Houston is the stereotypical middle child of the Texas family. It’s not as fancy as Dallas or as cool as Austin, all of which adds to its reputation as, well, not really having a reputation. But if there’s one thing that’s come to define Houston, it’s the food.
As the most diverse city in the country, you can find every type of food here you’d ever want. But that, plus the sprawl of the city, can make it tough to decide where to eat - whether you live here and want a really excellent dinner, or you’re visiting for work and only have one or two meals to make your trip count. That’s where we come in.
Here you’ll find our recommendations for where to eat and drink in Houston. We’ve included everything from the best group dinner spot in The Heights to some of our all-time favorite places for classic Tex-Mex. This is our first Houston guide, but expect more coverage from The Infatuation in 2018.
THE NEW-ISH SPOTS EVERYONE’S TALKING ABOUT
Coltivare has all of the right elements for a great group dinner: excellent cocktails, a garden where you can enjoy said cocktails, and a shareable Italian menu. Located in the neighborhood you wish you lived in (The Heights), this Italian-American spot uses seasonal produce from its own backyard to make a big menu of snacks and small plates in addition to pizzas, pastas, and larger entrees. You should expect a wait, but that just gives you time to get a cocktail and find a bench in the garden while you strategize what to order.
State of Grace answers the age old question of what would happen if a hunting lodge and a Restoration Hardware came together to form a restaurant. Animal skulls? Check. Lots of dark wood, marble and brass light fixtures? You bet. But it’s the food that really makes this River Oaks restaurant stand out. There’s a lot of fresh fish, giant Gulf oysters, and hill country-style dishes like smoky beef ribs, duck carnitas, and cheese enchiladas. If you’re hungry between meals, grab a seat in the Oyster Room - their attractive bar is a good place to enjoy some wine from their extensive list and their $1 oyster Happy Hour, which happens Monday through Friday from 11am-6pm.
The Pass and Provisions in Montrose is two very good and very different restaurants in one. If it’s your birthday or you just got a new job and want to celebrate with a five-course tasting menu, lots of wine, and a bunch of caviar, check out The Pass. It’s the more upscale of the two - they do a $65 tasting menu that’s great for a big night out. On the other side is Provisions, which is way more casual and specifically does a great brunch. Their weekend-only menu includes Southern favorites like sausage gravy and biscuits and shrimp and grits, both of which will make you very happy to be in southeast Texas.
Just a few blocks away from The Menil Collection and Rothko Chapel is Nobie’s. This Montrose farm-to-table restaurant is inside a converted house, and with their vinyl soundtrack and shared plates, it feels like you’re eating in someone’s home. Come with a small group (from experience, we’d say that four is the magic number here) and don’t miss the beer-battered sweet tots and charred green onion cavatelli. If you want to lean into Texas stereotypes, you can also get one of the extra-large (“HOV Lane”) entrees, like the Winner Winner Chicken Dinner, with apple and cauliflower salad and truffle jus.
Better Luck Tomorrow in The Heights is a really good restaurant disguised as a neighborhood bar. This is a retro-ish spot with excellent cocktails, a wraparound patio, and a perfect patty melt. They also do a really good pasta night every Tuesday that you’ll want to make a weekly tradition.
When Underbelly opened a decade ago, it completely changed the Houston dining scene. It was one of the first local places to do things like whole-animal butchery and nose-to-tail cooking and soon enough, lots of others followed suit. While eating here used to guarantee a meat hangover, the menu now includes more seafood and vegetables - expect dishes like grits with okra and Vietnamese-ish snapper, as well as a shareable 36 oz ribeye, just in case you are, in fact, going for the meat hangover. They also serve a Happy Hour and late-night menu at the bar that includes dishes from other chefs, like David Chang’s Fuku chicken tenders.
Hugo’s is a Montrose institution where you go when you want to eat a lot of Mexican food in a more upscale space - think chandeliers and lots of ivy. They’re known for their table-side shaken margaritas and traditional dishes like ceviche and mole poblano, along with one of the best tree-covered patios in town, but more than any of that, it’s their Sunday brunch buffet that sets them apart. It’s $35, includes more than 20 dishes like chilaquiles, duck carnitas, and tamales, and is exactly where you should eat on a Sunday when your only plans afterward are sitting and/or sleeping.
Houston is only 30 miles from the Gulf Coast, but the local seafood often gets overlooked because “Texas” + “fresh fish” seems as logical as letting your mom run your Bumble account for you. Kata Robata in Upper Kirby, however, serves sushi made with fish caught right off the coast, and they’ve been at it for a decade. The menu here is huge, with lots of sashimi and specialty rolls to choose from, as well as dishes you wouldn’t normally see at a sushi place, like foie gras and duck soba and spicy soy ramen. The multi-course omakase is the best way to taste a bunch of local fish (whatever’s fresh that day), so sit at the bar, let the chef decide for you, and you’ll learn that “Texas seafood” isn’t actually a death wish.
When Last Concert Cafe opened in the ’50s, you had to knock on the door before you entered so the owner knew you weren’t a threat. These days, it’s more of a live music venue/restaurant than a hideout, but the required knocking is still a fun tradition that always makes first timers think, “where the f*ck are we?” Once the owner lets you in, take a seat on the back patio and order some enchiladas with a margarita. You’re just as likely to sit next to a young couple with kids as you are a retired hippie with a hula hoop, which is exactly why people keep coming back to this Northside dive year after year.
El Tiempo Cantina is perfect for two very different situations: a classic Tex-Mex feast with a big group, or a margarita-infused pregame to kick off your night out. Start with some queso and then order one of the huge parrillada fajita platters to share. There are multiple locations around town, but our favorite is the one on Washington Ave. Expect a crowd, and also a basket of fresh tortilla chips upon arrival.
There are lots of Tex-Mex establishments in Houston, but The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation is legendary. Brief history lesson: it was opened in 1973 by “Mama” Ninfa Laurenzo, who is largely credited with making fajitas popular in Houston. For this, we thank her. The original downtown location is now run by a different restaurant group, but Ninfa’s legacy continues and their fajitas are as good as ever. Post up on their outdoor patio with a margarita and be sure to order extra flour tortillas.
If you’re craving beer and bar “snacks” that include half a pig’s head, check out The Hay Merchant, Underbelly’s younger sibling and neighbor. This spot has 80 beers on tap, alongside a very good burger, chicken fried steak, and that roasted pig’s head.
Sometimes you just want to stop somewhere for some wine and a snack. But then you have a second glass of wine and get more snacks before eventually ordering a whole meal. Midtown’s Oporto Fooding House is a mash-up of a bakery, cafe, restaurant, and bar where that’s happened to us many times. This place specializes in Portuguese tapas, and serves lots of wine, cheese and charcuterie, and Portuguese specialties like polvo com batatas and croquetas de bacalhau.
This Mexico City-inspired spot in Midtown is a great option for authentic Mexican food in a space that looks like it was designed by your cool aunt. Try to make it there specifically for weekend brunch - their patio gets packed on Saturdays and Sundays, but you’ll be much happier if you arrive early enough to grab a seat outside. There’s usually a live mariachi-jazz band playing (this is a good thing, we promise), and their brunch specials, like chilaquiles and huevos chelo (crispy potato tacos topped with fried eggs, salsa verde, and cotija cheese), are both delicious and potentially life saving, depending on the night you had before.
Dolce Vita is one of Montrose’s go-to date spots. More specifically, this pizzeria is a good seventh or eighth date spot, when you actually care just as much about eating your bodyweight in pizza as you do about getting to know each other. If you’re only on date number two and looking for somewhere with lots of wine and small plates under $15 instead, their sister restaurant Vinoteca Poscol is only a block away. They also have a high-end option down the street called Da Marco Cucina e Vino where you can get a nice steak and $52 uni spaghetti. You might want to reserve that one for an anniversary though.
If you’re seeking out that mildly hallucinatory buzz that only comes from eating Szechuan peppercorns, go to Pepper Twins. The Pepper Twins Chicken is what most people come here for, but we suggest rounding things out with the sautéed pork with oyster mushrooms and pork dumplings to even out the burn. This place is super casual and BYOB, and the original location in Montrose is conveniently located next door to Boheme - the perfect bar for a drink to settle your stomach after consuming your body weight in chiles.
There’s lots of barbecue around Houston, and everyone is going to tell you their favorite is the best. But for us, there’s Killen’s and then there’s everyone else. Sure, it’s a solid 30 minute ride south to Pearland where it’s located, but the barbecue is always worth the trip, and it’s a nice excuse to get out of the city. They serve all the staples, like sausage, beef ribs, and pulled pork, but any trip to Killen’s is incomplete without the brisket. This spot definitely draws a crowd, so prepare to stand in line, which typically starts an hour before they open at 11am.
You’ll know you’ve found Laredo when you spot the bright green shack with the long line located just off Washington Ave. in The Heights. But the freshly made tortillas are so good that you won’t mind the wait. If they haven’t run out of breakfast tacos yet, order them in multiples. If they have, our condolences, but be sure to prepare yourself for that by glancing up at the menu on the wall so you can make a split second decision when it’s your turn to order. Either that or just smile and point as you pass by the different taco fillings, like barbacoa, fideo, and chicharron.
There are a few things you can always count on at Cafe TH in East Downtown. The very friendly owner will 100% remember your name from your last visit, there will be jazz playing, and you’re going to eat really good Vietnamese food. They serve a wide range of dishes, including classics like spring rolls, vermicelli bowls, and pho - but you’ll want to focus on the specialties like the vegan curry and banh mi bo kho (beef stew served with French bread). It’s open Monday through Friday for lunch, and only serves dinner on Thursday and Friday nights, so plan accordingly. Also important for your planning: it’s BYOB.
Located in an old Montrose stripmall between a laundromat and a convenience store, La Guadalupana Bakery & Cafe serves Mexican breakfast until 3pm everyday, along with a variety of homemade pastries and their signature cinnamon coffee. Eating here feels like home, mainly because the owner greets you at the door and personally seats you at one of the cafe tables. If you don’t feel like breakfast, they do lunch dishes like enchiladas verdes and chile rellenos too.
If you’re looking for a low-key cocktail option on Washington Ave., head to Julep. It’s the kind of bar where a cocktail takes five minutes to make, but they’re worth the wait. Also a big plus: Julep doesn’t have the bouncer and dress code situation that’s common at other spots nearby. They serve fancy bar food like seafood towers and cheese boards, but if you’re in need of a snack with your nightcap, get the chicken salad and crackers.
Imagine your perfect backyard. There’s probably a hammock and an endless supply of beer, and when you get hungry, pizza magically appears. Axelrad Beer Garden checks off all of these boxes, which means it might be your new favorite place to drink outside. This Midtown bar serves more than 30 different beers and has a big backyard full of hammocks where they host nightly movies and live music. It’s also located next to Luigi’s Pizza, which you can have brought directly to you, be it at a picnic table or hammock.
This historic dive is located within earshot of Rice and hosts live blues bands six nights a week, with Sundays dedicated solely to bayou-style zydeco. The drinks are cheap and yeah, it’s loud, but you don’t go to The Big Easy to talk, you go to people watch and dance.
Wander through a nondescript door in the back of the always-crowded Pastry War mezcal bar, head upstairs, and you’ll find Tongue-Cut Sparrow. The small, dimly-lit Downtown cocktail bar only holds about 25 people, and is a good place to either impress a date or prove to your Austin friends that Houston doesn’t suck. The drinks are great, and given the limited number of guests allowed in at a time, you can also order one without having to push or yell. Reservations are encouraged, but half of the room is reserved for walk-ins if you get tired of fighting for drinks downstairs.
Definitions of an ice house vary, but it’s essentially a neighborhood indoor/outdoor bar, commonly without air conditioning, that serves mostly beer. West Alabama Ice House has been a Montrose staple since the 1920s and it’s always packed with friendly regulars who have been going there for 30+ years. Grab a bottle of Lone Star at the bar and a barbacoa taco from the neighboring Tacos Tierra Caliente food truck and repeat as needed.