Kenny & Ziggy's Delicatessen Restaurant
At Kenny and Ziggy's, it's not just about the sandwiches -- although a certain sense of accomplishment follows packing away a pound of corned beef. It's really about the comfort food. The chicken soup with kreplach is the best way to make it through flu season, and the chopped liver is classic. From blintzes to potato latkes with applesauce, all of the traditional deli fare appears on the menu. If you make it to dessert, cheesecake is the obvious choice. But if you're too full to move, grab a loaf of the chocolate babka or a dozen rugelach for the road.
The Original Marini's Empanada House
The Marini family started their storefront shop in the early '70s, and they've been a Houston favorite ever since. Three generations of this Argentine family have been serving up fresh, flaky dough with authentic, traditional fillings. And some not-so-traditional fillings (nacho empanadas, anyone?). Looking for dinner? Try the ground beef with olives and onions. Want some dessert? Try the sweet bananas with nuts and raisins. And the outdoor patio is a great place to people-watch while you chow down.

Best Place to Skip Dinner and Have Dessert

Ruggles Cafe Bakery

The rows of cakes, tarts, pies and puddings displayed at Ruggles might look modest at first, but they're some of the best desserts Houston has to offer. This substance-over-style approach is commendable, especially since not one of their 20 or so offerings has ever been a disappointment. The white chocolate bread pudding and Reese's pie are exceptional, and most of the desserts are so large and rich that they're difficult to finish without help. The staff here is friendly and efficient, so although the line out the door might look discouraging, it moves quickly. Another great thing about these desserts is that if you order them to go, the sauces and garnishes are packaged separately, so you can explore your inner artist at home.
Dolce Vita Pizzeria & Enoteca
The pies at Dolce Vita are a thing of beauty: The toppings are unusual, generous and full of flavor, and the superb quality of the meats, cheeses and produce makes it hard to go wrong. Sauce is used sparingly, and the crust is thin and crispy and a little chewy -- a wood-burning oven makes all the difference here. Some combinations, such as the Taleggio, arugula, pear and truffle oil, are so memorable that we sometimes discuss them at length with total strangers. The margherita pizza, covered with buffalo mozzarella and basil, makes you think you're sitting in a pizzeria in Florence. And you'll wish you never had to leave.
Cafe Piquet
Photo by Houston Press Staff
Legendary salsa star Celia Cruz made her way to Cafe Piquet every time she visited Houston, and it's easy to understand why. Made-from-scratch food, a stylish atmosphere and attentive service -- all staples here -- have made this a haven for Cuban-Americans in search of a taste of home. Don't let the strip-mall exterior fool you; inside, it's all low-key sophistication, kid-friendly without sacrificing a grown-up atmosphere. For starters, try the croquetas or yucca frita. The empanadas are also a favorite with regulars. For hearty appetites, try the masitas fritas or the ropa vieja. And don't forget to leave room for a little Cuban coffee or a serving of tres leches for dessert.
There's so much to do at the Rainbow Lodge that lunch might be an afterthought. Stroll through the lush grounds overlooking Buffalo Bayou. Visit the pond and gazebo, where many have celebrated their nuptials. Smell the herbs in the garden. Then enter the old lodge, examine the stuffed hunting trophies on the wall or check out the collection of antique outboard motors. Linger in the Tied-Fly lounge, closely examining the hand-carved bar, which resembles a busy trout stream. Sneak a peek in the wine steward's room, which is the finest place in town to enjoy a private, intimate dinner for up to six. Examine the wines. Take a look at the rotisserie, where meats are roasted on the spit. Examine the many levels of the restaurant with its nooks and crannies. Then, and only then, focus on the menu, which leans toward wild game and Texas Gulf Coast cuisine. By the time you've enjoyed your tour and meal, you will have passed an enjoyable afternoon.
Artista
Photo courtesy of Artista
Few restaurants have a better view of downtown Houston, and none has a more beautifully appointed interior, than Artista, which is located on the second floor of the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Extremely elegant and very quiet, the main dining room is an expansive, high-ceilinged space dominated by a distinguished onyx wrap-around bar and floor-to-ceiling windows. A fabulous outdoor seating area lets diners get close and friendly with the skyline, and warm tones, soft lighting and wonderfully comfortable seating make this a place to impress anyone, no matter who they are. An innovative menu with simple, precise presentations is designed to excite the senses. Choose your protein, sauce and side dish separately, each from a different list; timid diners will be well guided by the experienced waitstaff.
Brennan's of Houston
Photo by Troy Fields
The half-bottles are called "Mini Mes," and there's a whole page devoted to wines for "wine geeks" on this, the hippest wine list in the city. Subheads include "All that Shimmers" for champagnes, "Clean Whites" for crisp white varietals, "Dirty Reds" for the big Cabs and Zins and "Rose Water" for the newly fashionable ros varietals. But beyond the bon mots and wine-world witticisms, there's a concise yet impressive collection of great bottles. The list includes both innovative and economical bottles as well as some of the classics. There are trendy New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, highly allocated wines from Gaja in Italy, big Burgundies from the Cte d'Or and trendy Pinot Noirs from California. Former Brennan's of Houston chef and sommelier Chris Shepherd put this list together before he left, and we look forward to reading the wine list at Shepherd's newest venture, the Catalan Food & Wine Bar, which opens soon at 5555 Washington Avenue.
T'afia
Spewing happy talk and fawning over socialites has long been mistaken for good service in Houston's top-end restaurants. (It's actually an institutionalized form of panhandling.) T'afia exemplifies a new and more enlightened approach to restaurant service. The waitstaff is unobtrusive, unassuming, yet helpful. Most important, they're extremely well informed about the food, its provenance and its preparation. It's nice to know that the carrots are cooked with ginger tonight, but at T'afia, the staffers can tell you the name of the local farmer who grew them, how long the farm has been certified organic and which day the carrots were picked. And they'll invite you to come back on Saturday morning when you can buy the same carrots at the farmers' market held every Saturday in the T'afia parking lot. Credit for the highly informed service goes in part to chef Monica Pope's concept; she serves local produce and artisanal food products because she's dedicated to changing the way Houstonians eat -- and she understands that it's her waitstaff who's doing the educational outreach.
Backstreet Cafe
Photo by Joanna O'Leary
You can get brunch just about anywhere these days, but at Backstreet Cafe, the meal's staples are redefined. The fluffy gingerbread waffle is served with sauted cinnamon apples. The French toast is reinvented as brioche generously stuffed with bananas and served with a sticky-sweet caramel sauce. The Eggs Benedict are served over cheddar chive biscuits and come with a zingy jalapeo barnaise. Standouts include the red pepper polenta with poached eggs, spinach, Choron sauce and andouille sausage. Our favorite is the chicken and andouille hash: Tender grilled chicken is mixed with cuts of sausage, onions, mushrooms and potatoes. The hash is topped with two sunny-side-up eggs and a delectable jalapeo hollandaise. Brunch at this cozy River Oaks home-turned-eatery is kicked up by superb cocktails such as a creative wild berry mimosa and a fruity, crisp blackberry mojito.

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