Fountain View Cafe

When a restaurant serves all-day breakfast, you know it's legit. Walk up to the counter at this old-timey cafe and order up a heaping breakfast plate with all the fixin's or, better yet, a build-your-own omelette with fillings like jalapeño, cream cheese and house-made chili. Also a must? A short stack of some of the best pancakes in town. They're pure ecstasy — vanilla-laced, crisp, delicate and smothered in butter. While you wait for your grub, pour yourself another cup of joe and drool over the lunch items on the larger-than-life chalkboard menu. Pastrami melt, fresh-cut fries and coleslaw, anyone? Looks like you'll be coming back soon.

Kenny & Ziggy's Delicatessen Restaurant

Kenny & Ziggy's has won for Best Deli before. But it speaks to quality and consistency when a restaurant keeps on winning, and that's what Kenny & Ziggy's always offers: quality. Just spend an hour with Ziggy Gruber and you'll lose count of the number of times people come up to him to thank him for his food. It's your grandmother who's come all the way from New York City, raving about the chicken liver mousse. It's your aunts visiting from California, praising him for the matzo ball soup. There's gigantic stuffed cabbage in tomato sauce, flown-in-from-New-York smoked salmon, cheese blintzes that'll make your mouth sing and, of course, their famous hot pastrami sandwich. Kenny & Ziggy's is the quintessential New York deli that will always be a timeless classic.

Artista
Photo courtesy of Artista

Empanadas. The South American equivalent of American pot pies, the hand-size, crescent-shaped meat-filled pies are considered common street food throughout South America. The secret to a good empanada, whether it's fried or baked, lies not only in the dough used to make the crust but in the filling. At Artista in downtown, the empanadas are a master class in what an empanada should taste like. The fried crust — not too thick and not too thin — is spongy yet flaky, crispy yet soft. When you bite into it, the hot, flavorful mixture of onions and peppers and meat will want to spill over. You can dip your empanada in the accompanying chimichurri sauce or eat it alone. Either way, Artista's are total winners.

Charivari Restaurant
Dawn M Simmons

Most fine-dining restaurants around town serve some sort of foie gras on their menu, but in size, style and execution, Charivari's is totally awesome. At some places, the foie gras portion is so small that you're finished eating it almost as soon as you start. Not so at Charivari, where the serving is generous enough for two. Each slice is pan-seared until the outer layer is almost caramelized in its own juices. When you cut into it with your fork, the rich, hot center that spills forth is good enough to make you swoon. It's served with brown sugar-glazed apples in a deep-red marsala reduction, and you'll want to lap up every dollop of sauce and every morsel of this "Budapest-style" foie gras by chef and owner Johann Schuster, one of the most popular items on the menu and so delicious that any restaurant in town would be proud to serve it.

Dolce Vita Pizzeria & Enoteca

There are few things in life as enjoyable as that perfect slice of right-out-of-the-oven, bubbling-hot pizza. At Dolce Vita, it's happening every day. Their Neapolitan-style crust — light as air, super-thin yet almost fluffy — is a thing of beauty, something you'll be loath to leave on your plate once you've finished the pizza's innards. You can stick with something classic, like a margherita, with just tomato, basil and bufala mozzarella, or the calabrese, a spicy salami pizza akin to a pepperoni. Gourmet options like the prosciutto e rucola, or arugula and prosciutto, or the taleggio, with arugula, pears and truffle oil, are always fantastic, and for picky eaters, you have the option of building your own and adding an egg to any pizza. Rest assured that no matter what you order, it will be absolutely, unequivocally ­delicious.

The Davenport Lounge

This isn't the first year The Davenport has won "Best Martini," and it probably won't be the last, either, so long as they continue to serve incredibly well-balanced cocktails in frosty, finger-numbing glasses. Classic gin and vodka martinis are straight-up successes, as are the more creative variations such as the Lady in Red, Mango Tango and Dear Old Cranny. Fussy aspiring mixologist types may initially scoff at this selection of more than 30 "martinis," but no one rolls her eyes after one sip of these icy-cold, knock-your-boots-off libations. After drinking the whole thing, however, your eyes may roll back in your head.

Moon Tower Inn

"Damn good food. Cold ass beer." That's Moon Tower Inn's motto. And it's spot-on. Loyal fans of the East End dive were heartbroken when it shut its doors for renovations in late 2011. But no worries: Houston's favorite beer-and-hot-dog yard is now back...and with a vengeance. Gone are the old amenities, making way for a shipping container-enclosed service counter, a 60-plus tap wall of beer and an even larger kitchen for pumping out some serious wild game creations. Like the ghetto bird — a sausage made with pheasant and cognac, or the velvet elkis — with apple, pear, port and, you guessed it, elk. Add a pretzel bun, the open air and a pint of locally crafted brew, and you've got yourself a damn good time.

The Original Ninfa's On Navigation

We've all eaten fajitas. They are available at every Mexican restaurant and taco truck in Houston, of which there are thousands. But what if I told you that not all fajitas were actual, real fajitas. Sometimes you get ungraded sirloin or some other type of beef, disguised as fajitas. For the real thing, turn to the source, Ninfa's on Navigation. There you will find certified Hereford outside skirt steak, the only tender piece of carne that should be crowned fajita. The good stuff doesn't require lots of marinating or seasoning, either. Chef Alex Padilla simply applies a splash of soy sauce, salt and pepper as he grills it to ­perfection. Add some frijoles a la charra, handmade tortillas and a Ninfarita, and you will taste heaven.

Ciao Bello
Photo by Troy Fields

It was bound to happen. Ciao Bello, the younger sibling of River Oaks staple Tony's, just needed some time to rise to its full potential. This year, it's turning out the kind of food that people talk about, return for, tweet about and remember. Under Executive Chef Bobby Matos, a simple burrata salad of grilled peaches and arugula is amazing. Braised beef cheeks are so tender that you need nothing but a fork to enjoy the richly flavored meat. The pastas, made from the same "00" flour and imported Italian water as those at big brother Tony's, are just a joy to taste and sample, from the house special pappardelle bolognese and the buttery rich mezzi rigatoni amatriaciana to the sinfully creamy and delectable plush pillows of summer corn pansoti. Impressively large and impossibly thin pizzas never disappoint, either, and the wine list, curated by beverage director Scott Sulma, is approachable and extremely drinkable. And then there are the desserts, like the incredible house-made carrot cake or the light-as-a-feather buttermilk panna cotta topped with blackberry and sage conserva. Just about everything at Ciao Bello is a delight, including the sparkler-topped ice cream cake that will arrive miraculously at the table whenever it's someone's birthday.

Grand Prize Bar

Pop-up dinners tend to be exclusionary: Not only can they be cost-prohibitive, but by their very nature — limited seating and temporary life­spans — they can be hard for the casual diner to experience. Austin King's series of pop-up dinners eschewed tradition by offering his dinner service in popular Midtown and Montrose bars like Grand Prize and Glitter Karaoke. With menus like "Southern Fried Dim Sum" featuring shrimp and grits, taro cakes, and boudin mai gai, self-taught chef King manages to pair innovation with accessibility each trip out.

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