Photo by Jeremy Parzen

When wine bar Camerata opened next to Paulie's a little more than a year ago, it was an immediate hit, thanks in large part to partner David Keck, who brings a winning combination of knowledge, customer service and humor to the swanky establishment. A former opera singer, Keck knows how to work a crowd, encouraging guests to try new and unusual wines while regaling them with the history and characteristics of the region. One of Keck's wine classes is as much a comedy show as it is a lesson in wine, but he maintains a sense of professionalism befitting an Advanced Sommelier, even while cracking jokes. He does his best to keep the classy wine bar unpretentious, making it a favorite meeting place for industry professionals and wine neophytes alike. Keck is one of the founders of the Houston Sommelier Association, and as such, encouraging a love of wine and a thirst to learn more is something he readily imparts to both visitors and his talented staff.

Originally a popular (and Houston's first!) vegan food truck, Green Seed Vegan launched a successful Kickstarter campaign back in 2012 to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant serving the same great food, only with much more seating. Though the restaurant is devoutly vegan, the food appeals to a wide range of Houstonians because the owners, Matti Merrell and husband Rodney Perry, emphasize quality, flavorful ingredients. There may not be any meat or dairy in dishes such as the popular Dirty Burque burger, but the seasonal local produce and the fresh juices will make you forget you were ever craving animal products in the first place. Those who scoff at the notion of vegan fare as more closely resembling cardboard than actual food should give Green Seed Vegan a shot. It's bound to make converts of us all.

Photo by Troy Fields

French chef Philippe Verpiand knows what it's like to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant — he's worked in several. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that Étoile, which he opened with his wife, Monica, quickly gained a reputation as one of our city's finest French restaurants. The great thing about Étoile is that it doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is: an establishment dedicated to French classics. In the winter, you'll see boeuf bourguignon and cassoulet. In the summer, you get roast chicken and Provençal preparations of fish. His pâté is hand-made. His duck confit is deeply savory and très délicieux. Even his desserts are worth noting, like his signature apple tart. Thin, crisp and drizzled with caramel, it's a patisserie worth the calorie splurge. Verpiand has a hand in almost everything — he's one of those rare chefs whom you'll find working the line each night — and it shows, because his food is superb.

Photo by Troy Fields

Even in a city known for its massively delicious Gulf Coast oysters, this Montrose hot spot's sexy oyster appetizer shines. Grilled in the shell, the half dozen bivalves are terribly messy and completely decadent, with chunks of bacon, Texas pecan pesto, pico de gallo and lightly browned Parmesan smothered on top. The oyster meat is only enhanced by the tasty toppings, as it remains as briny, sweet and succulent as ever. Of course, if you're a purist, a stellar selection of raw oysters are available by the dozen and half dozen as well.

There's a reason Tiger Den was so heavily mobbed when it first opened. The tiny shop in Chinatown's Dun Huang shopping plaza was one of the first places to actually deliver on the promise of scratch-made tonkotsu pork broth and house-made noodles. Though it has quieted down a bit, owner and chef Mike Tran has made great strides in consistency, delivering authentic Hakata-style thin-noodled ramen in four flavors and at prices that won't break the bank. At its most basic, tonkotsu ramen runs just $8 and comes with three slices of melt-in-your-mouth pork chasu, wood ears, onions, egg and bamboo shoots. The spicy miso, which comes with similar toppings, is fantastic, as is the garlic black bean ramen, ringing in at a mere $9. At those prices, you'll even have plenty of money left over to order a beer or sake, or several appetizers from Tiger Den's robata menu, to make a truly fine meal.

Photo by Troy Fields

Is there a better place in town for pasta right now? From his house-made spinach lasagna stuffed with chicken meatballs to his butternut squash pansoti and classic pappardelle bolognese, chef Bobby Matos is rockin' the kitchen with delicious Italian food. And it's not just the things he makes, but the quality of the ingredients he sources. The burrata caprese is dreamy, the cream-centered mozzarella and plump garden-fresh beefsteak tomatoes a joy to savor. Meat and seafood dishes are stellar as well: Chianti-braised beef cheeks are meltingly tender, the flounder amatraciana tomato sauce is buttery and rich, and the linguine alle vongole is a thing of beauty. To top it all off, his pastiera di mare came in at No.1 on Press critic Kaitlin Steinberg's list of her 100 favorite dishes, just another testament to the impressive Italian fare from Ciao Bello's kitchen.

Dawn McGee

The moment you walk through the doors at the Barnaby's Cafe in Montrose, you feel right at home, even if you're a first-time visitor. The waitstaff welcomes you with giant smiles and open arms. It's a "mi casa, su casa" kind of place, and there's something on the menu for everybody. Relax after a long day of work with one of the cafe's giant salads, like the ever-popular Caesar or Petaluma, or treat yourself to homemade lasagna or a bacon cheeseburger with sweet potato fries. Be sure to start with the guacamole and chips, then end with a giant chocolate chip cookie or brownie à la mode, because nothing makes you feel right at home like a warm, gooey chocolate dessert.

Photo by Troy Fields

The huge, vibrant wall murals are certainly a draw, but this hip Montrose eatery's traditional Mexican fare is what keeps people coming back. That and the fact that the owners — Ana Beaven and Charlie McDaniel — are constantly cooking up new ways to engage the community. During the week, there's the astonishingly affordable three-course comida lunch, with a daily rotating menu that touches on the different regions of Mexico. One week it might be moles from Oaxaca; another it might be seafood dishes from Veracruz. Throughout the year, there will be parties for Cinco de Mayo or Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The restaurant partners with yoga studios to do in-house yoga, and with Camerata to do wine and food tastings and hold $2 taco nights as well as tastings of mezcal and tequila. But what truly makes this place special is the magic that happens in the kitchen, which is manned entirely by a crew of Mexican mothers. The food that comes to your table is not Tex-Mex but fare made by someone's mother or sister or aunt — tasting exactly like what you'd find if you visited Mexico City.

Photo by Troy Fields

You can get Gulf oysters all around Houston, but for the best variety of exotics, Eleven XI is where it's at. Executive chef Kevin Bryant is so serious about his oysters that he devotes half his walk-in cooler just to storing them. During the week, he offers a minimum of 12 different varieties — exotic oysters from all up and down the East Coast as well as Canada and even New Zealand. On weekends, that number bumps up to 18-22. Patrons who order oysters will get a card printed with the names of up to 60 varieties and indicating the bivalves' origins and tasting notes. The staff can easily put together a dozen from six different appellations if you want to sample a good cross-section of what Eleven XI has, served beautifully on a bed of crushed ice with lemon and mignonette. On Sundays, start your brunch off with oysters and champagne. Seriously, it doesn't get better than Eleven XI.

Photo by Troy Fields

When this West U eatery — the younger, more casual sister of Italian resto' Coppa — opened, it set out to make the kind of pizza people want to eat. We'd say it has succeeded. Diners can look in on the "dough room," where fresh pizza (and pasta) dough are flawlessly prepared. The 900-plus-degree gas-fired oven gives each pie a rustic, slightly charred crust that bubbles, craggles and crisps in all the right places, while simple, high-quality ingredients such as Calabrian chiles, prosciutto and scamorza blister under the high heat. If you want a taste of the good stuff but don't have time to stop in for a sit-down meal, don't fret! The restaurant even has a pizza-by-the-slice window. Mangia!

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