Dinner and a Show
Chances are that if you're heading downtown for a night out at the opera, the symphony or the Alley, you're not simply grabbing McDonald's on your way — you want to make an evening of this, as well you should.
Many restaurants have done away with theater menus, meaning you'll have to order judiciously from the regular menus and advise staff that you need this meal to be slightly more fast-paced than normal. Fortunately, downtown is rich with restaurants that cater to the theater crowd — and even a few in Midtown that offer complimentary shuttles to and from the Theater District so you don't have to walk.
10. The Blue Fish
One of the closest dining options to Jones Hall, the Alley, the Houston Ballet and the Wortham is this sushi palace that fronts Bayou Place. The Dallas-based chain features Americanized sushi at its cheekiest, with a giant ahi tuna tower that's smashed into bits tableside as its gleeful signature dish. Although there's no theater menu here, just tell the staff that you're heading to a show and they'll speed things up accordingly.
9. MKT Bar
MKT Bar inside the two-story Phoenicia grocery store is where you head for a lighter, more casual pre-show meal that doesn't skimp on flavor. I love the pizzas — especially on thick whole wheat and kalamata olive crust — and the za'atar-dusted fries, and the small but tight selection of wines and craft beers at the long, inviting bar. If you're taking in a movie at nearby Discovery Green, simply take a picnic instead — either get MKT Bar's food to go or build your own basket inside the grocery store.
8. 17 at the Alden Hotel
I've heard claims that 17 has a theater menu, although its Web site doesn't mention one and calls to the restaurant resulted in a confused employee asking me what a "prix fixe" menu is. However, the restaurant makes some mean modern American food, and it's close — only six blocks away from the Theater District. But if that's too far to hoof it, the Alden also offers shuttle service.
7. The Grove
Although the restaurant no longer offers the great three-course menu that netted The Grove a Best of Houston® award for Best Pre- or Post-Theater Restaurant in 2010, it's still a swank spot to watch the sun set over downtown's lush Discovery Green before heading out to the theater. I prefer The Grove, however, for pre-gaming prior to events or concerts at the nearby Toyota Center.
There's not much within walking distance from the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts except for Bayou Place. And then there's Artista, from the Cordúa family of restaurants, which not only is within the Hobby Center itself, but has smashing views of downtown from its second-story aerie. In keeping with its location, Artista has divided its South American-influenced menu into sections such as Act 1, Act 2 and Accompaniments.
5. The Capitol at St. Germain
The last time I went to The Capitol before a show at the Alley, my friends and I had such a good time that we ended up missing Santaland Diaries entirely and staying put in our big red booth. Most nights, there's a show to be seen here as well — whether at the always-busy bar or on the main stage, where live acts are frequently booked. The straightforward menu has something for everyone, including a snazzy grown-up hot dog topped with brisket chili.
4. Quattro at the Four Seasons
Much like The Grove, Quattro is an ideal spot for an intimate dinner before concerts at the Toyota Center or the nearby House of Blues. It offers great views from inside the Four Seasons hotel and even better food from chef Maurizio Ferrarese, but the real deal comes on big concert nights: Quattro offers free valet parking, a prix fixe menu and complimentary post-dinner drinks when big-name artists such as Lady Gaga, Madonna and Andrea Bocelli come to town to play the Toyota Center.
3. Damian's Cucina Italiana
Damian's has been one of the city's best Italian restaurants going on 30 years, and shows no signs of stopping. Look for the house special osso bucco that's served only on Friday and Saturday nights. And although Damian's is in Midtown, it offers a private shuttle to the Theater District that will drop you at the door of the Wortham, Jones Hall or the Alley. Just remember to make reservations.
2. Line & Lariat at the Hotel Icon
The grand, theatrical dining room at Line & Lariat is a great pre-opening act, and chef David Luna's food is guaranteed to draw applause. The Theater District is within easy walking distance, but if you're taking in shows at the Rodeo this season, Line & Lariat has you covered there, too: Valet for $6 and leave your car parked at Line & Lariat after dinner; just hop on the METRORail that's right outside and get dropped off at Reliant Park.
Brennan's offers a dedicated shuttle to the Theater District — with drop-offs at the Alley, the Wortham, Jones Hall and the Hobby Center — during both lunch and dinner, so you can valet your car at the restaurant without worries. Reservations are required, of course, as one would expect at Houston's grande dame Cajun restaurant with a fabulous French Quarter flair. Brennan's is fine dining at the peak of its game and has been my choice for pre-theater dining since my mother first brought me here before The Nutcracker when I was ten years old.
Everything Old Is New Again
Branch Water Tavern to become Federal American Grill.
As if Branch Water Tavern weren't already waving the old-school Americana flag loud and proud, its replacement tenant — Federal American Grill — already seems determined to carry on that tradition, possibly with an even larger flag. Maybe with pretty gold fringe on the edges.
Chef and owner David Grossman announced last month that he'd be departing Branch Water Tavern and taking the concept with him, but not before transitioning the restaurant into something new.
That something new is Federal American Grill, which has the same vaguely colonial, early American tavern bent that's a trend in restaurant names from Houston (see: Liberty Kitchen, Frank's Americana Revival) to California (see: Township Kitchen Americana & Saloon in Los Angeles or Craftsman New American Tavern in San Diego) and elsewhere (see: Village Whiskey in Philadelphia or Longman & Eagle in Chicago).
These restaurants share other attributes aside from nomenclature, however. They usually feature menus with food that's called "fare," often of the "modern American" persuasion and typically with at least one burger and an assortment of updated comfort-food dishes. They also feature cocktails, craft beer, and a substantial whiskey or bourbon selection. Because at some point in our mutual culinary history, bourbon became synonymous with old-old-school American dining.
Federal American Grill will offer all these things, although it will also — smartly — keep some of Branch Water's popular dishes in place (bone marrow is staying, as is the smoked pork chop). Owner Matt Brice isn't fresh out of the gate, after all. He's run the popular Bistro des Amis in Rice Village for years. He'll be making the Branch Water space more relaxed, too, by adding more tables and TVs in the somewhat stiff bar area.
The dishes that are coming on the new menu follow that trend: bacon-wrapped shrimp and grits, truffle-laced macaroni and cheese, chicken pot pie. But Brice is determined to keep the service "old school," despite a more casual climate inside.
The press release for Federal American Grill promises that's not all, though. "Federal Grill will continue to offer an impressive array of artisan beer, boutique wines, American whiskeys and bourbons, and other spirits highlighting the restaurant's menu," it says as I grow wearier with each passing day reading the words "artisan" and "craft" and "boutique," although I'm often unsure of which other words to use or which other words could possibly replace them. Because it's not the words that I find tiresome but rather the frequency and imprecision with which they're used — and I'm a chief offender myself.
I'm not really complaining, though. I happen to like these types of cheeky Americana places for the most part, although I recognize that the novelty of paying a bit extra for fried chicken and raw oysters because they're served in a chic-rustic, catalog-perfect setting with my choice of local hooch will wear thin eventually. And when that time comes, we'll be full-tilt in the swing of some entirely new food movement.
Perhaps colonial Americana will be cast aside in favor of kitschy 1950s food, and we'll all be ordering Steak Diane and Cherries Jubilee with knowing smiles as chefs talk about re-creating their grandmothers' chicken à la king with heritage hens and hand-foraged mushrooms. We'll eat out of upcycled foil trays designed to mimic Swanson's frozen dinners, the compartments filled with artisanal Salisbury steak and fresh-picked peas. Oh, the giddy irony of it all.
Let Them Eat Cake
Corner Table sends out pizzas to protesters.
A group of 25 protesters outside Bruce Molzan's new River Oaks restaurant was faced with an unusual concession last week.
Corner Table, where the beleaguered Molzan is now head chef, sent out two pizzas to the picket line, delivered by waiters in pressed white shirts and black aprons. The protesters were mostly waiters themselves, along with other kitchen workers who say that Molzan still owes them back wages from his now-closed restaurant Ruggles Grill. Many of the protesters were involved in a similar public display in December 2011, when the entire staff at Ruggles walked out on a busy Friday night after alleging that Molzan owed them back wages and tips totaling $14,000 to $15,000.
This was not a point that Molzan disputed, although he claimed that the "whole thing" had "been blown out of proportion." On December 5, 2011, Molzan told the Houston Press that his waitstaff would be "paid in full" that day.
Laura Perez-Boston of the Fe y Justicia Worker Center, a nonprofit that assists low-wage workers, claims that promise never came true. Says Perez-Boston: "He has still not paid the waitstaff that walked off the job at Ruggles."
In lieu of payment, the two pizzas came as cold comfort.
"No food; pay me!" one protester began to chant. Soon the entire line — predominantly Hispanic, with a few supporters from Fe y Justicia and Down With Wage Theft — was chanting the same refrain.
"That was bizarre," said Perez-Boston of the proffered pizzas. "But it just energized us. We're here for justice."
The raucous protesters drew curious onlookers from the quiet neighborhood off Virginia and Westheimer where Corner Table recently opened. Soon police cars had been called, too, although they remained parked and silent, simply watching. Corner Table's managers and valets scurried outside amid chants of "Ruggles workers are still in the struggle!" and "No justice, no peace!" from the sidewalk across the street.
A steady stream of cars let out diners who craned their necks at the protesters as they walked inside. "Eat somewhere that pays your workers!" yelled a few women from the picket line. Power tools on Corner Table's patio were conspicuously turned on to drown out the din. And in front of the large plate-glass window that faced the picket line, a giant white shuttle was pulled around so that the view was entirely blocked.
Inside the restaurant, a hostess graciously but nervously led over an elegant, well-dressed woman whom she identified as a manager. The manager, who wished to be identified only as Leslie, was calm but firm.
"This has nothing to do with the restaurant," she said. "This is about [chef Molzan's] former enterprise, and he's not affiliated with them any longer."
Along with other lawsuits Molzan has been involved in over the years, the former owner of Ruggles sued the employees who walked out on him at Ruggles — despite acknowledging that he owed them money. But Molzan is not an owner at Corner Table. That would be Darla Lexington. Lexington is perhaps best known as the longtime companion of famous Texas lawyer John O'Quinn, who died in a car accident in 2009. Should Lexington or Corner Table pay for Molzan's transgressions?
"We sent out pizzas," Leslie continued. "We don't want to be ugly. There's no need to be ugly."
But, Leslie finished, "I think there's some facts they don't have straight."
Back outside, the protest that had begun at 6 p.m. was still in full swing an hour later despite night falling. The lines of cars pulling in to Corner Table's valet seemed to be energizing them as much as the pizzas had.
"They're just trying to shut us up," said Perez-Boston. "It won't work."
Close Your Eyes and Think of England
Houston's 10 best British pubs.
You'll notice several things upon entering a British pub for the first time, especially if your only pub experiences to date have been in the States: The pubs are clean, bright and welcoming. The food is usually quite good. And pubs are family-friendly places — for the most part — which makes sense, as "pub" is short for "public house." The whole village should feel welcome at a pub.
Pubs are places where anyone can go, grab a chair and possibly a pint and feel right at home. You can watch TV, catch up with friends, eat a filling meal and come in from the dreary weather like we experienced last week. While it's not quite as cold as an English winter (I'll tell you some time about vacationing in northern England in early February), the drizzly weather last week made me think fondly of the British pubs I enjoyed across the pond.
Not all pubs are created equal, however. Most Texas pubs are more "bars" than "public houses," but the ones on this list are as close as you'll get to the real thing.
10. The Stag's Head
The food and service have slipped a bit here in recent years, but The Stag's Head is still my favorite place to hear an impromptu bagpipe solo at sunset. The massive central bar reminds me a bit of theater in the round, but it means you can always find an open seat and get a classic on draft whether it's Boddingtons, Fuller's or Newky Brown. The food menu offers a decent cottage pie and the option to add "real" Heinz baked beans to anything you order.
Clear Lake and Seabrook have dozens of great seaside bars, but it's Boondoggle's Pub I find myself frequenting most often down south. It may not offer the great views of other Clear Lake watering holes, but this one has the advantage of looking and feeling like an authentic English pub in its own odd way. It also has the advantage of offering some truly tasty food, like pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven — a damn sight better than the Totino's-style pizza rolls offered by most bars.
8. The Ginger Man
The jukebox at Hans Bier Haus used to be stocked with the best British music in town, featuring everything from the Stone Roses to Simply Red. These days, the old-school jukebox at The Ginger Man has taken its place, but it also features plenty of local Houston bands. The massive beer list offers only a few British libations, however, and the food menu plays it pretty down-the-middle. The real draws here are the dark, cozy quarters and inviting patio.
7. Kelvin Arms
Technically, Kelvin Arms is a Scottish pub. But that just means it's got a great selection of Scotch in addition to a nice assortment of British beers. More important, it — like any good pub — is loyal to its regulars, whom the pub treats like family. There's a big screen for watching games or matches; board games if you get bored; oversized chairs and couches to sink into; and a suit of armor guarding the vault, a holdover from when the Rice Village building was University Bank in the late 1920s and early '30s, so the pub — unlike many Houston bars — has some history to it.
6. The King's Head Pub
This brand-new pub in the Energy Corridor may not look like much from the outside, tucked into a stucco strip center under a dentist's office, but it has a great pedigree: The King's Head Pub was recently opened by British expat Michael Holliday, who also opened The Richmond Arms and The Stag's Head. And not only is everyone welcome here, dogs are, too — on the big patio. The King's Head shows nearly every footie match and even offers the occasional "Scottish night" with all the traditional Highlands tunes you can bear.
5. The Richmond Arms
The Richmond Arms is where you and half of Houston's expat community show up to watch the UEFA finals at 7 a.m. on a Saturday and order lager with your full English breakfast. It's where you go to watch Manchester United vs. Liverpool matches in full stereo, with supporters from both sides deafening you as you roar at the screen. But it's also where you go to enjoy a pint by the fireplace or to see old friends. You can tell the regulars; they (and their families) are the ones in all the photos and old newspaper clippings that line the walls.
4. The Bull & Bear
A location in the expat-dense west suburbs of Houston means that The Bull & Bear is often packed with Englishmen, Irishmen, Scots and Welshmen — all likely there for the massive selection of sporting matches The Bull & Bear screens daily. When a match is on, settle in at your table — if you can find one — and indulge in comforting pub dishes like chicken curry and a mound of chips or the best cottage pie in town. No tables? Score a seat at the long, well-tended mahogany bar.
3. The Black Lab
More a restaurant than a bar, The Black Lab (housed in an old church office) offers a huge selection of British pub favorites on its menu. West Highland cheese soup with Bass ale is a nontraditional favorite, while the "English specials" section offers dishes you can't often find elsewhere, such as steak and kidney pie and the colorfully named bubble and squeak, bangers and mash, and sole in its coffin. If you're just there for a pint, grab a seat near the fireplace and settle in. On nice days, the patio offers a charming view of the old church building's ivy-covered brick walls and a UK-style red telephone box on the corner of Montrose and West Main.
2. The Queen Vic
A bit of Britain in Houston — and a bit of India, too — keeps us coming back to The Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen in Upper Kirby. Indeed, it's the kind of place where you can get so cozy with a craft beer and a curry with chips, you might never want to leave. As with the No. 1 entry on our list, Indian food and British pubs go hand in hand. The Queen Vic is not only one of the best pubs in town, it's also one of the best Indian restaurants, although its menu offers the best of many worlds: Goan curries and samosas keep company with mulligatawny stew and fresh Gulf oysters.
1. The Red Lion
Craig Mallinson's pub is the one that all my British friends swear is the "most authentic" in Houston — authentic being a bit of an arbitrary term in the Bayou City. But it's hard to find fault with the homey feel of the booths and tables under Tudor timbers, the red telephone box near the entrance, the roaring fireplace, the half-Indian-half-English menu, the friendly bar staff and the Sunday roasts each week (making The Red Lion the only place in town you'll also get a perfect Yorkshire pudding).
Openings and Closings
More Americana, headed your way.
Bush Intercontinental Airport must have finally gotten the memo that its dining options were sorely limited considering Houston's rich culinary offerings, because it looks like something's finally being done about it.
Earlier this month, there was the news that chef Johnny Hernandez is opening The Fruteria — Botano in the airport this spring. And earlier this week, CultureMap reported that Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd will be opening 3rd Bar Eating House in Terminal B.
"The 142-seat restaurant will be open every day from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., offering a breakfast reminiscent of the pair's El Real Tex-Mex Cafe, with sliders à la Little Bigs on the lunch menu alongside fresh seafood," wrote Whitney Radley, "and a 'more Reef-oriented' dinner — and all at a price point that's refreshingly reasonable for airport fare."
Opening soon in the vacated West Ave space that housed Ava and Alto Pizzeria — the two Schiller-Del Grande concepts that never found their footing in the swanky mixed-use development — is another location of Del Frisco's Grille. The steakhouse will be open for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch as of March 16.
Two recent profiles shed light on a couple of upcoming projects from Houston restaurateurs. First was Sarah Rufca's article in the Houston Chronicle spotlighting the new downtown development along Main Street. Aside from the impending openings of Goro & Gun, "Bad News Bar" and Batanga, Rufca says to watch for Clutch City Squire at 410 Main, "in a building rumored to have been a brothel." Owner Steve Hannigan describes Clutch City Squire as "an industrial-modern take on the saloon."
Meanwhile, at CultureMap, a profile of Shawn Bermudez — owner of Boondocks, Royal Oak and food truck Koagie Hots — features updates on his two most recent projects. First up is Stone's Throw, at 224 Emerson, "an Americana bar" next door to Boondocks. Next is Pistolero's, which is moving into the old Nabi space at 1517 Westheimer and which will feature updated Mexican cuisine from chef Brandon Shillings.
Last but not least, Eater Houston reports that New Orleans import Reginelli's Pizzeria will open next week at 12389 Kingside Lane near Memorial City Mall. Could nearby Pizaro's have some strong competition in the area? The Daily Meal thinks so: It recently ranked Reginelli's Pizzeria on its list of America's 35 Best Pizzas.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.