How do you define a bistro?
If you're going to stick to the traditional Parisian definition, a bistro (or bistrot) is a small, tidy restaurant that serves inexpensive wine and simple dishes in a modest price range. Those dishes are traditionally French "comfort food" recipes like coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon and steak-frites.
In a modern American city, the concept of a bistro goes beyond its Gallic roots but still -- I think -- stays true to form even if it's not serving remotely French food. I consider a bistro in Houston to be a small, unpretentious restaurant -- usually of the neighborhood restaurant variety -- serving hearty, simple food and a selection of alcoholic beverages.
For this reason, I couldn't consider more upscale French restaurants such as L'Olivier, Aura or Philippe -- places which draw audiences from all over the city, as opposed to the restaurant's immediate area. Nor could I consider too-casual spots that don't offer alcohol or a menu beyond a few sandwiches and pastries.
Bistros occupy a necessary middle ground between these two ends of a spectrum as a restaurant that offers a charming atmosphere and a thoughtful food and wine/beer selection with mid-range prices.
10. Zelko Bistro
This cozy converted house on 11th Street couldn't be more at home in the Heights, where most residents walk or bike to this neighborhood favorite. Owners Jamie and Dalia Zelko keep it local -- with both their customers and the food. Produce, meat and fish are sourced locally when possible, while the restaurant even has its own beehives. Yes, the honey is for sale. Zelko also employs a very price-friendly wine list that allows for a bottle to be shared at even the most moderate of dinners.
In a sleepy side street in the Memorial Villages, Arturo Boada Cuisine is alive with the energy of a European bistro. Chef and owner Arturo Boada is a constant presence there, turning out his signature dishes such as a creamy, tangy camarones henesy y hamaca - shrimp over plantains in a sauce - and Italian pizzas with Spanish ingredients on top, like a carnitas pizza topped with asadero cheese and cilantro. The wine list is occasionally pricey but worth it; you'll want to split a bottle just to stay all night in the cozy space.
8. Mockingbird Bistro This Montrose/River Oaks mainstay has the classic bistro menu and look down pat, with a beautiful mahogany bar that nearly spans the length of the restaurant. Mockingbird Bistro is a perfect place to enjoy a big fat steak with french fries and an earthy Rhône red wine or a hamburger and a cold beer, but chef John Sheely has other surprises up his sleeve, like a foie gras "club sandwich" with duck breast.
This pair of cozy spots -- Canopy in Montrose and its older sister, Shade, in the Heights -- is owned by Claire Smith, who's made a solid career out of delivering simple, straightforward yet creative cuisine with a panoply of influences. Try the four-mushroom pot pie or the lamb stew at Canopy, or enjoy a sumptuous breakfast with freshly-baked pastries. At Shade, get the pan-seared duck or steamed littleneck claims -- and don't pass up the clever cocktail list at either place.
Plonk bills itself as a Garden Oaks/Oak Forest wine bar, but it's so much more than that. The impeccably compiled wine list (owner Scott Miller was once the wine director for Pappas Bros. Steakhouse) is complemented by an eccentric beer list that's heavy on local and craft brews. And both lists are bolstered by a full dinner menu that features both modern American cuisine and bistro favorites like an aged hanger steak and wine-steamed mussels.
There is something intensely European about this jewel of a spot, run by ex-pat Frenchwoman Genevieve Guy. Perhaps it's the 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. The all-French wine list doesn't hurt, either.
4. Nosh Bistro
New Upper Kirby restaurant Nosh is a bistro with a modern, South Asian spin -- a place where outstanding burgers mingle with curried fish, where charcuterie and cheese boards keep company with lamb flatbreads, where you can get a roasted Cornish game hen or a tandoori chicken. The wine list is studiously compiled and the upscale atmosphere is tempered with whimsicality, so it never feels stuffy or fancy. The fire pit on the cozy patio is incredibly inviting on cool evenings.
Just as Nosh is the South Asian version of a bistro, if a classic French bistro was born and raised in Italy, the result would be Giacomo's Cibo e Vino. This casual Italian restaurant and wine bar off Lower Shepherd near River Oaks captures the essence of Italian city life and the spirit of the slow food movement. Giacomo's snack-sized plates of rustic Italian food, its cheap, easy-drinking wines, great espresso and top-shelf gelato are the main draws -- and there's also a big, comfortable patio that's beckoning in this spring weather.
Perhaps the most "authentic" bistro in Houston, this Rice Village favorite offers classic bistro fare and charm. Bistro des Amis looks like the sort of small-town cafe where you stop to get a coffee and a pastry or an ice cream while shopping in a French village. And with good reason: The owners, Odile de Maindreville and her brother Bernard Cuillier, are from Biarritz, a town in the Basque region of France. Because of this, you'll find more non-traditional dishes like a slightly spicy "beef paprika," their version of goulash, and slices of moist gâteau Basque. Lunch and dinner specials are very reasonable and the soups, stews and pastries (the latter of which are always well-stocked in the pastry case) are made in-house.
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The epitome of a cozy, welcoming neighborhood bistro, Roost hosts local residents -- many of whom walk or ride their bikes -- in its comfortable, low-slung dining room while they nosh on whatever weekly specials chef Kevin Naderi has whipped up. Whether it's whole roasted Cornish game hen with grilled lemon and duck confit Lady Creamer peas one night or crispy Galveston by-catch shrimp with masago mayonnaise the next, Naderi's multiethnic food shows off Houston's melting pot of cuisines with a subtle Southern touch, and the selection of intelligently chosen wines and local beers is terrific for washing it all down.