The Best Restaurant Row in the South
Discover Houston’s culinary mile, complete with Mexican steakhouses, creperies, pizzerias and beer bars.
by Mike Riccetti
Unencumbered much by geography or topography, Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, has been sprawling in nearly every direction for decades and has long been without a true city center. So, it might be a little odd that the South’s best nexus of interesting and high-quality restaurants occurs along a stretch of road just over a mile-long, not too far from downtown Houston; especially odd since Houston is the only major city in the country without zoning and one dominated by the automobile. But, as the growth has occurred along the edges of the metro area, a growing concentration of restaurants and bars has also taken place in the last decade in the area between downtown west to the 610 Loop, the innermost of city’s three concentric roadways.
Westheimer Road is one of Houston’s main thoroughfares, and one that runs twenty miles to the west. Soon after its humble beginnings, when Elgin Street turns, and becomes Westheimer via a name change less than a mile southwest of downtown, is where the majority of the city’s best and most exciting restaurants, ambitious cocktail bars and coffee joints call home. According to a study by Rice University a couple of years ago, the Houston area is the most ethnically diverse area in the country, and some of that is on display in the establishments found along Westheimer.
Driving west from its start along the narrow four lanes, the first restaurant of note is George’s Bistro, set in an old two-story house, which serves traditional French country fare. Opened this year, it follows an earlier version that ran from 2005 to Monsieur Guy’s (temporary) retirement in 2009. The interlude saw Feast, a modern British restaurant known for its superb snout-to-tail cooking that Frank Bruni, the former restaurant critic of the New York Times, wrote had “no real peer in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other major cities.” Even with a surfeit of critical attention, Feast shuttered after a few years, but possibly inspired by this former tenant, Guy proudly offers a menu with braised pork feet and veal kidneys in addition to the duck confit and rack of lamb.
A half-block or so west and across the street, at L’Olivier (pictured below), is another take on comfortable French country cooking from longtime local chef Olivier Ciesielski, where the setting is a bit sleeker and the champagne flows somewhat more readily. A stone’s throw away is La Casa del Caballo, an expensive Mexican steakhouse that has a sibling in Saltillo, Mexico. Featuring steaks grilled over a mesquite-fueled fire served in both traditional and unique large cuts meant for sharing, which can be paired with a side of enchiladas, this offers another version of the upscale steakhouse concept. Across the street, a popular food cart, Melange Creperie, serves its versions of the iconic Parisian pancakes several days a week and has even been named a top 10 local restaurant by the longtime critic of the Houston Chronicle.
A block further west is Dolce Vita, the best pizzeria in Houston, whose thin Italianate pizzas, menu of interesting small plates and a well-chosen all-Italian wine list earned it the number three spot among Italian restaurants in the last Zagat survey. Next door is Indika, an upscale contemporary Indian restaurant from Chef Anita Jaisinghani that has been named one of the best Indian restaurants in the country by Travel + Leisure magazine among its many accolades.
After the street twists slightly right then left is busy Katz’s, a slick rendition of a New York deli that operates around the clock. A block away sits another restaurant whose roots, improbably, also lie in Austin, Texas. Serving a creative take on modern Japanese food and known for its sushi and sashimi preparations, Uchi is a version of the most acclaimed restaurant in Austin. It quickly became part of the restaurant firmament in Houston soon after opening in early 2012, and remains one of the most sought-after reservations in the city.
Around the corner, at the busy intersection of Westheimer and Montrose, is Aladdin, an inviting and attractively casual oasis of usually very well prepared Lebanese food amidst the car and foot traffic, which offers of the best dining values around. In the process of moving to a larger location on Montrose is another fine dining value, Little Bigs, from Bryan Caswell, one of Houston’s top chefs, and his team that specializes in tiny burgers and burger-like sandwiches on freshly made buns and complemented with top-notch fries and a decent wine or beer. Bon Appétit named it among the best new burger joints in the country when it opened a few years ago.
Back on Westheimer, a block west of Montrose, is a trio of establishments that are part of the Clumsy Butcher restaurant group, a local collective of innovative bars and restaurants. The first is Blacksmith, which occupies a squat brick building and appears in numerous lists of top coffee shops in the nation. In addition to its roasting and brewing capabilities, its savory fare, like Vietnamese steak and eggs, help make it popular brunch stop, too. Travel + Leisure just included it as one of its fifteen “Best Breakfast Restaurants in the U.S.” Incidentally, exactly a half-mile due south on Yoakum Boulevard sits the adolescent home of Howard Hughes. Across from Blacksmith is another one-story building, though bigger, that is shared by Underbelly and Hay Merchant.
Chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly recently won a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest, and he is a big reason for the quality of the food at Blacksmith while his creative cooking for his home restaurant has been a sensation since it opened in late 2010. Burnishing the phrase, “The Story of Houston Food,” the kitchen incorporates not just products, but flavors from the disparate cultures that are part of the Houston mosaic. Vietnamese fish sauce, Korean kimchi, Japanese soba noodles, Central European borscht, Southern grits and much more are combined in non-traditional ways, and it all succeeds grandly. On the eastern side of Underbelly is Hay Merchant, a beer bar with an interesting kitchen of its own that is one of the most serious and capable craft beer bars anywhere.
A few blocks west at 1424 Westheimer is Anvil, the first of the Clumsy Butcher properties. Popular as it is proficient, Houston’s first bar dedicated to artisanal cocktails also earned its proprietor a James Beard Award nomination. Just around the corner, as Westheimer bends to the right, sits Da Marco and the luxury vehicles that crowd its parking lot, Marco Wiles’ temple to Italian gastronomy. Very adept at replicating trattoria and ristorante preparations, mostly from the northern regions of Italy, Da Marco currently sports the top food score from the Zagat Survey. Wiles also runs Dolce Vita down the street and another well-regarded casual Italian spot focusing on small plates and wine, Poscol.
Just before Poscol, about a block west is the city’s most lauded Mexican restaurant and on most lists of the best Mexican restaurants in the country, upscale Hugo’s that serves modern preparations taking inspiration from throughout Mexico. Just before Dunlavy Street is Mark’s, a pioneer in the neighborhood, which has been regarded among the finest in the city since opening in 1997. Chef Mark Cox’s intricate New American cooking garners the third highest Zagat food score and remains a special occasion destination. Last among the notables is across Dunlavy, the newly opened Common Bond, a serious bakery, both boulangerie and patisserie in the French tradition, which publicly aired aspirations to be the best bakery in the country and, surprisingly, if the weekend lines out the door are any indication, seems to be on track to reach that goal.
Scattered among these establishments on this part of Westheimer include a popular pricey Italian-American restaurant, a second Italian-American restaurant that has been in business since the late 1960s, a sushi outpost, a no-frills eatery dedicated to macaroni and cheese, a temple to traditional Tex-Mex from Chef Bryan Caswell and company along with the dean of the city’s food writers, Robb Walsh, two Thai restaurants, an all-night Greek diner, a restaurant whose initial – and successful – concept was vegan Tex-Mex (though the menu now sports some tastier animal proteins), a couple additional coffee houses and several more bars where you can get a well-crafted cocktail. Then less than a half-block north of Westheimer is a casual Cajun eatery with prominent Mexican influences.
There is more on the way in this dynamic stretch of a very dynamic restaurant city.
Photo Credits: Westheimer Road and Kirby Drive by Bill Jacobus from Flickr Creative Commons, L’Olivier table from L’Olivier Facebook page, Kentucky Hot Brown from Blacksmith Facebook page, Hot and Hot Chicken from Underbelly Facebook page and dessert from Common Bond Facebook page.
Mike Riccetti is a Houston-based food writer and Zagat editor.