Backstreet Cafe The recipe for a successful brunch should include the following: excellent food (particularly egg dishes), great drinks, great atmosphere, live jazz and stellar service. Backstreet Cafe delivers on all of these. Plus, you have a choice of where you'd like to enjoy the best meal of the week: indoors in a transitional covered patio area, or outdoors on a gorgeous patio shaded by lots of old trees. Wherever you sit, the cares and pressures of the last few days will disappear as quickly as the mimosas. Freshly baked scones and muffins arrive the minute you're seated. Specialty brunch cocktails like apple-rum tea and smooth brandy-milk punch help to set the mood for the food, which includes such spectacular dishes as lump crab cakes with eggs, brioche French toast, gingerbread waffles and red pepper polenta with andouille sausage, spinach and poached eggs. Pity Sunday comes but once a week.

Star Pizza Star Pizza has been turning out perfect pies since 1976, and they do it every way possible: Chicago-style thick crust or New York-style thin crust; whole wheat or regular; vegetarian or meat lover's; single topping or the kitchen sink. Because they sell so much of the stuff, the ingredients never have time to sit, and the pizza always comes to the table piping-hot and fresh. Among the most famous pies are Joe's -- a mixture of sautéed spinach and enough garlic to scare off a gang of vampires -- and the rosemary-and-garlic grilled chicken pizza, slathered with a creamy white sauce made from hunks of molten Gorgonzola. Star is a Houston original with a gourmet kick.

Shiva Indian Restaurant From the saag paneer to the rice pudding, this Rice Village spot and its Sugar Land cousin serve up some of the best vegetarian Indian food around. Fun Indian decor and soothing music, along with good spinach pakora, creamy curry with rice and fresh-baked nan add to the busy buffet at noontime. And candlelight and friendly service make nighttime dining a romantic experience. Shiva offers some of the best Indian food around, with an emphasis on vegetarian dishes (including the mango ice cream). But entrées like the moist and tender tandoori chicken make this a place all your friends (veggie or not) can enjoy.

T'afia T'afia, the starkly minimalist Midtown restaurant run by star chef Monica Pope, is named after a Mediterranean beverage that's made by marinating fruit in a mixture of wine and spirits. The bar offers several varieties of these innovative cocktails, and they're incredibly refreshing. So are Pope's high ideals. Her allegiance to local organic farmers is legendary, and now she's working to improve the Houston food scene in other ways. Her "local market tasting menu" features five courses of Texas artisanal food products. You might get local duck prosciutto with Texas oranges, or Pure Luck Farm goat cheese with toasted pecans. T'afia also hosts a weekend farmers' market in the parking lot where Houstonians can buy some of the same high-quality ingredients that are served at the restaurant. Not only is Pope turning out some of the most innovative, cutting-edge cuisine in Houston, she's also single-handedly creating a market for Texas-produced specialty foods.

Blue Nile Ethiopian Restaurant Once the only Ethiopian eatery in town, Blue Nile now has some stiff competition. The new guys in town, Addisaba on De Moss Drive, are serving up some awesome yedoro wot. They also have a bar and a big-screen television set. But Blue Nile holds on to the title, thanks to superior vegetables and a more relaxing atmosphere. Blue Nile has some great meat dishes, but their seven vegetable selections are all knock-outs. The yemisser wot -- a red lentil stew seasoned with ginger, garlic and berbere sauce -- is often described as the African version of vegetarian chili. The shirro wot, a bright yellow pureed pea stew, is sensational here as well. But the best thing about Blue Nile is their traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, in which coffee is offered with frankincense, a basket of popcorn and a spirit of quiet meditation. Try that while you're sitting in front of a big-screen TV.

Kanomwan It's like stumbling across a great noodle shop in the middle of Mexico. This East End legend offers no finery (plastic tablecloths, bare-bones walls) and barely there service, but the gai pad prig phao is some of the spiciest chicken and rice you'll find anywhere. Stir-fried chicken breast slices in chile paste and hot cashew nuts will light a fire in your belly, even if you eat it with the mounds of sticky rice. And the gang ped (choice of chicken or beef) swims in a sauce of Thai red curry, coconut milk and bamboo shoots. And Kanomwan's delicious cha yen (Thai tea with milk over ice) washes down the heat and keeps folks all over the city coming back for more.

Caribbean Cuisine When the kitchen door swings open and a cook carts out another tray of patties, all eyes are on the pies. The golden-brown pastries with pungent meat-and-vegetable fillings are as much a staple of the island nation as is reggae music. Patties come with every dish at Caribbean Cuisine, a casual spot in an unassuming strip center where the food is authentically Jamaican and so are the accents. The cook makes a searing jerk sauce that's served with chicken, goat and pork dishes. Grab a Red Stripe from a cooler along the wall and tap your foot to the Rasta beat. Or peruse the mini-Jamaican grocery store in the corner -- anything to pass the time until the kitchen door swings open again.

Best Middle Eastern Restaurant

Cafe Lili Lebanese Grill One reason we like Cafe Lili better than the strictly halal Middle Eastern restaurants over on Hillcroft is that you can get a Heineken or a glass of wine with dinner. But that doesn't mean that the food is any less delicious. In fact, there is a homemade quality about the cooking here that puts it a step above most others. And the place is run under family ownership, not by a bunch of hired hands. Lili and her husband, Elie Sr., are usually on the premises. You might see Elie out front in the parking lot kissing babies, or you might meet him when he brings a free shot of thick cardamom-scented coffee over to your table. You can't help but be charmed by the genuine interest these folks take in their customers.

Mockingbird Bistro and Wine Bar Fresh Texas ingredients meet French Provence recipes at John Sheely's neighborhood eatery. Inside the eclectic yet comfy confines of this restaurant, you'll find some of the heartiest and tastiest choices around. "Bistro" generally implies a small cafe serving down-home food, but these eats aren't Mom fare. The menu changes seasonally, but the consistent onion soup is warm and delightfully filling, as are the pan-seared mussels and the fresh bread, baked twice daily. Only-in-Houston entrées include a grilled buffalo burger with seared foie gras, brioche bun and white truffle frites. Popular plats du jour include the slow-braised short ribs, which are so tender you almost have to spoon them up, and grilled prime rib eye with potatoes pont neuf, another Texas-sized meal with a real bistro twist.

Express Grocery and Deli Don't look for red-checkered tablecloths or "Mom's Home Cooking" signs at the Express Grocery and Deli -- the family feeling runs far deeper than that at this delightful quick-order grill and convenience store in a corner of the Houston House apartments. Mike Baba set up shop here nearly two decades ago, weathering the then-desolate downtown area with the same genuine good cheer he dispenses to the expanding base of eclectic and ever-loyal customers. His longtime cook Margaret -- as well as his cousins, son and daughter, who work there too -- serve up respectable meals with good vibes and home-style charm.

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