Mia Bella Trattoria - CLOSED
Among the Mia Bella locations around town, it's this captivating space on the corner of Main and Preston that's our favorite: It's easily accessed by light rail, although you'll find ample space to park downtown on a quiet Sunday morning. And although the streets may be calm, Mia Bella always draws a healthy crowd to its festive weekend brunches for a multitude of reasons: "bottomless" mimosas and bellinis; exceptional service that puts you in a good mood even mid-hangover; tall windows that stream sunlight into the dining room; and, of course, delicious food. The Eggs Mia Bella uses sautéed vegetables and potatos in place of ham, under a bright and clean Hollandaise and two poached eggs, while the French toast spread with cinnamon-and-sugar-spiked ricotta and fresh berries is an all-star dish.
Da Marco
Photo by Houston Press staff
In a city that lacks truly amazing Italian food, Marco Wiles has been toiling at perfecting his restaurant's cuisine for years. And it's work that has paid off. Gourmet once said of Da Marco that it's "as close to Italy as you can possibly get without leaving Texas." That was exactly Wiles's aim when he opened Da Marco more than a decade ago; he once said, "I wanted to open an Italian restaurant that would succeed in Italy." Italy aside, Da Marco has succeeded and thrived in Houston for its impeccable service, comfortable interior and expertly handled food. From whole-roasted fish cooked in a wood-burning oven to classic pastas like pappardelle with rabbit, the menu here is both Texan and Italian at once, without ever sacrificing the feel and authenticity of the latter.
Brennan's of Houston
Photo by Troy Fields
It's a rare restaurant that still gives its customers the white-glove treatment. It's a rarer one still that does so with a genteel Southern charm that never makes the service feel pretentious or stuffy. Brennan's has prided itself on years of such impeccable service over more than four decades and counting. When you're dining at the restaurant, you get the sense that you're a welcome and wanted guest in a sprawling country estate where the hosts are as famous for their hospitality as for their food.
Backstreet Cafe
Photo by Joanna O'Leary
Sean Beck started out as a waiter at Backstreet Cafe during his college days. Today he's a certified sommelier running the wine lists at three of Houston's best restaurants — Backstreet Cafe, Hugo's and Trevisio — and he was rightfully singled out as a "rising star" when Star Chefs came to Houston this year. Beck isn't just an advocate of fine wines; he's also an expert mixologist and connoisseur of Texas spirits and craft beers. Take his elegant margaritas at Hugo's or the wine dinners he pulls together at Backstreet Cafe, highlighting local and seasonal foods alongside wines from across the world: Beck is a seasoned pro who never lets his lists get stale or boring.
Esther's Cajun Cafe and Soul Food
The fact that Yelp doesn't even list a single review for this place means that Esther's is doing something right: You know that when you're eating here, you're one of the family. The customers are a tight-knit bunch at this little restaurant with a steam table (if there's no steam table at your soul food restaurant, you're doing it wrong). Pass your tray through and let Esther load it up with smothered pork chops, buttery mashed potatoes, sweet yams and a giant slice of chocolate cake for later. In the spring, Esther's even does crawfish boils on the small patio. You might feel like you ended up at someone else's family reunion, but they throw one hell of a party.
Live Oak Grill
The red-painted farmhouse, huge live oak tree and wooden farm tables out front give Live Oak Grille a quintessential Texan charm that is warm and welcoming. It's a place where families and friends convene for a cold beer or a root beer float, along with a solid, hearty meal of pork chops or burgers. But it's the chicken-fried chicken, served with a choice of two sides including macaroni and cheese, green beans and garlic mashed potatoes, that is the standout. Impressively large, with moist, tender chicken on the inside and a crispy fried chicken shell that the Colonel would be proud of, it's good every time.
Zelko Bistro - CLOSED
In keeping with its casual, neighborhood vibe, Zelko Bistro has always prided itself on offering unusual yet highly affordable bottles of wine. But chef and owner Jamie Zelko takes it one step further with a large section that's entirely devoted to vintages from women-owned-and-run wineries. It's her way of paying it forward to other females in the male-dominated food and beverage industry, as well as a way of allowing customers to experience new wines and broaden their own horizons.
Benjy's on Washington
The happy hour scene at Benjy's on Washington is always hopping, and with good reason. What draws the crowd is not just the consistently excellent cocktails but the unbelievably priced bar menu, where a myriad of dishes can be had for a mere $5. The menu changes, but standouts have been the Asian dumplings served on a tangy slaw, chicken and pine nut pizza with truffle oil, crispy salmon mini-tacos, and beef arepas. The food is delicious, and though service is a bit harried because it's so busy, your food is always served with a smile. If only all happy hours were this good.
Tacos Mayra Taco Truck
From 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, this colorful taco truck located in front of a washateria dishes up some super-tasty tacos. What sets it apart from its competitors is that there's no scooping of premade filling onto a taco shell when you order here. All the fillings are finished on the grill, which means you will have to wait for your tacos to be done. The piping-hot tacos are oh-so-satisfying every time.  Flavorful, well-marinated pastor tacos burst with flavor; lengua are juicy and tender; chicharron are fatty and decadent; barbacoa hearty and melt-in-your mouth. Order on flour tortillas with everything on it (grilled onions and fresh cilantro), add some spicy salsa verde and prepare to take a trip to Mexico for just $1.50 each.
Goode Co. Seafood
Campechana at Goode Co. Seafood is almost a Houston institution, and we're pushing for it to move out of "almost" territory and into permanent acceptance. As with the seafood joints that line Airline Drive, the campechana here is served in tall sundae glasses with an olive perched on top like a cherry. Underneath, you'll find the freshest seafood that the Goode family can muster out of the Gulf along with buttery avocado chunks and a just-spicy-enough cocktail sauce that never distracts from the briny sweetness of the shrimp and crab. And during the cold months of oyster season, the campechanas are that much better.

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