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Houston's 10 best spots for a first date.

TOP 10

Since a first date is often the initial and most important impression you'll make, you want that impression to be memorable. But how do you achieve "memorable" without also committing the cardinal sin of trying too hard? You plan an awesome, low-key, casual yet elegant first date — that's how.

Although I've been out of the dating game for a while now, I still remember that my favorite first dates were just like that: low-key and loose. I enjoyed it immensely when a guy planned an evening that started out with coffee and/or a drink, with the possibility of more to come if that first sip went well. (And by "more to come," I mean dinner or hopping over to another bar to continue the evening. Get with it.) When the first-date planning was left to me, I often did the same.

Kick back at Down House.
Troy Fields
Kick back at Down House.
Bowls of various ramen at Ramen Tatsu-ya in Austin.
Katharine Shilcutt
Bowls of various ramen at Ramen Tatsu-ya in Austin.
Don't settle for an ordinary donut when you can buy gourmet donuts like these.
Courtesy of bochalla
Don't settle for an ordinary donut when you can buy gourmet donuts like these.

Were I still dating today, these are ten of the afternoons or evenings I'd plan for a first date. All of these destinations also double as terrific occasions to reconnect with your spouse or partner as well, so book a babysitter and make it a date.

Note: Most of these first dates involve a small degree of walking, so ditch the crazy heels.

10. Plonk and Petrol Station

Plonk is casual enough for a glass of wine at the bar, yet the wine selection under owner Scott Miller will impress even the fussiest wine drinker. If all goes well, stay for dinner and grab a seat on Plonk's beautiful garden-flanked patio. And if you manage not to drink Plonk's cellar dry, head to Petrol Station afterward for a dessert beer and more lush outdoor seating. Both of these somewhat-hidden gems are in the Garden Oaks/Oak Forest area, and you'll look like a champ for seeking them out.

9. Blacksmith, El Real Tex-Mex Cafe and The Hay Merchant

Blacksmith closes at 5 p.m. every day, so keep that in mind as you're planning. Meet up for a coffee at one of the best coffee shops in the city and watch the traffic trickle by on Westheimer. Afterward, walk across the street for a classic Tex-Mex dinner at El Real, then work it off by walking back across Westheimer to The Hay Merchant and finishing the night with pints and pinball (there are three newly installed machines; the AC/DC pinball table is by far the best).

8. Sale-Sucre, Fitzgerald's and BB's Café

If you already know your first date and have an established comfort level, why not plan an evening around a band you both like? Have a not-too-fancy French dinner at cozy Gallic cafe Sale-Sucre first, then walk a few doors down White Oak to Fitzgerald's for a show. After it's over, compare notes over a sweet, boozy Hurricane at BB's Café, right across the street.

7. Leon's Lounge, Kim Tai or Reef and Mongoose vs. Cobra

Meet up for pre-dinner cocktails at Leon's Lounge (the oldest continuously operating bar in Houston) and enjoy this unspoiled patch of Midtown over Leon's terrific liquor selection. For dinner — depending on your date — go upscale and impressive at seafood palace Reef, or go super-low-key at scruffy Vietnamese diner Kim Tai. One has great fish, the other has great pho, both are half a block away. Close out your night with punch and poetry back across the street at Mongoose vs. Cobra, the beer bar that offers a more refined drinking experience than you'd expect.

6. Charity Saloon or Line & Lariat, Goro & Gun or Batanga and Bad News Bar or La Carafe

There's so much to do around Market Square right now that you can make several dates out of this downtown destination. To go slightly upscale, get pre-dinner drinks inside the gorgeous, converted bank lobby at Line & Lariat, then walk across Congress for modern tapas at newcomer Batanga. Finish off the night with a stroll in the park and a glass of wine at La Carafe. To go slightly grittier, start out with cocktails and shuffleboard at Charity Saloon (and learn a lot about your date by which charity he chooses to support with his drink ticket), then dinner at ramen bar Goro & Gun right around the corner on Main Street. Walk upstairs afterward and take in the enchanting Houston skyline at night with a daiquiri on the second-story patio at Bad News Bar.

5. Dinner and a movie at Tiny Boxwood's

Most people only think of Tiny Boxwood's for lunch. But the West Alabama bistro offers dinner, too — and a new menu from former Brasserie 19 executive chef Amanda McGraw. Even better, it offers Saturday night movies every weekend starting at 7:30 p.m. Spread out on the lush grass of the nursery-cum-cafe and enjoy a fun twist on the typical dinner-and-a-movie-date.

4. Brasil or Agora, Da Marco or Vinoteca Poscol and Poison Girl

Again, a matter of personal preference: Coffee at either Brasil or Agora — both at the corner of Westheimer and Dunlavy — features great outdoor seating and cozy, artsy indoor spaces as well. To really pull out all the stops, walk down Westheimer to Da Marco for the best Italian food in the city. Or to get chef Marco Wiles's food on the cheap, head across the street to little sister restaurant Vinoteca Poscol. Either way, wind down afterward with pinball and one of the best whiskey selections in the country at Poison Girl. Whatever route you choose, this date will definitely afford the best people-watching opportunities.

3. The Tasting Room, Bistro Alex and Monnalisa

There are a lot of ways to do a date right at CityCentre, but this trio is my favorite. Enjoy a glass of wine (and usually some live music) at The Tasting Room, then walk across the fountain-flanked lawn for dinner at Bistro Alex — the chic little sister to Brennan's, featuring the same sort of classic Creole cuisine with a modern twist. Go ultra-lux after dinner in the adjoining Monnalisa bar, with a second-story swimming pool and deck that overlooks the entire CityCentre complex, or stay cozy by the indoor fire pit. You can even make a staycation out of it by booking a room at the boutique-y Hotel Sorella.

2. Double Trouble, Tacos a Go-Go or Sparrow and Alley Kat

As with Market Square, there's so much to do on the "Best Block in Houston" that you can make several dates out of this two-block stretch of Main Street in Midtown. Aside from the Ensemble Theatre, you can catch live shows at the Continental Club every night of the week — plus, there's usually live music at Natachee's and Big Top Lounge on the weekends, too. Start out with coffee and/or cocktails at Tiki-themed Double Trouble, browse the record selection at Sig's Lagoon next door and walk across the street to eat dinner at Tacos a Go-Go (low-key), Julia's Bistro (mid-range) or Monica Pope's new restaurant, Sparrow (high-end). If you don't catch a show, finish off the evening with drinks at the sleek, surprisingly upscale Alley Kat lounge, which recently took the place of The Mink.

1. Down House

With the perfect mix of fancy and casual, this eatery/drinkery in the Heights is a dynamic spot to take a first date for caffeine, a laid-back lunch or a romantic dinner. Open daily from 9 a.m. to midnight, the cafe/restaurant/bar — decked out with Victorian decor in some spots, modern industrial hip in others — delivers with amazing coffee, salads and grass-fed Texas beef burgers, lots of local beers on tap and a no-joke cocktail list that includes barrel-aged Manhattans and bourbon mai tais. Predictably, it's often busy on weekend nights, but not enough of a zoo to make you change your plans. Plus, the spot is a good launching pad for the next bar, a movie or a show.
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HOW TO

SLURP IT UP
A newbie's guide to eating and enjoying ramen.

MOLLY DUNN

If you've been keeping up with the Houston happenings in Japanese cuisine, you will notice that ramen dishes are popping up all over the place. Carl Rosa, founder of the Sushi Club of Houston, started the Ramen in Common group less than one month ago as a response to ramen's new high-profile status as an "it" food.

"Although Houston-area Japanese restaurants have been serving ramen for years, it's just begun to grow in popularity," says Rosa. "And though many Houstonians are now interested in ramen, they may not have an outlet for recommendations, reliable reviews and guidance. That's where Ramen in Common will come into the picture."

Rosa says there are actually guidelines to eating ramen correctly, and many beginners make a lot of mistakes the first time they eat a ramen dish. So to create a list of rules and guidelines for eating ramen, Rosa visited every Japanese restaurant that he knows and has faith in.

Faith in a restaurant was important to Rosa, since the idea behind the Ramen in Common group is to educate the public not only on ramen but on traditional Japanese cuisine.

"There is nothing wrong with fusion Japanese cuisine," says Rosa, "and there is nothing wrong with traditional Japanese cuisine, as long as people can tell the difference."

According to the Ramen in Common guidelines, traditional Japanese ramen comes in many varieties, including tonkotsu, shoyu, tonkotsu-shoyu, shio and miso. But the foundation of ramen dishes is the same for all of them — broth and noodles. These two components work together to create a harmonious dish, but they must be spectacular by themselves as well.

"The broth is a different issue than the noodle, which is a different issue than the egg, which is a different issue than the pork," says Rosa. "Everything stands alone; you can grade it individually and then all together."

Rosa suggests five components you should consider when evaluating your ramen:

1. Temperature

A ramen dish must be hot, not lukewarm. In fact, Rosa says, if it isn't hot, send the bowl back. That seems simple enough.

2. Smell

Just as you would smell wine before taking a sip, you should smell your bowl of ramen before consuming it. Smelling the ramen is a way to determine if you will enjoy the flavor. For example, with tonkotsu ramen, you should smell slow-cooked salted pork instantly.

3. Broth

The broth of a ramen dish is extremely important and should be the first component of the dish you taste. Basically, if you enjoy the broth, you will most likely enjoy the entire ramen dish.

4. Noodle

After you taste the broth, taste the noodles. When a ramen dish is prepared, the noodles are added to the broth right before the bowl is served. The noodles need to complement the broth in flavor and not stick together, just like pasta, and should be al dente — not hard and not soft. If you pick up your noodles with chopsticks and the noodles break apart or are in one giant clump, then the dish wasn't made properly. Rosa says that you want to be sure the noodles marinate in the broth.

5. Toppings

Finally, the toppings for a ramen dish should be used to enhance the flavors and your overall experience with the dish. Look for toppings like chashu (slow-roasted pork belly made with garlic, ginger, sake and soy sauce), a soft-boiled egg, nori paper and fish cakes.

Now that you know what to look for in a good bowl of ramen, here's how to eat it:

1. Enjoy the Experience

Eating ramen is all about the overall experience. Remember to have fun while enjoying the flavors of the entire ramen bowl.

2. Slurp It Up

When you eat ramen, don't feel the need to be proper or have perfect dining etiquette; you should slurp your noodles to enjoy the ramen as much as possible. In fact, slurping the noodles lowers the amount of heat and enhances the flavor, so slurp them up.

3. Drink from the Bowl

Sure, it doesn't follow proper dining etiquette, but when you eat your noodles, you'll be left with a big bowl of broth. Rather than slowly eating the broth with a spoon, grab that bowl and drink it like a glass of water.
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NEWS

BACON MANIA MARCHES ON
Yankee Candle to release bacon-scented candle in May.

KATHARINE SHILCUTT

Occasionally, Twitter has the seemingly magical powers of a wishing well. Just a couple of Fridays ago, I dropped a penny into the Twitter well and wished for a bacon- and coffee-scented candle from Yankee Candle. And now, through the magic of the Internet, that wish has [mostly] come true.

The Massachusetts-based candle company is releasing two new candles on May 13: MMM, Bacon! and Movie Night. As the name would imply, MMM, Bacon! is bacon-scented, while the Movie Night candle smells of fresh buttered popcorn.

In a press release, the candle company spoke directly to the arteries of a million pork-obsessed Americans: "You've heard it said that 'everything's better with bacon' — and Yankee Candle agrees." I may not agree 100 percent with this statement — plenty of dishes are better unmolested by bacon, actually — but I'm excited nevertheless.

I'm even excited enough to forgive Yankee Candle for being...slightly behind the times when it states that "bacon is poised to be the hot trend of the summer." There is an entire Wikipedia entry devoted to "bacon mania" (an official term now, apparently), which has been "sweeping the country" since at least 2008.

That's five years. Five years of increasingly crazed bacon mania, leading Salon to proclaim: "Bacon is dead! Long live bacon!" (That was in 2009, by the way.) And although media outlets like The Stranger have been predicting the imminent collapse of bacon mania for almost as long as bacon mania has existed, the bacon craze isn't over yet.

"Thankfully, baconmania has almost run its course," wrote Erica C. Barnett in The Stranger in May 2009. "Trends inevitably go through their phases — early adoption, buzz, general excitement, overexposure — and bacon is in its terminal stage, clinging to relevance, grasping at any opportunity to cash in on its dwindling cachet as its 15 minutes come to an end."

Perhaps Yankee Candle's bacon-scented candle will be that final sign of the bacon apocalypse: the final scroll that's opened before bacon mania is raptured into food-trend heaven and a new era of crawfish-mania or kale-mania rises to take its place.

Or maybe bacon mania is here to stay. If the increasing popularity of Ron Swanson — the iconic, red-blooded, red-meat-eating, woodworking, government-loathing, bacon-worshipping, all-American male depicted by Nick Offerman on Parks and Recreation — is anything to judge by, we may only be in the initial stages of a bacon craze that could last generations.

Would Ron Swanson buy a bacon-scented Yankee Candle? I doubt it. He'd probably just make his own...out of real bacon.
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SNACKSHOT

CUPCAKES ARE DEAD
Long live these five new faddish treats.

MOLLY DUNN

Cupcakes have been the rage in America for several years now. After stores were opened exclusively to sell them, television shows were centered on the little individual desserts and the public went crazy over different cupcake presentations and decorations, it seemed as if cupcakes were the end-all-be-all desserts.

However, recent results show that Crumbs Bake Shop's stock has fallen by 22 percent. What was once being sold for more than $13 a share is now going for a measly $1.30. In addition, Sprinkles has delayed its much-ballyhooed cupcake ATM.

The cupcake industry just isn't what it was a few years ago, when everyone and his mother wanted to get a cupcake — they're ­elegant and have interesting designs and sweet flavors. I have always loved cupcakes; they're like your own personal cakes. But there's the problem. Everyone knows how to make cupcakes, which has caused public demand to diminish for something so homemade and simple to put together, as noted in a Wall Street Journal article about the crash of the cupcake market. Why would you pay nearly $4 for one when you can make a dozen or two at home for less than that?

One of the biggest draws with cupcakes, however, was the fact that they're little; they are easy to package to go or to eat in a shop. Their size means that they're the perfect treat for an individual. But there are other small treats we should keep our eyes open for — they could be the next big, or little, things.

5. Gourmet Marshmallows

Gourmet flavored marshmallows are definitely on the rise. Not only are they difficult to make, but there are so many different types of marshmallows based on flavor and shape. Don't just settle for Peeps from Easter for a gourmet marshmallow treat. You'll want to stock up on chocolate, coconut, vanilla bean, lemon, caramel and other sugary, fruity and extravagant flavors for the summer. Can you say gourmet s'mores?

4. Gourmet Popcorn

Popcorn is definitely one of the easiest street foods and snacks to eat. But there's more to popcorn than just butter and caramel flavors. An article in TIME noted that gourmet popcorn bars are starting to take over cupcake shops. People are beginning to use gourmet popcorn bars at weddings and other events as well. With sweet flavors like cinnamon, cheesecake and s'mores and savory flavors like bacon, wasabi and black truffles, the sky's the limit for gourmet popcorn flavors.

3. Macarons

The French definitely knew what they were doing with the macaron. The first time you taste a French macaron, you will feel sheer bliss. They are perfectly crunchy on the outside and sugary and soft on the inside and almost look like works of art. With all the beautiful colors and flavors of macarons, there's no doubt in my mind that the public will be attracted to these little gems.

2. Gourmet Popsicles

It's the perfect time of year to enjoy a cool, refreshing popsicle. Sure, you could just buy a popsicle from the store, but why would you when you can purchase homemade gourmet popsicles? Flavors range from fruity to boozy, and most naturally made popsicles are quite healthy, too. Get ready for more popsicle stands and trucks to start popping up around the country. Maybe a few will come to Houston soon.

1. Gourmet Donuts

No, I'm not talking about the box full of glazed donuts you grab on the way to a business meeting at work. Gourmet donuts have begun sweeping the nation while cupcakes fizz away. Whether they're bite-size or full-size, donuts are always a good choice. Who wouldn't want fried dough dipped in powdered sugar, decorated with chocolate drizzle, coconut and sprinkles, or filled with custard, jelly and other sweets? Donuts have outstanding potential for replacing cupcakes as dessert choices on the go or in the store. Not to mention that they're much cheaper than cupcakes.
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RESTAURANT NEWS

OPENINGS AND CLOSINGS
Goodbye to Tex, Mex and Czech.

KATHARINE SHILCUTT

Jeannine's Bistro remains closed in Montrose with no word from owner Andrew Klarman as to its eventual reopening date. The popular Belgian bistro closed temporarily April 20 due to staffing issues.

Plenty of other doors were shut this week, too, including the beloved Olde Towne Kolaches bakery on Memorial Drive. According to Houstonia food editor Robb Walsh, the Czech-style kolache shop is looking for a "new location in the Memorial neighborhood." The original Olde Towne at 12037 Northwest Freeway is still open.

And to no one's great surprise, Pepper Jack's Mexican Grill and Cantina closed its doors last week as well. Sources say that after Cabo moved out of the two-story downtown space near Market Square Park, the landlords figured it would be simple to continue operating a Tex-Mex restaurant in the same spot. Running a restaurant ain't easy work, though, and Pepper Jack's never recaptured the old Cabo audience — but it did garner some fairly mediocre reviews on Yelp.

In other Tex-Mex farewells, owners Terry Flores and Lily Hernandez have announced that they'll be closing Bocados on May 5, after a final Cinco de Mayo fiesta. CultureMap reports that Flores and Hernandez won't be gone for long, however. The pair plan to open a new restaurant downtown, called The Red Ox.

CultureMap also reports that the old Bocados location won't be empty for long: Lafayette-based restaurant Brick & Spoon is moving in. This will be the second location of the Creole-and-cocktails restaurant, although its first location, in Lafayette, just opened. According to its Facebook page, owners Ryan Trahan and Bryan Jewell also plan a Brick & Spoon location for Orange Beach, California, in the near future.

Now open is Federal American Grill, which replaced Branch Water Tavern and which also seems to have somewhat dropped its middle name and is mostly going by simply "The Federal Grill." The menu of upscale comfort food — featuring dishes such as barbecued bone marrow and a smoked pork chop with pimento cheese polenta — is being overseen by executive chef Michael Hoffman and chef Antoine Ware.

Finally, it looks like a sleuth has found the address for Moon Tower Inn's new project, the Voodoo Queen: 322 Milby, which most recently housed Joe's Bar & Grill in the shadow of the massive Maximus coffee plant off Harrisburg. The rear of the building houses a washateria, which we hope to God is still operating when Voodoo Queen opens. Spin cycles are like laundry's little booze breaks.

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