated mussels on grilled sourdough or the instant classic French Cheeseburger on a house-baked bun. The menu continues to evolve with new additions like Sfincione, a Sicilian-style street pizza, and Crispy-Skinned Porchetta, offering proof that the chefs have plenty of ideas for how Squable's cuisine will evolve over time.
General manager Terry Williams oversees the talented service staff that’s thoughtful enough to bring a freshly chilled glass if the sense the one provided with the Terry’s Martini has started to defrost. The newly introduced happy hour — half-off all alcoholic beverages from 4 - 6 pm Monday through Friday — makes the restaurant an appealing after-work destination, too.
Little about the experience of dining at BCN could have prepared people for MAD. In place of BCN’s austere interior, owner Ignacio Torras and chef-partner Luis Roger tasked Spanish interior designer Lazaro Rosa-Violán with capturing Madrid’s manic energy. The result is this year’s most-striking dining room — with a LED-illuminated bathroom hallway that’s become a mandatory selfie-spot.
Roger’s menu focuses on tapas and paella, and they both offer layered flavors with elegant presentations. Modernist touches like the edible “newsprint” that wraps the beef tartare or the noodles made with broth that are a component of the MAD ‘n Cheese add a whimsical element that suits the spirit established by the decor.
The beverage program is just as sophisticated. Instead of the relatively straightforward gintonics that are a staple of dining at BCN, MAD uses custom juice blends and infusions to elevate its cocktails.
1751 Sea & Bar
This sophisticated seafood restaurant incorporates a diverse of influences. Its name, taken from the British Gin Act of 1751, inspires an extensive selection of gins (over 140) as well as a full range of gin-based cocktails (gin and tonics, martinis, etc).
Even those who don’t imbibe will find much to like on chef J.D. Woodward’s menu. A veteran of establishments like Southern Goods and Underbelly, Woodward offers an intriguing range of small plates that incorporate elements ranging from Asian (uni carbonara, chicken karaage) to Gulf Coast (blue crab hoe cakes, wood-roasted oysters) and European (Rohan duck, charred octopus). The offerings are enough to make a meal, or diners can opt for a more traditional appetizer-entree combination.
By not restricting themselves to sourcing from the Gulf Coast, 1751 can incorporate high quality ingredients from all over the world and serve them in innovative preparations that highlight their flavors. The result is the city's most vital seafood restaurant.
When he opened the original Truth in Brenham, pitmaster Leonard Botello IV had virtually complete control of the process. Since he was only open three days a week, he could personally trim and cook every brisket, rack of ribs, etc. In order to maintain that same level of quality at the Houston location, which is open six days a week and is powered by five, 1,000-gallon smokers, Botello had to train an entire team of pitmasters and cutters to think and act like he does.
The process has been successful enough that Truth ranks as the best barbecue joint inside the Beltway. Its brisket, pork ribs, housemade sausages, and signature sides like tater tot casserole and corn pudding are just as flavorful as they were during those early days in Brenham — maybe even a little more consistent due to better facilities. Mama Truth’s sky-high layer cakes remain one of the best desserts in town, too.
Bravery Chef Hall
Belittling food halls as nothing more than food courts with booze is the “old man yells at cloud” of food takes, but some do a better job than others of elevating their look and experience in a way that separates them from the Sbarro-filled dining courts of yore. With five unique restaurants — no spin-offs of other establishments here — and three bars, Bravery sets the standard for food halls in Houston.
While the operators of the individual establishments would probably prefer to be recognized separately, picking and choosing different elements from each stand is part of what makes dining at Bravery so much fun. Start with sushi from Kokoro or spring rolls from The Blind Goat before moving on to a steak from Cherry Block or Italian dishes from BOH Pasta. Or grab a slice of pizza from BOH as a savory end to an elaborate omakase at Kokoro. From there, Atlas Diner has dessert covered. Whichever options someone chooses, each menu offers plenty of compelling choices, and prices are competitive with other restaurants of that style. Pairing options are plentiful courtesy of partner Shepard Ross’ extensive selection of wines and the cocktails created at both Lockwood Stn and Secret Garden.
If the only criteria for ranking this list were how often I personally dined at a restaurant, Candente would be number one. While where I live and what my friends like to eat are major contributors to that, it also reflects an assessment of the Montrose Tex-Mex restaurant’s overall quality.
Just as adding Tex-Mex flavors to Texas barbecue made The Pit Room a hit, its sister restaurant’s use of smoked elements in Tex-Mex gives the restaurant a fresh perspective on a popular cuisine. Candente’s wood-powered oven and grill give its meats — especially the fajitas and carnitas — a smoky flavor that’s addictive. Including brisket as an option for dishes like queso and enchiladas helps, too. The menu is flexible enough that a diner could spend under $20 on a combination plate or an order of enchiladas or drop serious coin on an elaborate grill platter loaded up with fajitas, bacon-wrapped shrimp brochettes, and wood-roasted fish.
Verandah Progressive Indian Restaurant
Chefs Sunil Srivastava and his wife Anupama opened their eagerly anticipated Inner Loop follow-up to the acclaimed (and lamented) Great W’Kana Café at the ritzy Kirby Collection mixed-use development. The stylish interior features original artwork that pays homage to the five elements of earth, fire, water, air, and ether.
While the design is eye-catching, the real stunners come from the kitchen. A lamb kebab might sound familiar, but Verandah’s version arrives in a glass cloche filled with aromatic clove and mint smoke. The menu also contains game meats such as rabbit, duck, and venison that are rarely seen at Indian restaurants. Since opening, Srivastava has introduced tasting menus that explore different themes, such as the history of kebabs or seasonal ingredients.
Rosalie Italian Soul
Chris Cosentino channeled his great-grandmother’s ’70s-era kitchen for this restaurant in the C. Baldwin Hotel. Its retro design includes denim-covered banquettes and custom walnut shelving that really bring the disco vibe to life.
Cosentino and executive chef Sasha Gumman blend classic Italian-American fare with Gulf Coast ingredients to create dishes such as blue crab manicotti (served with an aromatic lobster sauce), local vegetable fritto misto, and whole shrimp fra diavolo. Freshly made pastas and pizzas with a light, pleasantly chewy crust anchor the rest of the dinner menu, which also includes some big deal shareable entrees.
Pastry chef Valerie Trasatti keeps things similarly old school with desserts such as Italian cookies and cannoli.
This wine-fueled, European-inspired restaurant aims to elevate the quality of restaurants in The Heights. Led by proprietor Brian Doke, Savoir offers both a wine list with hundreds of bottles and a menu that’s flexible enough to accommodate a burger at the bar or a multi-course celebration.
A recent brunch illustrated what makes chef Micah Rideout’s menu so compelling. Parisian gnocchi with peanut butter mousse could be a too-sweet mess, but instead it’s just creamy and balanced with the right amount of salt. On the dinner menu, Rideout’s vegetable small plates make a fitting companion to pizza, pasta, or a steak.
Baltimore’s Atlas Restaurant Group opened two seafood restaurants in River Oaks District: fine dining, globally-inspired Ouzo Bay and Loch Bar, an East Coast-style seafood tavern. They’re both good restaurants that offer appealing choices for fish fans and those who prefer proteins that once had legs, but I personally find Loch Bar more appealing thanks to dishes that include a classic Maryland crab cake, fish and chips that use cod battered in Saint Arnold Art Car IPA, moules frites, and more.
Adding in the extensive whiskey selection, live music, and late night hours makes Loch Bar a restaurant that’s unlike any other seafood option in Houston.
Buffalo Bayou Brewing Company
Self-described as “Houston’s most creative brewery,” Buff Brew sought a chef who could bring the same level of ambition to the food served at the 200-seat restaurant that’s part of its massive new brewery in Sawyer Yards. They found their man in Arash Kharat, who earned praise for his work leading the kitchen at Beaver’s.
Essentially, his mission is to create food that’s fun to eat while drinking a beer or two. The brewery’s menu of pizza, wings, and burgers may seem like an obvious way to achieve that goal, but they’re full of smart touches like homemade, all-beef pepperoni, a barbecue sauce made with Buff Brew’s Figaro Belgian quad, and using high quality beef from 44 Farms. Vegetarians will discover they have compelling options that include Indian-style pakora (a gluten-free, vegan alternative to traditional fried pickles), a beet salad with umami from charred eggplant, and surprisingly good falafel. Overall, it works as a casual, comfort food restaurant that should appeal to people whether or not they’re beer drinkers.