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.

Beaucoup Bar & Grill

You can tell a lot about a Cajun joint by the service, and both the service and the atmosphere at Beaucoup are about as laid-back and casual as it gets, which by our estimation is a good sign. Wedged just south of the Texas Medical Center and 288 off Old Spanish Trail, Beaucoup Bar & Grill cranks out great standard Cajun and Creole fare six days a week, as well as a brunch service on Sundays. The Beaucoup hot wings and crawfish bread are standout winners, as is the housemade fruit lemonade. Call ahead if you want to try to tackle its monstrous two-foot shrimp po-boy.

Monarch Restaurant & Lounge

Picture this: It's mid-afternoon. You're lounging in the shade of a luxurious, lush patio, a glass of chilled rosé in hand, overlooking the picturesque Museum District as a fountain gently dances in the background. It feels like vacation, so you relax and take your time. You laugh with friends and nosh on the feast before you: tequila-and-coconut-milk-soaked mussels; bonito-flaked fried cauliflower in curry sauce; and a crisp, light baby kale salad. When you find yourself ready, go ahead and try the dessert sampler. It's vacation, after all.

Bijan Persian Grill
Photo by Houston Press Staff

When you're looking for kebabs, Bijan offers a menu full of them. There are chicken kebabs and lamb kebabs, beef kebabs and salmon kebabs. There are kebab combinations and ground meat (koobideh) kebabs, Cornish game hen kebabs and vegetarian kebabs. At this staple Persian restaurant that's been on Hillcroft for many years, meats come right off the grill and to your table, with edges just charred and cooked through to moist perfection, nestled next to a mound of fluffy Persian rice and grilled tomatoes. All diners get a complimentary mint and cheese salad to start, and bread is served with every meal. As a bonus, the outdoor seating provides the ideal setting for patrons to smoke their hookahs, which is something to look forward to almost as much as the kebabs themselves.

Hearsay Gastro Lounge

Bloody Marys are serious business. And trust us, during Sunday brunch, Hearsay Gastro Lounge means business. The restaurant infuses its vodka with jalapeños in-house, resulting in a cocktail that has the perfect amount of heat to balance out the acidity of the drink. It provides just enough spice to simultaneously wake you up and kill that Sunday morning hangover, the way only a truly great Bloody Mary can.

Hickory Hollow

As Texan as The Alamo or Friday night football, finding and devouring a great chicken-fried steak is a tradition. A big, fat, artery-clogging tradition. And once you find your favorite, forget about ordering it anyplace else. Such is the case with the chicken-fried steak at Hickory Hollow. This hand-battered monstrosity of a steak is so perfectly seasoned and cooked, there should be a holiday to celebrate its amazingness. Smothered in the appropriately named Texas River-bottom gravy, the steaks are served in a variety of sizes, from the six-ounce "small cowgirl" sandwich portion to the gargantuan "large rancher," which is, fittingly, served on a pizza pan.

MKT BAR

MKT Bar may be a wormhole into an alternate reality — a reality where downtown Houston actually achieved and maintained its full potential as an entertainment and shopping district. A long marble bar fronts an Italian espresso machine, well-stocked wine refrigerators and a long bank of draft beer taps that range from local craft brews to unusual imports. The hard-surfaced interior of concrete and subway tiles holds unexpected warmth thanks to inviting lighting, exposed brick walls and a large bank of windows overlooking Austin Street. The red-curtained stage has played host to popular local acts like The Tontons and Deep Cuts as well as national stars like Passion Pit. The space is both urban and bohemian, and thanks to its location adjoining Phoenicia — its big-sister grocery store, which also provides the bar food — it's a commonsense marriage of grocery store, bar and neighborhood cafe that has been present in so many other major metro areas but not Houston. Not until MKT Bar.

Tampico Refresqueria

Nachos can be so complicated these days. By the time the toppings are piled onto the tortilla chips, they look less like nachos and more like a crazy salad with an explosion of Tex-Mex on top. Take a trip down memory lane with the simple yet delicious nachos at Tampico in the East End. This snack shop across the street from Eastwood Park offers the best in the city, with a generous offering of melted nacho cheese and a smattering of jalapeños that will make your mouth water (and your eyes tear up). Wash them down with a cool raspa, or order a cup of steamy elote to complete the refresquería trifecta. Oh, and that one last soggy tortilla chip at the bottom of the plastic tray: outstanding!

Radical Eats

Radical Eats is not your typical Mexican restaurant. In fact, up until this year, the restaurant, complete with a backyard garden and a killer Sunday brunch, served only vegan and vegetarian food. But with a move to Montrose and a bigger kitchen, Radical Eats did something, well, radical, and decided to increase its menu to include free-range and locally raised meat. No worries, though. True to its vegan spirit, this taqueria still focuses heavily on vegan and vegetarian-friendly fare. Come savor a crunchy fried-avocado taco topped with a red cabbage slaw and creamy, spicy rooster sauce or the drool-worthy, mole-smothered local squash ­enchiladas. It's vegetarian done right. Radical ­indeed.

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