Eat, Play, Love
There are two types of people in this world: those who take their partners out to eat on Valentine's Day and those who wait for the mad crush of romance to end before venturing back out to nice restaurants. This year, that means restaurant dining rooms both the weekend before and the weekend after Valentine's Day likely will be saturated with flower-bearing suitors. And cheers to them!
I, however, would rather have a special dinner with a special friend on a night when it's a bit calmer — but that doesn't mean I don't want that special dinner to be romantic. Our guide to Houston's ten most romantic restaurants lets you choose your own adventure.
Most of the restaurants on this list are offering special Valentine's Day menus (see Christina Uticone's list with this week's cover story), but you can wine and dine a date here any night of the week and still give them a romantic evening.
10. Brenner's on the Bayou
That view. This is the former site of The Rainbow Lodge, and while I was sad to see that restaurant move (personal bias: my parents were married there 22 years ago), I'm glad that Brenner's has kept up the beautiful landscaping and bayou vistas that define this location. The menu is a people-pleaser, too, in case your date is picky: Great steaks mingle with comfort classics like wiener schnitzel, giant pork chops and fried chicken with grits.
9. Vinoteca Poscol
This is how you do romance on a budget. Vinoteca Poscol is, to me, the most romantic of Marco Wiles's three restaurants — and not only because it's affordable (and not just during happy hour). The two-room space in a low-slung strip center looks a bit weary from the outside, but inside it's as if you've been transported to a dusky Italian cafe rich with ruggedly Continental charm. The tapas-size portions encourage sharing of dishes such as roasted beets or baby octopus, while the wine list features a selection for every palate and price point.
Before you scoff at a "rotating restaurant" making it onto this list, answer this question: Have you ever eaten at Spindletop? The food is legit. And so are the views of the city 34 stories below, which you can take in slowly over the course of an evening as the floor of the restaurant pirouettes so subtly that you can barely detect any movement. Some people may find rotating restaurants out-of-date or cheesy; I'm not among them. I love gazing on this beautiful, maddening city of ours — and I love doing it while the sun sets, over a bottle of wine and a seared red snapper topped with a crawfish spinach béchamel. Plus, if you get too full and/or intoxicated (BY THE VIEWS) to drive home, you can crash in a plush room at the Hyatt Regency below.
7. Mark's American Cuisine
If dining under the Gothic arches of an old converted church that's rich with history (it used to be the Dream Merchant; remember that hot mess?) doesn't sound romantic to you, well, don't eat here, I guess. More room for the rest of us. The choir area has been converted into a second-story dining loft, which is my favorite spot for taking in the well-oiled machine that is the floor at Mark's and watching meticulously plated dishes parade out of the kitchen that's tucked behind the former altar. Mark's gets a small black mark, however, for an incident that occurred during my last birthday dinner there in which the waiter rudely snatched and snapped my menu closed in my face after I told him I was too full for dessert. "Well, you're just missing out," he told me snidely before turning on his heel. I probably was, but...tone it down a bit, guys.
6. Bistro Provence
Can't afford a vacation to Provence? Jean-Philippe and Genevieve Guy's precious Memorial bistro is the next best thing. And I am not just saying this because I once picked up a smoking-hot waiter here in my early 20s. There is something intensely European about this jewel of a spot: perhaps its small kitchen with a roaring wood-fired oven or its rustic seating with cozy tables or the sensation of being pleasantly removed from the hectic, traffic-filled urban streets for an evening. Or perhaps it's all of these, with an added dose of plush foies de canard or delicate poussin rôti to really drive the point home.
5. Bistro Alex
Some people may put Brennan's on this list, but I tend to think of the grande dame as more of a special-occasion spot to celebrate birthdays, intimate bridal showers, promotions or the like. It's gorgeous and refined, but has never smacked of romance to me. Instead, I prefer Brennan's little sister — Bistro Alex — on the second floor of the Hotel Sorella in CityCentre. It's intimate and sexy while still offering the same dazzling Creole cuisine for which Brennan's is known. As a bonus, you can shimmy over to Monnalisa afterward for a drink or two by the open fire pit inside the stunning bar, or lounge poolside and take in the view.
4. Vic & Anthony's
Let me be specific: The dining rooms at Vic & Anthony's are more apropos — in my opinion — for dinner with clients or a big, blowout birthday celebration. Where the romance is at in this temple of steak is its dimly lit bar, which is full of dark corners for (in the immortal words of that skank from Love Actually) "doing dark deeds." A pianist coaxes out old standards from the baby grand in one of those corners, and it's closest to him that I like to sit. You can order the full menu in the bar, but I prefer to keep it simple by sharing a dozen oysters, a split of champagne and a rosy porterhouse for two.
To me, there's something immensely sexy about going on an adventure together. Uchi offers culinary adventures in abundance, as well as a just-dim-enough dining room that sets the right tone for a night of romance. It's no coincidence that half the people I've spotted each time I've been to Uchi have been on dates. The service helps a lot here, too; the terrific waitstaff is highly attuned to each table's needs and is skilled at either helping you have a fun dining adventure or leaving you alone to take the plunge together.
The best part about Philippe's atmosphere is how effortlessly cool it is. And effortlessly cool always equals sexy. Although it's tempting to go overboard in the ritzy Galleria corridor along Post Oak, Philippe never does — in its food, its service or its ambience. The French fare could be fussy, but chef Philippe Schmit's Texan touches — as in the duck confit tamales or venison tenderloin with chili — keep them elegant yet grounded.
1. Rainbow Lodge
There's a reason Houstonians continue to host their weddings and celebrate their anniversaries at this beloved institution — and it's not just the verdant views onto the gently rolling bayou or the romantic, lodgelike feel imparted by the wood-beamed, fireplace-warmed structure. The food is amazing, too, as is the warm, high-end service. Rainbow Lodge offers a meal well worth paying for in every single aspect. Nibble on rabbit boudin bites or smoked lamb belly between glasses of wine with your beloved, or treat your man to such exotic game as grilled elk chops, chile-rubbed antelope backstrap or buffalo short ribs. Either way, everyone comes away happy.
OFF THE MENU
Investigating the "secret menu" at Los Tios.
A funny thing happened when I was preparing to visit Los Tios to conduct research on its skinny margarita.
Since I have nothing to do all day but peruse menus online, I spent [too] much of one morning scanning the food options at Los Tios in hope of preventing order paralysis (an affliction I frequently suffer from at restaurants). I had heard much about their "world-famous" combination plates and was deep in thought as to the merits of the No. 7 (beef taco, puffy queso, chalupa) versus the No. 5 (two beef tacos and a puffy queso).
"I know what will resolve this issue," I thought to myself. "Some good porn."
Food porn, that is, and specifically in the form of photos on Los Tios's Facebook page. In the process, however, of perusing for shots of the No. 5 and No. 7 platters, I ran into something far more enticing: a combination plate comprising a cheese enchilada, a taco al carbon, chicken quesadillas and pico de gallo.
Labeled "Off The Menu Special Combination Plate No. 14," this item, as it turns out, is the Tex-Mex equivalent of Harry Potter's Platform 9 3/4. It's ready and available, but only those in the know can access it. Here's why and how.
The combination plates on the current official Los Tios menu ostensibly go up to No. 8, though years ago there were as many as 14. The regulars rebelled against the truncated menu and continued to order these off-the-menu combination plates, and Los Tios — in humble deference to its patrons — continued to serve them. But only if you asked.
Today, the most popular "secret," request-only combination plates are the No. 14 and the No. 12 (nachos, puffy queso, cheese enchilada and Mexican rice). Clandestine cooking must taste better, because I enjoyed the No. 14 so much that I plan to order the No. 12 next time.
One last note: My efforts at uncovering the components of the No. 13 plate have thus far been unsuccessful. Longtime fans so far are keeping mum, but never fear; I'll find my Deep Throat.
BATTLE OF THE RESTAURANTS
Four new slogan ideas for the revamped Hooters.
The Hooters at U.S. 59 and Kirby has just rearmed itself in the battle of the breastaurants.
Presumably in response to the recent opening and immense popularity of Twin Peaks — located just across the freeway — as well as other competitors entering the market like Bone Daddy's and Bikinis Sports Bar & Grill, Hooters has extensively remodeled the entire location.
The Houston location is the first store in the entire chain to receive such a reworking and serves as a model for other such projects across the country. Among the added amenities, according to the press release we received at the Houston Press, were increased seat and booth sizes and extra padding in the seats. Which gave us an idea for a few new slogans for Hooters while they're at this whole rebranding business.
Possible new slogan: "Here at Hooters, while we recognize that you may have ballooned into a colossal lard-ass, our lovely waitresses are still big in just the right locations."
The release also told us that Hooters' new environment is perfect for a meal with the family. We're not ones to promote sexuality as a taboo, but a trip to Hooters with Mom and Dad for a 12-year-old sounds right on par with watching Eyes Wide Shut on Christmas morning. But in this competitive market, restaurants are trying for every last customer, even if that means marketing directly to that niche group happy to bring in their impressionable child to learn all about objectification of females.
Possible new slogan: "Come to Hooters and see where Daddy was last week instead of watching your dance recital."
We have to admit, though: The new remodel looks pretty snazzy. Raised-wood paneling in a variety of finishes and sleek dark-wood accents — when viewed apart from the signature Hooters bright-orange wing sauce splotched here and there — actually looks very nice.
"Did they change the menu, too, or is it the same old crap?" my friend wondered as he flipped open the menu. "Yup," he found. "Same crap."
Possible new slogan: "Hooters: We care about the food more than you do. But not by much."
Hooters also failed to update one other key item: the uniform. This may be why Hooters has never really done it for us. The girls wear incredibly silly outfits. If we had a Flashdance fetish, we'd probably be in heaven. Since that isn't the case, the whole 1984-era wind shorts and suntan-colored pantyhose look just isn't our thing.
Possible new slogan: "Hooters: where every night is like sneaking downstairs to watch USA Up All Night."
The 10 best restaurants in Garden Oaks/Oak Forest.
It wasn't too long ago that the Houston Chronicle called Oak Forest "the new West University." The neighborhood just north of Loop 610 and east of U.S. 290 has been attracting young families in droves — families who are helping to reinvigorate the subdivisions that make up Garden Oaks and Oak Forest. Along with the influx of residents is a slow influx of new restaurants, which is making the area a hot spot for new and old coexisting side-by-side.
Lance Fegen and Lee Ellis are opening Surfing Cowboys soon in the vacant space that recently housed That Pizza Place on Ella, and there's a full-size restaurant planned for its neighbor across the street: Facundo Cafe, which serves burgers and breakfast tacos inside a car wash. Meanwhile, spots such as Cottonwood Bar and Shepherd Park Draught House are drawing people to north of 610 with craft beer, cocktails and above-average pub grub.
And just a bit farther south — while not technically in the Garden Oaks/Oak Forest confines — restaurants such as El Gran Malo, Pappa Geno's and the Rainbow Lodge give the larger area personality and a wide range of options. But for today, we're just focusing on the spots that make Garden Oaks/Oak Forest great.
Ron Roznovsky has been grilling old-fashioned burgers and making homemade chili for more than 40 years, so he's had plenty of time to perfect his technique. Step back in time; admire the gimme cap collection on the walls; crack open a longneck; and enjoy a hot, juicy burger topped with cheese or bacon. Seasoned fries and onion rings are the only sides, and the Frito pie comes highly recommended.
9. Facundo Cafe
Could food from a car wash be any good? Facundo Cafe and chef Danny Harper prove that it can be with a small but capable kitchen that turns out everything from omelets and sandwiches to gourmet burgers and fish tacos with mango slaw. As a bonus, you can get your car's oil changed, get it detailed or have your inspection sticker updated while you wait. In a hurry? Call ahead and they'll have your food ready and waiting for you to pick up, curbside, although it's far more fun to eat inside at the perpetually busy grill.
8. Cottonwood Bar
A new addition to the Garden Oaks family of bars, Cottonwood is sure to be a hit in coming years. The bar — from the folks who brought you Liberty Station on Washington Avenue — is packed almost nightly. The list of beers is massive, which suits the neighborhood surroundings (the area already includes craft beer mecca Petrol Station as well as equally beer-heavy spots such as Plonk and Shepherd Park Draught House) and makes it a destination spot for beer snobs all over the city. The menu is short and sweet here, but the Jamaican jerk wings are a favorite as are the BBQ oysters and pork-belly corn dogs — fun dishes that perfectly match the quirky icehouse atmosphere.
Opened in 1954, Doyle's is a vintage institution where many Houstonians ate their first spaghetti and pizza. As befits its legacy, spaghetti and meatballs are the house specialty; former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh even called the dish "the kind of spaghetti dinner that once defined Italian food in America." The time capsule atmosphere is great — and so are the lasagna and the oven-baked sausage po-boy with red gravy and mozzarella. And in keeping with the neighborhood, this is a very family-friendly joint, so bring the kids with you.
6. Cafe Red Onion
The last of the Cafe Red Onions that once dotted the city, this U.S. 290 location was always the best spot, anyway. Chef Rafael Galindo's cuisine is still as good as it ever was, with dishes such as his signature Chicken Brazil (marinated in beer, jalapeño and honey before being grilled and served with queso and fried eggplant) drawing rave reviews.
5. Pho Dalat
You don't go to Pho Dalat for the pho. You go for everything else: the head-on shrimp hot pot, the crispy whole fried catfish, the bun with chargrilled pork and the welcoming atmosphere tucked into an unlikely strip center location just off West Tidwell and 290. Pho Dalat is BYOB, and the friendly service encourages you to pack a cooler of beers, unwind and enjoy your Vietnamese feast at a leisurely pace (and a low price).
4. Shepherd Park Draught House
Shepherd Park Draught House specializes in above-average pub grub and local craft beers, which is becoming a welcome trend in the Garden Oaks/Oak Forest area. Happy-hour specials let you enjoy beer and wine on the cheap, while late-night hours ensure that locals don't have to venture inside the Loop to find something good to eat on a weekend evening. Burgers are your best bet here, as is the Sunday-morning brunch that's perfect for fighting rock-star-size hangovers. The walls are covered in rock paraphernalia, including a section plastered in classic punk and hardcore flyers, some from Houston's own sweaty shows.
3. Little Bitty Burger Barn
The name doesn't lie — the place truly is little bitty, but the burgers aren't. Little Bitty Burger Barn is known for big, juicy, two-handed burgers and for its wings. Both the burgers and wings can be made with the scalding hot, housemade Nitro sauce, which will singe the hairs right off your chest (and once left me in tears for 30 minutes after eating only one wing). The wings are truly best here when tossed in the house-made Buffalo sauce and cooled off with a thick chocolate malt. As a bonus, if you're drinking a pint at Crazy J's across the street — also owned by Little Bitty Burger Barn — you can order food from LBBB and have it delivered to you at no extra cost.
2. Petrol Station
One of Houston's first full-scale craft beer bar is still its most respected if a little worn around the edges from years of cask-tappings and vertical tastings. And though it's greatly expanded from its initial days as a beer bar tucked into a converted neighborhood gas station, Petrol is still as friendly and cozy as ever — even though the backyard and the menu have both grown. Under chef and partner Darren Greenwood, that menu is better than ever and includes new favorites such as a grilled Gouda and crab sandwich and beef stew cooked with Left Hand Milk Stout.
1. Plonk Beer & Wine Bistro
Despite the departure of chef Erin Smith a few months ago, Plonk has remained at the top of our list for several reasons: owner Scott Miller's tremendous wine list, its status as the unofficial clubhouse of GO/OF and its continually good food. A patio that beckons in hot or cold weather draws neighborhood residents every night of the week, while the quirky interior boasts two private dining rooms and a wine locker out of every oenophile's dreams. And oh, that food: pizzas straight out of its 3,600-pound stone oven, Cataplana mussels with freshly baked focaccia bread and one of the best burgers in the city.
OPENINGS AND CLOSINGS
The Heights heats up while Le Peep bids adieu.
The eerily silent Shepherd Plaza is now even dimmer this week after longtime tenant Le Peep closed up shop and vacated its space next to Amy's Ice Cream. Branches of the brunch spot are still open in Rice Village and the Galleria, according to a sign out front. Amy's and its other neighbor, Freebirds, are the only remaining big-name tenants in the once-bustling shopping center. A Tuesday Morning (not great for brunch) and the Stag's Head Pub occupy parts of the rear portion, but Shepherd Plaza simply ain't what it used to be.
Meanwhile, another strip of land is quickly being vacated as well: The Dessert Gallery on Post Oak has closed months after the neighboring Maggie Rita's (which took over an old Ninfa's location) shut its doors. The Dessert Gallery on Kirby remains in business.
And in barbecue news, Thelma's appears to have closed its doors for good. In its place is a trailer called Abdel's BBQ, which is self-described on Twitter as "a small black owned bbq bussiness thats hopefully gonna blow up...God willing" [sic]. Yes, but will Abdel's have any of Thelma's's signature attitude?
In more openings news, look for a slate of new restaurants headed to the Heights soon. In addition to his upcoming cantina on White Oak and Studewood, Ken Bridge tells CultureMap that he also plans to expand his Pink's Pizza chain into Bellaire and the University of Houston area. But that's not all.
Eater Houston reports that Bradley Ogden, the James Beard Award-winning "genius" chef with at least 15 other restaurants under his belt, is bringing two more to Houston: Funky Chicken and Bradley's Fine Diner. Both will be located just south of I-10 near the new Walmart. As its name would indicate, Funky Chicken will serve chicken — and a lot of it — while Bradley's Fine Diner aims to offer upscale comfort food.
And in more happy news, look for a new restaurant coming to Montrose from the talented chef Kevin Bryant — formerly of The Capitol at St. Germain — who's busy renovating the old Bibas Diner/Bibas Kit-Bar on West Gray. Eleven Eleven (as it's tentatively spelled) will feature "a seafood-centric menu," according to Greg Morago at the Houston Chronicle, incorporating "an oyster bar, a raw bar program (sourcing East Coast bivalves), sashimi, lobsters and a ceviche of the day."
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