Capri Pasta Pizza and More
This little restaurant with a silly name (there's no pizza served here anymore), located in a neglected strip center, is a drive for most Houstonians. But it's worth every mile. Owner Barbara Coglianese hails from Imola and has imported her Bolognese-style Italian food almost part and parcel to this surprisingly authentic spot. The lasagna here verges on indescribable, with improbably fine layers and soft mascarpone playing against a sweetly tart marinara sauce. Handmade gnocchi are another treat, softly covered with a Gorgonzola-brightened four-cheese sauce. BYOB and show up early; Capri gets quickly packed every night thanks to its fine food and equally fine service (keep your eye out for Coglianese's young son, the best waiter in the house).
Pondicheri
There's nothing else like Pondicheri in Houston, not even Indika, Anita Jaisinghani's first and extant modern Indian restaurant in Montrose. Here in River Oaks, Pondicheri shakes up everything you thought you knew about Indian street food, offering Jaisinghani's updated interpretations for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even tea. Breakfast and lunch are counter-service affairs, inexpensive and filling, with items like a breakfast thali with a little of everything, or a frankie to-go (that's an Indian breakfast taco; give it a try). At night, the space is truly alive with a buzzing energy from the busy kitchen and the packed dining room, with table service bringing out immense plates of Texas shrimp chaat and clever wine-based cocktails from the small but inviting bar.
BB's Beef and Hot Dogs
Everything at this tidy little restaurant run by husband-and-wife team Charles and Brenda Rivers is a Chicago specialty, from the pizza puffs to the hot Italian beef. So you know that the Chicago-style hot dogs they serve — dragged through the garden on a steamed poppyseed bun with a thick Vienna beef dog tucked inside — are the real deal. The dogs here are fresh and lively, with just a bit of heat from the sport peppers that is best cooled off by another Chicago specialty: Italian ice.
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.

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