Until recently, one of Houston's secret dining bargains was largely reserved for tourists: the monthly "Dine Around Houston" program sponsored by the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. For a reasonable $35, visitors from Newark or Natchez are loaded onto two merry Metro trolleys that normally serve The Park's downtown shopping center and are trawled through our city's restaurant districts. It's an evening of prime urban safari, ranging from the banks of the Ship Channel to the watering holes of the Richmond Strip, combining food, drink and the chance to observe local wildlife.
But why should those dang out-of-towners have all the fun? Chairperson Terry DiRaddo of Uptown Houston admits the Dine Around program wasn't originally designed for us locals. "The GHCVB started the program as a way to promote Houston to visitors, and so far we haven't promoted it much within Houston; this is our first local coverage, really. We were holding off while we got the program solid. But since we had a little feature in Southern Living magazine, we've had hundreds of calls from out of state. That's been so encouraging that I think we're ready to open this up."
So grab your pith helmet and pack a Key Map. The April 14 mission will go where few Houston natives have gone before: to discover the wonders of the Greater Greenspoint District. In an area not necessarily known for its restaurants, Dining Arounders will eat at high-end hotels, with proceeds appropriately benefiting the Conrad Hilton School of Hospitality at the University of Houston. Trippers meet in the Greenspoint Mall parking lot then trolley to five participating inns, each featuring a different cuisine. The Hotel Sofitel will field French, of course; the Hyatt Regency Intercontinental Airport, Polynesian; the Marriott North at Greenspoint, Tex-Mex; the Sheraton North Houston, American; and the Wyndham Greenspoint, Italian.
Another plus of this particular expedition: Though previous tour packages have featured a cash bar, this jaunt includes free cocktails, which will probably jump-start the chumminess. "The camaraderie on these trips is phenomenal," says DiRaddo. "People network, exchange business cards and meet fun new people."
"Oh, we had a great time with those trolley people," says Malcolm Stocker of the Downing Street Cigar Bar, where March's Upper Kirby junket originated. "We started them out with a nice glass of champagne, then when they came back at the end we laid on all sorts of desserts, fresh raspberry tarts and such. They all seemed quite jolly."
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On May 4 the trolleys will rumble into Houston's East End, to Brady's Landing and Shanghai Red's, with stops to explore neighborhood Mexican restaurants in honor of Cinco de Mayo. "It's not only a great way to experience Houston's restaurants," DiRaddo points out, "it's also a way to sightsee in parts of town where you might not ordinarily go."
Upcoming venues also include Chinatown in June and Bayou Place in August, with more downtown oases set for September. In October the program celebrates its first anniversary with a triumphant return to Uptown Houston, where it all began. (Last year's Uptown participants included Americas, Arcodoro Ristorante Italiano, Berryhill's and the Capital Grille.)
The Dine Around Houston program handles reservations through the individual districts, which means that prospective diners should contact the Greater Greenspoint District directly at (281)874-2135 for seats on the April tour. "Eventually we want to consolidate that to one phone number for the whole program," says DiRaddo. "Until then, if you have questions or don't know who to call, you should talk to the GHCVB, (713)437-5207."
-- Margaret L. Briggs