Ten years ago, Houston was a different city. Enron hadn't yet experienced its downfall. Downtown was just beginning its slow renaissance. There were no silly "town square" concepts littered around town. People were just learning the word "McMansion." Montrose wasn't gentrified. Neither were any of the Wards. The Astros had just started playing at Enron Field, and we were still without a football team. Eating Our Words didn't have a cell phone or even a computer; we used the computers in our university's ancient computer lab. Times were simpler then (yes, we're actually waxing nostalgic about 1999; deal with it).
Those simple times extended to peoples' taste in cuisine. The five most popular restaurants in 1999 -- according to Zagat -- were bastions of old-school, back-slappy, good times with good old boys. Only one of them even verged on "ethnic" cuisine. These were wood-paneled war rooms with silverware and tablecloths. Oh, how times have changed.
Although we had trouble locating a 1999 guide initially, our friends over at My Table magazine were happy to send over the five most popular Houston restaurants from their copy of the old, red guide.
Houston's Top 5 Most Popular Restaurants in 1999:
- Cafe Annie
- Rotisserie for Beef & Bird
- Ruggles Grill
The five restaurants on the list have suffered various fates over the years, with none of them currently operational. Cafe Annie closed this year to make room for Robert Del Grande's newest restaurant, RDG + Bar Annie. Brennan's perished in a fire during Hurricane Ike but is close to being rebuilt (although the employees who were severely injured during the fire still need our help). Anthony's (not to be confused with Tony's) is also long-closed, as is the Rotisserie for Beef & Bird, which is now the site of a funeral home -- the ultimate death of a restaurant. And Ruggles Grill on Westheimer has struggled mightily but still can't seem to reopen after water damage and a fire.
More surprising than the fact that none of the most popular restaurants from ten years ago are still around is the list of top five restaurants from 2009. Although Houston has evolved into a more diverse and ethnic city, one that champions local and organic food, one that appreciates authenticity and low cost more than pomp and padded bills, one that eats out almost as often as New York City, we still have a long way to go according to the list below.
Houston's Top 5 Most Popular Restaurants in 2009:
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- Mark's American Cuisine
- Carrabba's Italian Grill
- Perry's Steakhouse & Grille
- Da Marco
- Pappasito's Cantina
Just about the only solace we can take from this horrifying list comes from two things: At least the chain restaurants listed are local chains, and at least Mark's and Da Marco -- two establishments that are more than worthy of their spots -- made the list. Otherwise, we're shocked at the continuing popularity of marked-up, mediocre Italian and Mexican food. Even more flabbergasting is the fact that if you look at the list yourself, you'll see that we had to remove 16 other Carrabba's from the running before making it down to Perry's at the number three spot. (We're seriously hoping that's just a technical glitch in Zagat's rankings system.)
It would be preaching to the converted to stand on our soapbox and proclaim to the masses there is far better food in Houston than exists at places like Carrabba's and Pappasito's. Instead, let's take a moment to reflect on the fact that the most popular places in town are no longer the domains of the power diners and the society rag fodder; they now seem to be almost exclusively dictated by the most milquetoast members of our metropolis -- apart from Da Marco and Mark's, these restaurants serve some of the most despicably boring and pedestrian food around.
Despite the incredible growth of a vibrant culinary scene in Houston, have our tastes been dumbed down this much? Are we doomed to become another slave to the chains like our big-haired sister to the north? Or is there hope for us yet?