The Cheesecake Factory
Photo by Houston Press Staff
With close to 200 items on the menu, if you can't find something to eat here, there's something seriously wrong with you. It's the largest menu in town. Fortunately, they've organized the menu into logical sections; nevertheless, it will probably take you longer to decide what to eat than to eat it. There is so much to choose from that picking just a few items to highlight is almost a futile task. Favorite appetizers include the avocado egg rolls, Thai lettuce wraps and California guacamole and Brie melt. There are 11 different pizzas and 13 different pastas, the standouts being barbecue chicken pizza and Louisiana chicken pasta. The house specialities include a grilled tuna burger, orange chicken and chicken marsala, and the entrées range from seafood to steak to pork, in varieties too numerous to mention. With 34 different cheesecakes, it might take some parties a long time just to do dessert. The portions are big as well.

Best Diner with Waitresses to Give You Wholesome Dreams

59 Diner

59 Diner - CLOSED
Dave Rosales
People put a lot of faith in the cooks, servers and busboys who work at their favorite diner. Patrons want to know that when they place their order and get their meal, they're in good hands. They wanna look in that waitress's eyes and know they have nothing to worry about -- not just with their dining experience, but with everything in general: the state of the world, the weather, their financial woes…And the decent, all-American waitresses at the 59 Diner are in your corner. They make you feel like life is worth living, dammit! "Everything's gonna be all right, honey," they seem to be saying through each smile and Coke refill. These are the gals who men were fighting for back in WWII ("Johnny, please come home safely!"). These are the gals your mother constantly pressures you to hook up with so she can have the grandkids she needs. These are the gals who can complete you. To paraphrase Prince, "complete me, baby, 'cause I just can't take no more!"

Best Diner with Waitresses to Give You Perverted Dreams

House of Pies

House of Pies
Jeff Balke
This may sound like we're bad-mouthing the fine, upstanding ladies who work their butts off at the House of Pies, but trust us, we're just giving 'em their props. Because, fellas, the 59 Diner may have waitresses you could take home to your parents, but the gals over at the House of Pies are the bad girls your parents told you to steer away from. But you can't, can you? You're drawn to their enigmatic bad-assedness. The tattoos. The dyed hair. The occasional sneer that makes you wonder if they've ever done time. They are your biker-mama Hustler-honey wet dream. These are the kind of girls you can easily picture riding into town on a Hog covered in leather; the kind who whisks you away from your jail cell of an office cubicle and pays some sweaty, fat dude to give you a fresh tattoo while she gets a new piercing somewhere, um, unmentionable; the kind who wahoos an economy-sized bottle of vodka from a liquor store and takes you to a motel room in the middle of nowhere; the kind who turns your ass out and makes you say thank you. Oh, take us away from this bland hell, House of Pies waitresses. Please take us away! Oh, yeah, could we have another slice of strawberry-rhubarb?
Darband Shish Kabob
Photo by J.C. Reid
"Under $25" is the title of a column Eric Asimov writes about inexpensive restaurants for The New York Times. They think that's cheap? At Darband Shish Kabob on Hillcroft, you can feed your whole family for $25 and have enough change left over to take them to Dairy Queen for dessert. Darband's chengeh kabob, which includes two skewers of grilled lamb chunks with onion, charbroiled tomato, fresh basil and parsley, scallions, radishes and hot-out-of-the-oven Iranian flatbread, sells for $4.95. The Darband Special, which includes one skewer of the lamb chunks and another of tender shish kebab (beef cubes), with the same vegetables, herbs and flatbread, is priced ten cents cheaper at $4.85. Cornish game hen kabob, seasoned with lemon and saffron then nicely charred and served with lime wedges, is $5.45. Yogurt and cucumber dip or hummus is 95 cents extra, and a pot of tea is $1.25. Eat your heart out, New York.
James Coney Island
People say we're elitist. Oh, sure, we only eat our steaks Pittsburgh-style and drink our Russian vodka chilled. But dammit, we also go to James Coney Island, just like everyone else in Houston. Why? Because it's a slice of Americana. It's a captured childhood moment. Remember those summer days of grilling hot dogs in the backyard? Remember eating Frito pies right out of the bag at Friday-night high school football games? Since 1923, James Coney Island has been serving up smilin' wienies and sides. Now that JCI has 24 locations all over town, you're only a hop, skip and a jump from feeling like a kid again. Go ahead. Get the chili dog smothered in onions (still just $1.29). Those cheese fries 'n' tater tots taste just like the ones Mom used to buy. Oh, memories…Sigh.
J&J Seafood Market
Jeff Balke
Heading west on 610 from Reliant Stadium, you'll see J&J's "fresh seafood" sign poking up over the elevated section of the highway. Unfortunately, by the time you see the sign, it's too late to get off at the Stella Link exit, where this classic "you buy it, we fry it" fish market is located. But the Gulf Coast-style fish and chips are certainly worth a U-turn. No frozen fillets here. Order a fried fish dinner and not only will you get your choice of redfish, trout or drum, but you'll also be able to help them pick out the fresh fish from the seafood case and watch them clean it. And along with your fish and chips, you can choose from a wide selection of extras, including perfect fried oysters, huge fried shrimp, hush puppies, fried okra, onion rings, egg rolls, clam strips and fried mushrooms. One big piece of fried fish with french fries and three shrimp will cost you a whopping $4.29. Bet you're glad you made that U-turn now.
Legend has it that the word bistro comes from a Russian word for "quick," or "hurry up!" How fitting that one of the best restaurants in the Theater District should be a bistro, since speedy service is exactly what theatergoers are looking for. The menu at Papillon features lots of dishes that French bistros have made famous (steak frites, roasted chicken and mussels in broth). But few restaurants that call themselves bistros reach for the stars with ambitious dishes like Papillon's duck breast with foie gras. The decor is dramatic, too. Located in the Hogg Building, around the corner from the Alley Theatre, the restaurant gains instant character from the space. Exposed ductwork and raw brick walls are softened by refinished wood floors and green and purple chiffon drapes -- it feels like a dressy dinner party held in a warehouse.
This Brazilian meat eater's paradise includes a 40-foot all-you-can-eat salad buffet with such exotic fare as quail eggs, crab salad and feijoada, a mixture of black beans and rice along with thinly sliced meats and collard greens. Choose only the salad bar for $17.99 or go for the complete buffet for $24.95, which also includes 17 kinds of meat and seafood, from bacon-wrapped chicken to beef tenderloin, ham, chicken hearts and linguiça, a Portuguese sausage, all served by gauchos wielding three-foot skewers of the meats prepared in the churrasco fashion. These beloved carriers of carne continuously bring on the meat until you can take no more. Wash it all down with a caipirinha, the national drink of Brazil, made with fresh-squeezed lime juice and rum.
With its rattan furniture and mounted trophy fish, the bar at this "Floribbean" restaurant is one of the most colorful in the city. In fact, the Floridita restaurant on Kirby takes its name from the El Floridita bar in Havana, Cuba, where Ernest "Papa" Hemingway drank. Try a Papa Doble, a double daiquiri made to Hemingway's specs, or a premium rum drink. If you hate theme restaurants, you may see this place as little more than a Bennigan's with a thin veneer of Key West pasted on. But if you can get over that, you'll find some standouts, like Gulf red snapper and mussels in Thai broth.
Mark's American Cuisine - CLOSED
There's something magically peculiar about this space. It began as a church, then became the Dream Merchant, a freaky little clothing store. Now completely transformed into a restaurant, the former vestibule houses a dramatic, attractive wine cellar. The comfortably sedate furnishings flank a small glowing bar. But chef Mark Cox's cuisine outshines even these beautiful surroundings. He is an expert at balancing Houston's taste for comfort food (Mississippi-style grits served with chicken breasts) with a flair for the dramatic (black pearl risotto). But be sure to bring the corporate card, so you won't blanch when you learn that dessert costs a cool nine bucks.

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