When the weather is blessedly mild, Houstonians go running, not for the hills but for the best restaurant patios in the city. We've gathered 20 of Houston's best and ranked them not just for their good looks but for the food and service as well. Take a look, and be sure to make reservations for the ones that are fine-dining establishments. You won't be the only one wanting to secure a place in the sun.
20. Sparrow Bar + Cookshop, 3701 Travis
Chef Monica Pope's restaurant has been a haven within Midtown for years, even when it was previously T'afia. Choose sun or shade on the partially covered patio adorned in lush greenery. Some of that greenery is functional, as the restaurant grows its own small selection of fresh herbs. The Garden Gin & Tonic, with dill, bay, lemon rosemary cubes and cucumber-infused Texas gin, seems like the perfect drink to match the outdoor setting. There's a vegan- and vegetarian-friendly menu that doesn't forget about meat lovers, either.
While you can't exactly dine in the garden, you can certainly dine next to it and still enjoy its utilitarian beauty. Get there early or expect to wait. True story: We waited for an hour on a cold Saturday night in January and still thought the food made it totally worthwhile. Chef Ryan Pera recently won Food & Wine magazine's The People's Best New Chef honor for the Southwest region.
18. Hubcap Grill, 1133 West 19th
When the weather is nice, Houstonians flock to Hubcap Grill's Heights location by the dozens. The place is more patio and backyard than building anyway. Although wait times for the nationally acclaimed burgers grow as more people show up, it's just not a problem to hang out on the picnic benches and enjoy a cold brew in the interim. Good things are worth waiting for. Check the Hubcap Grill Twitter feed before you go. Owner Ricky Craig is good about posting if there's a long wait.
17. El Real Tex-Mex, 1201 Westheimer
It's not that it's fancy — quite the opposite — but whenever there's a festival or parade on Westheimer, this is the coveted spot from which to watch the world go by — or the parade, as the case may be. Besides, crunchy, layered enchiladas and margaritas are best consumed in the open air anyway. If it starts getting too warm, cool off by meandering upstairs to take a look at the museum of Tex-Mex restaurant history curated by co-owner, cookbook author and former Houston Press restaurant critic Robb Walsh.
16. Pax Americana, 4319 Montrose
By now, most people know that chef Adam Dorris's food at Pax Americana has earned a great deal of acclaim. Almost hand-in-hand with the praise have been comments that it can get pretty loud inside when the place is packed — and the popular restaurant is packed almost every night. However, there are not one but two different peaceful seating areas outside. Choose between sidewalk dining along Montrose or the covered patio, where there are also sofas for lounging around with cocktails in hand.
15. El Big Bad, 419 Travis
Get a bird's-eye view of downtown from the third story balcony. One side overlooks Prairie; the other Travis. This is a fine place to enjoy one of the cocktails featuring the infused tequilas El Big Bad is known for, featuring fruit, spice, peppers or even vegetables. Nosh on tortilla chips dipped in one of the many inventive salsas, or get down on the Mexican Roadside Chicken — a half-chicken marinated with ancho chile, baking spice, citrus and garlic.
14. The Shack, 16602 Cypress-Rosehill, Cypress
Not every cool patio is inside the Loop. The Shack in Cypress is almost 100 percent patio and yard. Who stays inside to eat? The big, brick-paved covered patio provides a congenial, funky space for dining on outrageous burgers. There's a play area for kids, and in the evenings during good weather, there are live musicians on the backyard stage.
13. Tony Mandola's Gulf Coast Kitchen, 1212 Waugh
Tony Mandola's has made some strides toward modernizing its fare a bit while not messing too much with the standards that have brought regulars in for decades. The restaurant also has a lovely patio to enjoy them on. Enjoy hearty gumbo, fried oysters and fresh Gulf fish in the serene setting, replete with a big stone fountain right in the center.
12. Ibiza, 2450 Louisiana
Ibiza is one of the most underrated, overlooked and consistent dining establishments in Houston. The sunny patio is a very quick jaunt for downtown workers and a good excuse not to seek lunch in the tunnels. The lot isn't huge, but bring a little cash for the valet to make parking a breeze — a rarity in Midtown. Once you're seated, enjoy traditional favorites like the simply prepared fresh fish of the day (salt, pepper, lemon and olive oil is all that's needed) and the funny-sounding (but seriously tasty) Trailer Park Gumbo, which includes a scoop of tangy potato salad right there in the roux.
11. Galveston Restaurants
Think of it this way: Galveston is Houston's beachfront patio. Why not take a little drive and dine somewhere that overlooks the Gulf? Here are just a few ideas: Enjoy a view of the boats swaying in the harbor at Number 13, visit the newly opened Ocean Grille at 1228 Seawall to enjoy a meal by the shore or indulge in Cajun seafood at Benno's down the street at 1200 Seawall. Check out this helpful list of other places for waterview dining.
10. Urban Eats, 3414 Washington
Perch on the second-floor balcony of this new Washington Avenue dining spot and enjoy sliders, salads and frieds topped with a variety of ingredients. There's also a full bar menu of beer, cocktails and wine to keep you refreshed as you pity the commuters driving past.
9. Giacomo's Cibo e Vino, 3215 Westheimer
Chef Lynette Hawkins's casual but authentic Italian eatery has a greenery-adorned patio that's a respite from the maddening traffic in Upper Kirby. Sit down and order some cicchetti ("small plates" in Italian) and one of the many reasonably priced bottles of wine. As you enjoy the scene, you can practically feel your sanity being restored.
8. Batanga, 908 Congress
When Batanga opened, it brought a much-needed boon to the heart of Houston: an expansive brick patio. On Friday and Saturday nights, Houstonians flock to it to enjoy flavorful takes on Latin American fare. The food and cocktail menus have undergone an advantageous retooling by chef Rishi Singh and bartender Jojo Martinez. There are often live musicians on hand to entertain the crowds outside, too.
7. KUU, 947 Gessner
KUU has received some recognition for bringing sophisticated, modern Japanese fare to Gateway Memorial City, but a lesser-known fact is it also has a patio to match the graceful fare. As if that's not enough, all the restaurant residents — KUU, Vallone's, Churrascos and forthcoming Ogden's Pour Society — are participating in "Live at the Gateway," an open event held monthly in the center with happy hour specials and live music. Check Gateway Memorial City's web page for upcoming dates.
6. Brooklyn Athletic Club, 601 Richmond
What's better than a patio? An entire yard for playing games in as well as drinking and dining. Guests can indulge in bocce ball, croquet, and shuffleboard while they're dining on the decadent BAC Baked Mac 'N' Cheese chock-full of chunks of braised short rib, roasted mushrooms and mild peppers. There's nothing better alongside than a cold craft beer. Alternately, go for the pappardelle and meatballs with all-day sauce paired with a glass of red wine.
5. Becks Prime, 2615 Augusta
Who says fast food has to be dull? Diners have enjoyed the wooden deck behind this Becks Prime location for more than three decades. Besides the high-quality, consistent burgers, the big draws are two of the biggest live oak trees in Harris County, estimated to be more than 400 years old. Their sprawling branches are so large that the ones closer to the ground require external support — a giant wooden framework reminiscent of Stonehenge that runs the circumference of the backyard. The trees are home to many playful squirrels and strutting birds. Most Becks Prime locations have patios, but this one is the most spectacular.
4. Backstreet Cafe, 1103 South Shepherd
On the large patio at Backstreet Cafe, you can watch birds swoop down and splash in the fountains and enjoy the shade of trees that are older than you are. The vegetarian-friendly menu and list full of refreshing white wines with stone fruit notes and crisp minerality are perfect companions on a serene sunny day.
3. Brennan's Of Houston, 3300 Smith
Brennan's Of Houston is known as a home of Creole elegance just outside of downtown, and the patio is no exception. It's a welcome respite to spend a sunny afternoon within the greenery-covered brick walls of the genteel courtyard. Pretend you fled the workaday life for a New Orleans escapade while enjoying the "7-7-7" happy hour specials from 2 to 7 p.m. It's seven cocktails, seven glasses of wine and seven small plates for $7 each.
2. Brenner's On The Bayou, 1 Birdsall
Years ago, Brenner's took over the original Rainbow Lodge spot and inherited the tranquil view of Buffalo Bayou. Fortunately, tthe restaurant did realize what it had and has preserved and built upon it. Stairs lead down to impeccable flower gardens, greenery and a gazebo. A big, cabana-like lounge area on a deck overlooks it all. It's a little piece of heaven in the heart of Houston.
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1. Rainbow Lodge, 2011 Ella
After moving from the old location, Rainbow Lodge took over the over 100-year-old log cabin that was the former home of French restaurant Le Tour de Argent. It was with this that Rainbow Lodge retained its status of having one of Houston's best outdoor dining scenes. It's a common site for weddings and receptions, with good reason. There are multilevel patios and bridges that make the most of the abundant natural beauty, including a citrus grove and creekbed. The sophisticated wild game and Gulf Coast fare match the earthy yet elegant setting. When the weather is nice, it's the perfect site for lunch, brunch or dinner.