Maeve Pesquera may have graduated from hostess at Anthony's to operating partner of the new Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, but she hasn't lost her touch with diners. Like children following the Pied Piper, the in-crowd flocked to Fleming's right along with her. While running a restaurant keeps her busy, she still spends time on the floor meeting and greeting. Fashionable, fun and formidable (especially when it comes to remembering names), Pesquera is proof that it takes more than a winning smile to keep the customers coming back, but it doesn't hurt to look the part, either.

The fact that there are always people standing in line at Frenchy's guarantees that every piece of chicken you get has just come out of the fryer. But Frenchy's is more than a chicken shack. Since 1969, Percy Creuzot has turned out the tastiest greens, the most satisfying andouille-studded red beans and rice and some of the best dirty rice and jambalaya the city has ever known -- all sold in Styrofoam containers for a veritable pittance. Located on Scott Street in the shadow of the University of Houston's Robertson Stadium, this venerable Creole chicken shack has fed starving UH students for more than three decades. It's also popular with those who keep late hours, since it's open until 1 a.m. on weeknights and 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Best Place to Skip Dinner and Go Straight to Dessert

Dessert Gallery Bakery & Café

There are two kinds of people in the world: dessert people and people who do not even bat an eyelid when dessert is mentioned. The former can get more excited about a piece of Chocolate Decadence than any appetizer or entrée. The Dessert Gallery was created especially for these people. There is so much to choose from that you almost wish they had an all-you-can-eat buffet (hint, hint!). Of course, there are the standards that appear on many a menu: pecan pies, carrot cakes, German chocolate cakes, Italian cream cakes and tiramisu. Then there those that raise the passion in a dessert person -- like the key lime cheesecake, which adds a lime curd topping to a deliciously smooth cheesecake, or the Turtle Candy Cake, whose gooey chocolate cake is filled with caramel and pecans. So, if you're the kind of person who's always saving himself for dessert, here's the place to let yourself go.

Cali Sandwich It's not uncommon to wait for a table at this Midtown eatery. That's because of the sheer variety of Vietnamese food served here, all of it authentic and made with fresh ingredients. Bahn mi (sandwiches), pho (soups) and bun (noodle dishes) are all served here, and nothing costs more than a few bucks. Vegetarians will appreciate the extensive array of meat-free dishes, such as the fragrant, steamy stir-fry or the vegetable fried rice (to which you can add tofu). For carnivores, the chargrilled pork chop ($4.75), served with shredded pork and a fried egg on top of crushed rice, is one hearty meat dish.

When the original owners of Nielsen's first came to Houston from Denmark, they tried to sell the famous Danish open-faced sandwiches called smorrebrod. But customers didn't know how to eat the messy sandwiches (Danes use a fork and knife) and the health department wouldn't let them be displayed without some kind of covering. So Nielsen's gave up and started serving American-style overstuffed sandwiches with cole slaw, potato salad and deviled eggs on the side. Fifty years later, Nielsen's Danish deli on Richmond is a Houston landmark. But what made the place famous is a bit of a surprise: Houstonians come from far and wide to buy the homemade mayonnaise. While the thin-sliced pastrami on rye is excellent; and the corned beef, liver paste and Swiss sandwich is a work of art; it's the homemade mayonnaise-laden potato salad that caused Gourmet magazine to ask for a recipe. Nielsen's sells its mayo by the pint, too, so when you stop by for a sandwich, you can get some to stick in the fridge.

Best Neighborhood Spot in Bellaire

Bellaire Coffee Shop The coffee's always hot at the Bellaire Coffee Shop -- God knows how many pots they make each day. The Mayberry-esque '50s atmosphere is authentic here: The waitresses call their customers "hon," and there's a constant hiss from the griddle as the fry cook shoves breakfast and lunch orders along, somehow never mixing them up even during the busiest times. The coffee-shop faithful -- from the morning parade of breakfast customers to the mid-afternoon regulars who gather to chat about the day's events -- have a deep love for this eatery. The buzz of good-natured gossip is as much an ingredient of this experience as the steamy joe and homey recipes.

Owner Jorge Fife is the chef, bartender and occasionally the waiter. He also provides the entertainment at this wacky little joint in the northern suburbs. Fife isn't from Portugal -- he grew up in Mozambique, one of its former colonies. So while there's Portuguese chourico and feijoada on the menu, you'll also find curry from Goa, a Portuguese colony in India, and piri-piri sauce from Mozambique. The decor includes a simulated African hut and a giant map charting the travels of Vasco de Gama and other Portuguese explorers. The restaurant might as well have been called A Taste of Portugal and Its Far-Flung Colonies. But whatever you order, the sparkling hospitality shines. Eating here is like going to a dinner party at a friendly stranger's house.

A fusion restaurant that brings together Persian, Indian, Mediterranean and American dishes, this place serves the most ferociously seasoned Middle Eastern food you've ever eaten. All the meats are halal, the Muslim equivalent of kosher. Standouts include the Mix Grill Dos, with two kinds of tandoori chicken; a half skewer of jujubideh, a Persian chicken kabob seasoned with saffron and lemon; and a full skewer of koobideh, a highly seasoned Persian ground-beef kabob. The menu also includes a Greek shawarma wrap and bakra ke korma, a fabulous slow-cooked goat curry. "The animals sourced for halal meat are not fed hormones of any kind, so you can be assured of receiving healthier, better-tasting meat for your dining experience," claims the menu. Don't miss the fiery halal hamburger! Unfortunately, tencafé's halal status also means that you can't get any beer with your spicy food.

Best Neighborhood Spot in the Village

El Meson Assuming you can find a parking spot in the Rice Village, you'll find the air-conditioned cave that is El Meson a most relaxing treat. Always start with a tangy margarita (they go like gangbusters at cocktail hour). Then decide what you're in the mood for: Cuban? Spanish? Mexican? Here they have them all. There's always a relaxed vibe from the mostly young, professional patrons, even during the time-crunched lunch hours, and El Meson's funky interior -- along with the cushy booths and a second margarita -- will transport you right out of the Village. For a while, you'll inhabit an oasis steeped in delightfully sweet plantains, homemade salsa and the strong aroma of garlic from the kitchen.

Dim the lights and let the show begin. The cast of characters in this cozy nook of The Lancaster Hotel ranges from the elegant to the occasionally eccentric. The richly hued set reflects the intimate, refined taste of a real Broadway in the heart of the Theater District. While the city shells out millions in tax breaks for hotel and restaurant newcomers, Bistro Lancaster is the proud experienced veteran from the lean years of downtown. The always efficient waitstaff serves up simple but savory full-course meals and spectacular appetizers and drinks. Savvy patrons of the arts know that this spot, at the corner of Louisiana and Texas, has become as much a part of Houston's theater scene as any performance hall. Shows come and go -- the Lancaster's excellence proves it's here to stay.

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