Tony's Tony's is the final flaming star in the celestial Tony Vallone empire. Since the sale of his other restaurants to Tilman Fertitta, Vallone has concentrated on his "baby." And the waitstaff at Tony's is even more attentive, efficient and knowledgeable than it was in the glory days. The restaurant's red-walled dining room and banquette seating, central A-list tables and constant stream of servers will make you feel like royalty (chef Bruce McMillian's osso buco will, too). We can't wait for Tony's new digs to open on Upper Kirby so we can witness how this Houston upper-crust classic reinvents itself. In the meantime, Tony's on Post Oak is open for lunch again, and regulars are flocking back for its stellar service.

Cafe Piquet The local Cuban community may have been the first to discover Cafe Piquet when it opened in 1996, but today the secret's out about this small, cozy eatery. The menu's not long or extensive -- Piquet specializes in a few traditional dishes that have won the hearts of many, and not just because the food is plentiful and the prices reasonable. Ropa vieja (shredded beef with tomatoes and olives, $8.95), masas de puerco fritas (chunks of fried pork cooked with garlic, $9.95) and a whole red snapper ($17.95) are just some of the outstanding items offered here. Whiter-than-white rice, blacker-than-black beans, yucca in garlic sauce and ripe plantains are among the side dishes. And remember to complete your order with a perfectly brewed cafe cubano.

Hugo's Don't ask for chips and salsa, fajitas, nachos or any other of those familiar standards here. Chef and co-owner Hugo Ortega is a Mexican national who worked his way up from a busboy at Backstreet Cafe, and he doesn't do Tex-Mex. At the upscale Mexican restaurant that bears his name, the duck, cabrito, rabbit and tacos al pastor are the main attractions. The chocolate is ground fresh, the tortillas are hand-formed, and the moles are all made from scratch. Hugo's does serve margaritas, but you're better off ordering one of the dozens of premium tequilas served Mexican-style -- straight up with a shot of sangria on the side. There's also an excellent wine list selected for its compatibility with the intense, spicy flavors. The Mexican food here compares favorably with the best in the nation. And in truth, it blows away a lot of the top restaurants in Mexico.

Aries When the editors of Food & Wine chose Aries chef Scott Tycer as one of the top ten new chefs in the country last year, they pegged Aries as part of a national movement. Highly trained chefs such as Tycer who run their own small restaurants are bringing kitchen craftsmanship to a new level in this country. It's an approach to cooking that requires enormous dedication. Aries doesn't have a freezer. Everything is made from scratch every morning. The chefs shop and forage for ingredients that no other restaurant can offer, and they hire farmers to grow things other restaurants have never heard of. Tycer's bread is so good, he opened a bakery, which now supplies many other Houston restaurants. But this kind of chef-driven restaurant also requires a sophisticated clientele. Houstonians who think that great restaurants cater to a demanding customer's every whim, from "sauce on the side" to a tomato salad in the dead of winter, are apt to be disappointed here. Go to Aries and let chef Scott Tycer cook for you. Odds are he will wow you with his considerable genius. If you need to "have it your way," you're better off at Burger King -- or Tony's.

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