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.

Boheme Cafe & Wine Bar

Perhaps it's a combination of the Spanish decor and slightly tropically tinged atmosphere of Boheme that makes rum the drink of choice here. Or perhaps it's just the killer mojitos the place turns out day after day to thirsty crowds of art lovers and assorted Montrose rogues. Whether freshly muddled (you can smell the bright snap of mint as soon as you walk in) or frozen, mojitos are on nearly every table here, along with glasses of wine and Boheme's famous homemade sangria. Sipping your mojito among the fat, green clumps of bamboo and the fascinating Zimbabwean sculptures on the back patio, it's easy to forget you're in Houston — until you notice the enormous three-story condo looming above you, that is.

Reef

Bryan Caswell was named one of the 10 Best New Chefs in the country by Food & Wine Magazine this year. He owes much of that honor to the bounty of the Gulf of Mexico. Caswell is a fisherman, and he understands the treasures of the Gulf in a way that non-fishermen never quite get. His nickname on Twitter is "Wholefish," and that's also the name of his seafood encyclopedia of a blog. The name describes his culinary philosophy in one word — Caswell doesn't buy filets or fish steaks or anything that someone else has cut up; he buys whole fish. That's the only way to know exactly what you're getting, he says. At Reef, the menu takes advantage of what's available. Sure, there's shrimp, crab, oysters and red snapper. But there's also wahoo, tripletail, amberjack and sheepshead. These are fish that no one else in town is cooking, and at Reef, they are all presented in unexpectedly brilliant dishes.

Baby Barnaby's Cafe
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt

Although any one of the four Barnaby's locations will offer you unrivaled service, the original location — tucked away in a residential area in Montrose off Fairview — still sets the bar. Despite long waits on weekends and occasionally cramped quarters inside (especially when you're dining at Baby Barnaby's next door), the waitstaff are never anything short of charming and gracious. Between complimenting your hairstyle, telling your grandmother how glorious she looks today, recommending their favorite dishes and always getting your order perfect, the staff always offer excellent service. And employees appear to love the place just as much: Anecdotes have flown for years of high-end maître d's attempting to lure Barnaby's crew members to "greener pastures" and failing every time.

Segari's

The late Sam Segari was nuts about shrimp. His restaurant, Segari's, is run by his daughter now. But the shrimp dishes are still made with U-10s, the largest Gulf shrimp available. The cryptic code means "under ten to a pound" — the actual average size is close to a fifth of a pound each. They come fried, grilled or boiled. The boiled are served in a shrimp cocktail with some huge crab "lollipop" claws. The fried shrimp are so big, they are flattened out before being battered. They taste like chicken-fried shrimp steaks. If you are a demanding customer who can't excuse slow service, eccentric attitudes and made-up-on-the-fly prices, don't even bother setting foot in Segari's. But if you can pretend that you are eating at an eccentric friend's house and go with the high-spirited flow at this little speakeasy, you can have a helluva good time.

Best Of Houston®

Best Of