The difficult truth is this: Most native Japanese never, ever have a chance to dine in a truly great Japanese restaurant, of the sort one finds in Kyoto and a few other locations in Japan. The classic kai-seki-ryori dinner is an aesthetic experience that even the most decorated of Michelin three-star restaurants cannot equal. A proper tea ceremony dinner cannot be reproduced in the United States because the fresh local ingredients are not available, the setting is not available, and the chefs are not available. That said, this is where the local community of Japanese expatriates goes for some down-home chow. For most barbarians, this is as close to Japan as you're going to get without buying a JAL ticket.

This redoubt of vintage Britannia is dead-on in every sense but two: The pub grub is not the slightest bit grubby, and the pints are cold. Shepherd's pie, beef Wellington, fish and chips, and West Highland cheese soup are but a few of the outstanding victuals. The steamed mussels would draw an appreciative "tallyho" from even the most discriminating Buckingham palate. On tap at the sprawling bar: Bass, Newcastle, Harp, Boddington's and Guinness, to name a few. Aged-wood beams run the length of the low ceiling. Old-time maps, whiskey signs and prints of beefeaters and Scottish clansmen gussy up the oatmeal-colored walls. Outside, the red phone booth and painted pub sign are giveaways that a fetching slice of the Mother Country lies within the ivy-covered facade. The servers certainly are fetching, but alas, their English tends to be of the Bayou City variety rather than the Queen's.
Houston has the best Vietnamese restaurants in the country -- the problem is picking one. We like Nga's, a little unassuming joint with a friendly atmosphere and a hip clientele. There are all kinds of discoveries on this menu, but the waiter tells us the most popular thing to order is No. 123, do-it-yourself spring rolls. He brings you a mixed grill of skewers and meats on a bed of vermicelli. On another plate are lettuce and basil leaves and a pile of round rice papers. Don't worry if you can't figure out how to roll them up; the waiter will come over and give you a demonstration. The food here ranges from pretty good to spectacular. While the lunch special is always tempting because it's such a bargain, try the hacked duck with mint and dipping sauce sometime. Looking for a real change of pace? Try the parfait of shaved ice and sweet beans in syrup with grass jelly for dessert.

A weekend breakfast at Goode Co. is a manly meal, but the women like it, too. After all, some mornings call for some serious sustenance, and this place answers with its own call of the wild. Thrillseekers rustle up the Buck Fever, which is venison sausage and eggs. Also paired with the breakfast staple are catfish, quail, fajitas and pork chops. The Hunter's Delight drowns scrambled eggs in chili, while the migas and huevos con nopalitos (that's cactus, to you and me) offer a south-of-the-border wake-up call. For a real eye-opener, supplement these with fresh-squeezed orange juice or, better yet, a Bloody Mary. And rather than squeezing yourself into the tiny counter cafe, take this most important meal of the day on the patio, a tile terrace surrounded by wrought-iron fencing and adorned with a Mexican fountain. And for goodness' sake, don't worry about a bad hair day; just throw on a ball cap. This is a muy comfortable spot to gather with friends and family to enjoy goode food and goode company.
Sinatra's music bellows through this quaint corner cafe featuring floor-to-ceiling windows and Chianti in diner juice glasses. Such a place easily could be found in the Little Italy section of New York, but this bistro overlooks Bellaire's Paseo Park and its newly reconstructed Trolley Pavilion. Locals love the friendly atmosphere of checkered tablecloths and tiny white Christmas lights. It's comfortable enough to accommodate the whole family, yet the menu is trendy enough to attract serious foodies. Southwestern specialties, left over from Ruggles's Bruce Molzan's stint as a co-owner, include the hit cilantro fettuccine with jalapeños and crawfish. It keeps company with such Italian favorites as chicken Minelli, tossed with a creamy garlic sauce, and clams Tuscano, spiced up with red pepper and toned down with a tomato-cream sauce. The chicken Gorgonzola is sautéed with fresh vegetables and tossed with blue cheese and polenta. And don't pass on the To Die For, a heavenly stack of ladyfingers, creamy mascarpone cheese, almond torte and seasonal berries.

Best Neighborhood Spot Outside the Loop

Barcelona

Yes, Virginia, there is a great restaurant outside the Loop (way, way outside the loop, to be precise). It's in Katy, its name is Barcelona, and it is a truly excellent Spanish restaurant. Gracious service, charming atmosphere and the best Spanish food this side of -- well, maybe not the Atlantic, but definitely the Mississippi, combine to make this a definite destination restaurant, worthy of any road trip. Our ideal meal? Start with the roasted peppers stuffed with crabmeat and garnished with piquillo pepper sauce and caviar, have one of the most intensely lobstery (and garlicky) bisques in the area, share an aromatic seafood paella for two with someone special, and finish up with roasted pears and kiwis with red wine and honey. It's a very special dining experience, and with airfares being what they are, a helluva lot cheaper than a weekend in Spain.
Atmosphere is a deeply subjective thing. What may delight Zippy the Pinhead could depress Bug-Eyed Earl. Or vice versa on a different day. Additionally, Houston tends to celebrate the shiny and new and to destroy the mellow and old, where atmosphere has had time to develop. Thus, the recent opening of The Mercantile, a downtown brewpub and light menu restaurant, represents a near miracle of sorts. The building that houses it was built in 1912 as a silent-picture palace. The theater opened for business four days after the sinking of the Titanic. (Coincidence? We think so. But atmosphere is composed of such moody trifles.) It lasted as the Isis Theater until 1925, when half of the elaborate plasterwork was torn off the walls, a false ceiling put in and a clothing store installed. The retail operation foundered just before World War II, and the building remained untenanted and closed up for half a century. Scott and Lori Littlewood, owners of the recently shuttered Bank Draft brewpub in the Rice Village area, discovered the building and went about removing the false ceiling and restoring the remains of the plasterwork decorations from 1912. The result? Well, terrifically atmospheric.

Cahill's owner Martin "Cahill" Hammer honed his chops down the road at Kenneally's Irish Pub, where he was a bartender and chef. Now that he has had his own place for a few years, Hammer has taken a page out of Kenneally's steak night by having a Wednesday steak lunch: a ten-ounce New York strip cooked to order with mashed potatoes and a salad for $7.95. Beat that, if you can.

Best Place to Eat When You Can't Decide What You Want

Super Steak & More

When you're with a large number of people, or have the kids in tow, and nobody can decide exactly what they feel like eating, our suggestion is Super Steak & More. Sure, there are steaks on the menu, but where else in Houston can you get (all at the same place) chili dogs, cheese steaks and burgers, summer rolls that rival those of the best Vietnamese restaurants in town, crawfish étouffée and dirty rice that taste like they just arrived from Louisiana, duck à l'orange (with 24 hours' notice) and a fried Cornish game hen that's like fried chicken with a Ph.D. Melting-pot cuisine at its best -- American to be sure -- a heady mixture of Cajun and Vietnamese. "Cajunese," perhaps. Whatever you call it, though, it's sure to satisfy everyone.
Yes, your kids like those giant plastic Habitrails that loom over every fast-food burger joint. But wouldn't the little rowdies like a real playground even better? One that's outdoors? One with sand, shovels and buckets? One where they can keep their shoes on? Joe's Crab Shack has thought of all that. And it serves food on the patio next to the playground, so while you eat, you can watch your kids zoom down the slide and wobble across the little swinging bridge. They're reasonably happy; you're reasonably happy. And these days, when public spaces are designed either for kids or grown-ups but rarely for both, that mutual happiness seems an accomplishment.

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