Dolce Vita Pizzeria & Enoteca

Dolce Vita Pizzeria & Enoteca is owned by Marco Wiles, the chef-owner of Houston's best Italian restaurant, Da Marco. Wiles says that Dolce Vita is a tribute to authentic Italian pizzerias. Heating up a brick oven takes a long time, which is why the great pizzerias in Italy are only open in the evening. Dolce Vita is following their lead, so forget about grabbing a pizza for lunch. While the 12 pizzas are by far the most popular items on the menu, the unusual antipasti items are worth sampling. Come early for the two-floor happy hour scene. Downstairs, the double-sided wine bar and the row of tables overlooking the pizza oven are one of the hottest see-and-be-seen spots in the city for the black-T-shirt-and-blue-jeans set. Upstairs, a funky maze of dining rooms with parquet floors and faux wood-grain painted walls offers lots of quiet corners for intimate conversation.

Perry's Steakhouse and Grille

There should be a prize for eating Perry's entire seven-finger pork chop by yourself in one sitting. Really, this is one big cut of meat. Stacked seven fingers thick (hence its name), this pork chop is carved tableside into three large pieces. Served with garlic butter on top and applesauce on the side, the meat is falling-apart tender and wonderfully caramelized. The closer to the bone you get, the sweeter and tastier the mouthfuls become. And nibbling those last bits right off the bone like a gluttonous caveman is definitely encouraged; the dish is served with a damp towel for cleaning your hands when you're finished. Come to think of it, enjoying an entire Perry's pork chop by yourself really is like winning a prize.

Bistro Lancaster
Jeff Balke

With her ever-changing seasonal menus and inspired take on traditional fare, talented award-winning Executive Chef Jamie Zelko has revitalized Bistro Lancaster, once again making it the best spot to grab a bite before a show or a drink right after. Located inside The Lancaster Hotel in the Theater District, the bistro is the perfect spot to dine and then make it to the show on time. Servers know their clientele, and they expertly get time-pressed theatergoers in and out without seeming to rush at all. And after the concert or play, stop by again to enjoy the bistro's cozy English-style bar, rated one of the top ten in the country by Food & Wine magazine.

Reef

Reef is an intensely local restaurant that caters to our city's culinary eccentricities. Chef-owner Bryan Caswell, who grew up in Houston, used to do a lot of fishing. Fishermen understand the treasures of the Gulf of Mexico in a way that non-fishermen never quite get. At Reef, the menu changes every day to take advantage of what's available. Sure, there's shrimp, crab, oysters and red snapper. But there's also wahoo with plantains, tripletail with artichokes, amberjack with asparagus and sheepshead with orange mustard. But Reef isn't just giving Gulf seafood its much-deserved props, it is also paying homage to the whole spectrum of influences that makes food taste like it came from Houston. Vietnamese hot pot, Indian raita, Mexican carnitas and Southern corn pudding might sound like an odd combination of things to put on the same menu — except in Houston where we eat Vietnamese, Indian, Mexican and Gulf Southern cooking all the time. Reef also has the best wine deals in town. A bottle of Jermann pinot grigio that sells for $65 in an Italian restaurant across town goes for $39 at Reef. There's not another restaurant or wine bar in Houston that keeps their wines in temperature-controlled storage and sells them at these prices.

Open City

The best part about Open City's wine-and-fruit concoction is that they make their sangria with bourbon. Before you scream, "Spanish booze sacrilege," taste it! Better yet, have a pitcher on the rooftop with its view of the city skyline while you're surrounded by scores of hot women and quick bartenders. Open City's reverse happy hour runs from 9-11 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. You can get $3 Texas ruby red sangria, regularly $7 a glass, or a pitcher for $24. What more could you want? How about a Bloody Mary bar? They have one on Saturdays, just in case you overindulge on Friday night. Too bad they don't have reverse hangovers.

Best Seafood Restaurant

Traditional Cajun crawfish bisque was the best starter at the old Jimmy Wilson's on Westheimer. Fried green tomatoes topped with jumbo lump crabmeat is the signature appetizer of the upscale new Jimmy Wilson's on San Felipe. The list of fresh fish written on a chalkboard at the old place appears on a flat-screen television set in the sleek new dining room, and it is likely to include such rarely seen Gulf delicacies as angelfish, cobia and golden tilefish. Get your catch of the day broiled simply with lemon butter, or get any fish on the list with a sinful Louisiana cream sauce. A wall of wines entices you to trade up from cold beer and Cajun cocktails. Usually when a down-home restaurant goes upscale, it falls on its face, but owners Jimmy Jard and Denis Wilson have pulled it off.

Da Marco
Photo by Houston Press staff

There was a time in Houston when the best tables were awarded to the wealthy and prominent and the rest of us had to wait. In those days, great service meant sucking up to socialites and fluffing napkins, not providing information about the menu and the wine list. Da Marco is the upscale Italian restaurant that changed all that. Da Marco was a radical departure from the style of Gulf Coast Italian restaurants that long ruled Houston. Instead of following the familiar formula of opulent decor, overly rich sauces and obsequious waiters, chef Marco Wiles took his inspiration from a new generation of cutting-edge Italian restaurants like Mario Batali's Babbo in Greenwich Village. When rich Houston patrons accustomed to getting their own way demanded that chef Wiles make them ham sandwiches instead of eating the food he worked so hard to create, Wiles told them to "go eat at Tony's."

This Is It

Family-owned since its beginning, This Is It Soul Food is all about big, hefty servings of done-right down-home cooking. Back when it opened in 1959, a meal cost 89 cents. It's a bit more these days, but still more than reasonable. Now $10 will get you a plateful of fried catfish, smothered pork chops, barbecue ribs or oxtails and more (specials change daily). You'll also get three heaping servings of greens, mac and cheese, white rice, yams, green beans or chitterlings and hot cornbread. Lunch crowds are big (expect a line between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.), and include business people from downtown, local celebs from the African-American community, blue-­collar workers and just plain old regular hungry folks. When you're in the mood for soul food, This Is It!

After a few bites of the borrego al pebre at Inka South American Cuisine, you may find yourself wondering where in South America the recipe for this rack of lamb crusted with spices and served with a battered and deep-fried avocado quarter came from exactly. Yes, the menu also features authentic arepas, glorious empanadas and lots of intriguingly seasoned postmodern ceviches — but is Inka really a South American restaurant? You would have to ask chef/owner David Sanchez, a Culinary Institute of America grad, for the answer to that question. And Sanchez is a bit ambiguous on the subject. He describes the fare at his colorful and casual far-west Westheimer eatery as "South American-inspired," but admits his innovative menu aims for excitement over authenticity. So maybe it's more accurate to call this great new restaurant a 21st-century Nuevo Latino cafe. Try the crusted lamb chops, the coconut shrimp and the mussels with corn salsa, and you'll give Sanchez the benefit of the doubt.

Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse

Sure, this is the place to see and be seen, and it's been so ever since it opened its doors. Sure, the decor is superb (it was the most expensive build-out in the city's history). Sure, it's one of the largest restaurants in the city (it seats 400). Sure, it has the most expensive and extensive wine list in the city. None of these, however, are the reason to come here. You come to Del Frisco's for a big, honking piece of meat, expertly prepared, naked except for simple salt and pepper. Forget the to-die-for crab cakes. Forget the lobster. Forget the sautéed mushrooms or the potatoes or the creamed spinach. It's aged, corn-fed, straight from the Midwest meat cut to order — bone-in rib eye, porterhouse, Double Eagle strip (26-ounce, bone-in), filet mignon. Any questions?

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