Although this year featured a number of very good new restaurants from local chefs and restaurateurs, the arrival of several restaurants from out of town dominated most of this year's highest profile openings. Traditionally, Houstonians have shown a reluctance to embrace anything that isn't either local or from Austin, but this year broke the pattern.
Almost every month people either lined up or filled the reservations books to sample the latest newcomer. Houstonians worked themselves into such a frenzy for the arrivial of The Halal Guys that it caused a traffic jam, but it didn't last. Now the restaurant's signature rice platters and curiously addictive white sauce can be obtained via the delivery app of one's choice with almost no wait at all.
While these new restaurants have opened across the Houston-area, no destination shined brighter than River Oaks District. The luxurious mixed-use development launched five restaurants and a gelato shop, all with origins beyond the Beltway. Despite what some have labeled a down year overall for Houston restaurants, they’ve been consistently busy.
While some might be tempted to dismiss these restaurants’ initial success as being fueled by trendsters following the hype, those who do so will miss out on some legitimately interesting dining opportunities. If none of these places have delivered something entirely new to the market — well, except for Rise — they do bring a level of polish that compels our locally-owned spots to step up their collective games.
Of course, the trend will continue into next year as newcomers like steak and sushi restaurant Roka Akor, comfort food and whiskey bar Bosscat Kitchen & Libations, celebrity chef John Besh’s Eunice, acclaimed Japanese restaurant Nobu, and much more all make their debuts. Before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s review the places that made the biggest splash in 2016.
A preview pop-up at The Pass & Provisions at which two of the city’s three James Beard Award winners showed up to chow down served as just one of many signs that the New York-based global burger juggernaut’s arrival to Houston would be a little more glamorous than normal. Credit that food world cachet to Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer, whose book Setting The Table holds iconic status among his peers.
But lines, even ones that move quickly, aren’t created solely by the reputation of its founder as a restaurant savant; it takes good food, too. Shake Shack’s burgers provide a compelling twist on a classic formula: the mysterious alchemy that comes from a slightly squishy potato bun, quality beef, and gooey cheese. The rest of the menu — shakes, chicken sandwiches, fries, etc — show similar levels of care. I’ve been several times (figuring out where to park helps immensely) and found it to be consistently good every time, and the prices are reasonable. A single patty burger is almost small enough to constitute a snack. Larger appetites should make it a double.
Plans are already underway to open a second location in Rice Village; hopefully, at least a few more are coming. As much as Houstonians love burgers, more of us deserve the opportunity to try this one.
After over a year of planning, the Dallas-based Neapolitan pizza restaurant finally arrived in Houston this summer. The combination of rigorously authentic, VPN-certified techniques with creative toppings — possibilities include brisket from Feges BBQ or The Pit Room, jalapeno pesto, habanero-infused honey, and more — overcomes any reluctance people may have to eating the pizzas with a knife and fork.
In fact, the restaurant has made so many fans that the Heights location will expand to add more seating and a proper bar. Hopefully that success inspires owner Jay Jerrier to bring his New York-style pizza restaurant Zoli’s to Houston, too.
A restaurant devoted to sweet and savory souffles will either strike someone as charming or anachronistic. Thankfully, Rise is the former. Savory options like the umami-rich truffle infused mushroom or the smoked salmon make for a very satisfying meal, and, of course, the dessert varieties are decadent at dessert. Thoughtful touches like the tableside cheese cart and the room’s romantic vibe make Rise equally appropriate for a lazy lunch or a pleasant date night.
Snooze: An AM Eatery
From classic diners like Tel-Wink Grill and Harry’s to grab and go spots for breakfast tacos or doughnuts, Houstonians have never lacked for weekday breakfast options, but people are enduring hour or longer waits for this Denver import. Credit the creative menu, which features an extensive selection of the expected egg dishes and pancakes alongside some originals like the signature breakfast pot pie. A full bar, reasonable prices, and relentlessly cheerful service don’t hurt either.
Plans to expand to The Heights and Town & Country are already underway. Sadly, that probably won't do anything to shorten the waits at Montrose; it will just mean even more people wondering when their table will be ready.
If “dollars earned” served as the primary criteria for this list, Steak 48 would be No. 1. The place has been packed since it opened this summer, with the sort of frenzy from see and be seen types that Houston hasn’t witnessed in a long time. Alison Cook’s zero star review didn’t even slow it down.
Sure, properly prepared USDA Prime beef is de rigueur at this price point, and any place that pays its cooks well should be able to achieve that; however, those who dismiss Steak 48 as just another steakhouse are missing out on the dishes that set it apart. Giant U-4 cold boiled shrimp, the spiral-cut Hasselback potatoes, and over-the-top crab and lobster mac and cheese show an appreciation for getting the details right with more than just meat. Those who are curious to sample the restaurant's offerings without getting caught up in the nightly reality show playing out at the bar should either sit upstairs or in the booths near the kitchen.
Of the three ramen shops to arrive at the end of 2016, this Hawaiian import is my favorite due to its diverse menu and creative dishes. Chef-owner Hisashi Uehara’s noodle obsession took him to 600 ramen shops in Japan, and the results speak for themselves. The addictive “innovative hot mess,” a variation that adds parmesan cheese to the restaurant’s garlic-heavy Kotteri broth, delivers spicy and creamy flavors that vary in intensity from slurp to slurp.
Next month, Agu will open its third location in the former Christian’s Tailgate at Washington and I-10; it will feature an expanded menu that includes more varieties of ramen and some Hawaiian dishes including poke bowls.
This Paris-based dessert shop serves an extensive selection of intensely-flavored sorbets and gelatos, all of which are made in France and shipped here to ensure they’re consistent around the world. No food-obsessed Instagram account is complete without a picture of one of its cones, which feature rose-shaped petals.
The initial frenzy has died down at this Austin-based burger joint; although lines are still likely at peak times and on weekends, the days of three-hour waits are long gone. Hopdoddy’s core menu, which starts with a basic, $7 hamburger and tops out at $12 for an akaushi patty, still offers lots of solid choices, and the well-priced cocktails and solid craft beer selection make it a more appealing dinner destination than less-boozy burger joints.
Unfortunately, a soggy, flavorless chicken fried steak burger (the December special) and a server who essentially abandoned us after she confirmed our order marred my most recent visit. Lessons learned: stick to the basics and don’t sit outside on a cool night. I’d give up on the restaurant entirely, but dipping a burger into the restaurant’s surprisingly solid queso is an occasional craving I will continue to satisfy.