Fadi's Mediterranean Grill

The food here may be served cafeteria-style, but it tastes gourmet. Diners line up along a sea of troughs stretching along two walls of the restaurant, each brimming with Middle Eastern delights. Pile your plate high with dolmas (grape leaves stuffed with rice, onions and tomatoes), tabouli and baba ghanoush, the dip made of roasted eggplant, tahini, lemon juice and olive oil. Then head to the meat counter and grab a kebab — beef, lamb or chicken — and a broiled lamb shank that's fall-off-the-bone tender and served in a gravy of carrots, red peppers and mushrooms. Top it all off with a piece of baklava, and you'll see why Fadi's is a local favorite.

Cheeburger Cheeburger

Cheeburger, Cheeburger makes a big production out of its milk shakes. There are something like 75 flavors of ice cream, and every milk shake comes with two straws and a spoon. Get the large size and ask for the double chocolate flavor — malted. Then be prepared to have your milk shake stolen by the rest of your dining companions. If you remember chocolate malts, this one will make tears of nostalgia well up in your eyes. If you have never tried one, you are in for a treat. Cheeburger, Cheeburger takes its name from the Saturday Night Live routine. "They said 'No Coke, Pepsi' all the time, and that's why we have no Coke, only Pepsi products," the teen-age waiters chirp with big phony smiles. Located in the Vintage Park Shopping Center at the Louetta exit off Highway 249, this outpost of a Florida-based gourmet hamburger franchise is decorated in pink neon and stainless steel to mimic a vintage neighborhood joint of the 1950s. John Belushi would have hated the place.

Cafe Rita

The spicy Middle Eastern food at Cafe Rita is spectacular — eating here is like going over to your Armenian grandparents' house for lunch. George Sarikhanian, the gregarious cashier/owner, is a friendly bear with a bald head and spectacles. His wife, Rita, is a smiling matron in an apron who never comes out of the kitchen. There are pictures of grandkids stuck all over the sides of the deli case, which is stuffed to overflowing with goodies. Rita prepares traditional breakfast foul — the ancient fava bean soup with lots of lemon and garlic. The foul is replaced in the afternoon by a peppery bean soup. George and Rita always have something cooking that's not on the menu. "Taste this, we don't make it all the time, you better get some while you can," George will say, stuffing your mouth with something wonderful as you stand in line. How can you say no?

Vinoteca Poscol

Marco Wiles, the owner of Da Marco and Dolce Vita, extends his Westheimer winning streak with his new wine-and-tapas joint. The menu at Poscol might remind you of Mario Batali's Casa Mono tapas bar in New York, only without the Spanish taverna touches. The interior, which occupies the former location of Cafe Montrose, seems to be modeled after those fashionable Batali restaurants where everybody is jammed together in too little space. But the menu of intriguing small plates and the stellar Italian wine list make the cramped quarters worthwhile. How about a creamy zucchini risotto with piles of fried chicken livers and a spectacular crisp Friuli white made with grapes found only in that Northern Italian region? Or how about beet squares roasted with hazelnuts and goat cheese with a smooth and fruity Tuscan red wine? There are dozens of inspired combinations waiting to be discovered here. And so we keep coming back.

Rainbow Lodge

When it was announced that wunderkind chef Randy Rucker — known for his daring molecular gastronomy and cutting-edge cuisine at the now-closed Laidback Manor — would be taking over the executive chef position at the supremely old-school Rainbow Lodge, the collective heads of Houston's food community cocked in bewilderment. But it's turned out to be the most successful marriage — however unlikely — that the dining scene has seen in recent years. Rucker's inventive and capricious techniques somehow pair wonderfully with the wild game and lodge-like setting of the stately restaurant. His best work is on display in dishes like chicken from Bryan Farms wrapped in housemade pancetta and served alongside housemade chicken sausage, or Texas redfish on the half shell with preserved Meyer lemon and baby arugula.

Magnolia Bar & Grill

This is one of the few restaurants in town with a real dedicated oyster bar, as opposed to a bar that serves oysters. Check out the extensive collection of old-fashioned oyster plates hanging on the walls. Magnolia used to be owned by Jim Gossen of Louisiana Foods, the company that wholesales oysters to most of the other oyster bars in town. Gossen still takes care of his friends at Magnolia — the restaurant boasts the freshest Gulf oysters in the city. The fresh red snapper, peewee soft-shell crabs and shrimp étouffée aren't bad either, while the crab Maison salad, made with a rémoulade recipe stolen from Galatoire's, may be the best crab salad in Houston. The oysters on the half shell are usually a bargain, and the cooked oyster dishes are awesome. Don't miss the oyster poor boys, oyster gumbo, fried oysters or any of the other oyster dishes either.

Grimaldi's Coal Brick Oven Pizzeria

If you believe that pizza should have a crispy crust rolled out as thin as possible with a spare amount of toppings, then the Sugar Land outpost of this Hoboken native might well be your place of worship. Ask the chef to leave the pizza in the coal-fired brick oven a minute or two longer than normal, and you may get to experience the burnt, black and blistered bottom so prized by the pizza connoisseur. Not only does this pizza just taste better than all others, but the crisp crust won't droop under the weight of too much topping. Whether you like traditional flavors like anchovies, olives and garlic or more newfangled ones like pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, chicken or sweet peppers, they are all here.

Best Pre- or Post-Theater Restaurant

Artista

Artista
Photo courtesy of Artista

If you want to impress someone with one of the most beautiful views of the Houston skyline, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better place than Michael Cordúa's showcase restaurant, Artista, on the second floor of the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. If the view doesn't impress your guests, then the food and decor most definitely will. The high ceilings, glass walls, onyx wraparound bar and sumptuous booths make for a dramatic interior, while food like the chupe (lobster bisque with charred tomatoes), the signature churrasco steak and the tres leches dessert, all with dramatic presentations, will please even the most jaded of diners. In keeping with the artist theme, the menu allows creative diners to pick and choose entrée, sauce and side separately. And the whole of the Theater District is, at most, a five-minute walk away.

Feast

Frank Bruni, the restaurant critic of The New York Times, paid his props after a visit to Feast last spring. "It's a full-on, extended ode to offal that has no real peer in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other major cities that pride themselves on their epicurean adventurousness," he wrote in his Critic's Notebook column in the Times. With "nose-to-tail eating" getting more buzz in the food world than ever before, Brits Richard Knight (the chef) and James Silk (the butcher) have put Houston out in front of the entire country with their cutting-edge carnivore cuisine. Both Richard and James have worked for some prestigious, Michelin-rated places and people, most notably under Fergus Henderson of St. Johns, in London, where James studied the "whole beast" philosophy at the feet of the master. Better hurry up and order some beef heart or tongue and testicles in green sauce before the lines get too long.

Ristorante Cavour

There is an art to making the perfect risotto. Cook it too long, and the much-prized al dente texture disappears in a soft mass. Add too much stock, and the dish turns into a soup. Balancing the flavors of saffron, wine, onion and stock is a delicate task indeed — too much of any one will overpower the dish. All four flavors should be present, along with a generous dab of butter and ample shavings of a good Parmigiano. At Cavour, the chef makes a classic risotto Milanese masterfully. The result is a spectacular combination of flavors with a firm texture and bright yellow color.

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