Café Montrose Family-owned and -operated, this little hole-in-the-wall next door to a launderette is one of those strip-center diamonds in the rough. Short on looks but long on authentic Belgian food, Café Montrose prides itself on to-die-for pommes frites, steak au poivre and desserts dripping with Belgian chocolate. But the real reason to hit this hideaway is the mussels entrée. This huge bowl of white wine-steamed mussels goes best with a fruity Belgian beer (Café Montrose has one of the largest selections in Houston) and a thick hunk of steamy bread with butter. Not pretentious, not showy -- just delightful Belgian flavors in a relaxed atmosphere.

Cali Sandwich It's not uncommon to wait for a table at this Midtown eatery. That's because of the sheer variety of Vietnamese food served here, all of it authentic and made with fresh ingredients. Bahn mi (sandwiches), pho (soups) and bun (noodle dishes) are all served here, and nothing costs more than a few bucks. Vegetarians will appreciate the extensive array of meat-free dishes, such as the fragrant, steamy stir-fry or the vegetable fried rice (to which you can add tofu). For carnivores, the chargrilled pork chop ($4.75), served with shredded pork and a fried egg on top of crushed rice, is one hearty meat dish.

Best Neighborhood Spot in Bellaire

Bellaire Coffee Shop The coffee's always hot at the Bellaire Coffee Shop -- God knows how many pots they make each day. The Mayberry-esque '50s atmosphere is authentic here: The waitresses call their customers "hon," and there's a constant hiss from the griddle as the fry cook shoves breakfast and lunch orders along, somehow never mixing them up even during the busiest times. The coffee-shop faithful -- from the morning parade of breakfast customers to the mid-afternoon regulars who gather to chat about the day's events -- have a deep love for this eatery. The buzz of good-natured gossip is as much an ingredient of this experience as the steamy joe and homey recipes.

Best Neighborhood Spot in the Village

El Meson Assuming you can find a parking spot in the Rice Village, you'll find the air-conditioned cave that is El Meson a most relaxing treat. Always start with a tangy margarita (they go like gangbusters at cocktail hour). Then decide what you're in the mood for: Cuban? Spanish? Mexican? Here they have them all. There's always a relaxed vibe from the mostly young, professional patrons, even during the time-crunched lunch hours, and El Meson's funky interior -- along with the cushy booths and a second margarita -- will transport you right out of the Village. For a while, you'll inhabit an oasis steeped in delightfully sweet plantains, homemade salsa and the strong aroma of garlic from the kitchen.

Bank Jean-Georges Hip, Manhattan-based Jean-Georges Vongerichten is to eateries what Carrie Bradshaw is to shoes. Both are on the cutting edge. We had high expectations when he brought his culinary charms to Houston with Bank at the Hotel Icon, and Jean-Georges has delivered with his artful combinations of fine ingredients. With its high, vaulted ceilings, opulent decor and white tablecloths, Bank tailors to an elegant downtown clientele that descends to feast on Jean-Georges's fish dishes, which blend perfectly cooked tuna, salmon and snapper with orange juice, cumin and chiles. Popular appetizers include the Asian pears, chili tapioca pudding and ribbons of tuna sashimi. Not in the mood for fish? The steaks at Bank are big and bold.

Avalon Diner "Justly famous since 1938" isn't just a marketing phrase for this classic River Oaks joint, which has spawned two offspring. The food here is just like Mom's, and it will fill your tummy. Old-style drugstore hot dogs and hamburgers (the drippy kind) crowd the menu, along with thick club sandwiches, salads that are a meal on their own and Texas treats like Frito pies. Avalon also serves farm-fresh breakfasts -- heaping plates of eggs, toast and potatoes, or homemade biscuits smothered in cream gravy made with chunks of sausage. And don't forget the fountain drinks: The limeades and cherry Cokes complete the flashback to another, simpler time.

La Griglia No longer a Vallone enterprise (it's now part of Fertitta Land), La Griglia is still the extended-power-luncheon hot spot. Its funky decor never distracts from the patrons -- this is, after all, Houston's prime see-and-be-seen locale -- but the food ain't half bad, either. The bread basket, with those yummy pizza slices, and a glass of Merlot alone will see you into the first hour of your long lunch. The restaurant has excellent pasta dishes, margarita pizza and veal chops. But a long lunch doesn't have to be a heavy one: La Griglia does a great cobb salad, and the tomato tower, with wedges of fresh, luscious tomatoes layered with cheese and crab, is perfect for that expense-account lunch. On a chilly day, the shrimp bisque with a bit of sherry poured in will keep you from going back to the office at all.

Bombay Sweets & Pure Vegetarian Restaurant The $4.50 all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet here also includes crispy papadum and bubbly hot nan bread. You can use the straight-out-of-the-oven nan to shovel the luxuriously buttery saag paneer straight into your mouth. The lentil stews called dahls on the buffet line are extraordinary; there's one made with green lentils and tomatoes and another with yellow lentils and lots of spices. Try them both over the Punjabi rice, which is spiked with herbs, spices and green peas. And don't miss the velvety miniature stuffed eggplant fried in chick-pea batter and served in a spicy tomato-ginger sauce. Kadhi pakora, crusty graham flour dumplings that look like chunks of meat floating in a yogurt-based yellow curry, is another standout. And the black-eyed pea masala is incredibly spicy. In truth, you can hardly go wrong with any of the featured dishes. Sure, it's a vegetarian restaurant, but the food is so good, you won't even notice there isn't any meat.

Denis' Seafood House There are lots of seafood restaurants in Houston, but most are part of some chain or another. Hence we are served the same salmon, mahimahi and tilapia here on the Gulf Coast that they get in Sheboygan. But Denis' Seafood House is different. Like some of our better fine-dining restaurants, this big New Orleans-style seafood joint gets seasonal varieties of Gulf fish such as ling, amberjack, tilefish and yellowfin tuna. But only Denis' Seafood House serves these fish at very reasonable prices. They also turn out awesome shrimp poor boys, steamed oysters with garlic butter, deep, dark crawfish gumbo and excellent fried platters. And their meaty stuffed crabs are among the best we've ever tasted. Founder Denis Wilson was part of the original Landry's group and is related by marriage to the owners of the Babin's chain of restaurants. But somehow he's managed to stay independent.

Ragin' Cajun It's only right that our best Cajun restaurant has a giant fiberglass crawdad on its roof. The Ragin' Cajun revels in its Southern shtick -- from the newspaper place mats, to the heaping buckets of spicy mudbugs, to the just-crispy hush puppies and corn bread in red plastic baskets, right down to the bibs and cafeteria-style line. And although the line is sometimes pretty darned long, there are always the sprawling walls of kitsch to keep you entertained; they're hung with snapshots of happy folks chowing down, license plates, jokey posters and old beer ads. It's comfy and a little backwoods too, with brisk zydeco in the air and a rickety bar out back. For a real Southern-style experience, chow down on some crawfish pie, barbecued crabs or stick-to-yer-bones red beans and rice, and then wash it all down with a Dixie beer.

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