A city work crew, bright vests glowing in the dim early morning, makes its way through a breakfast of eggs and bacon. Along the window-side counter, two young professionals fight to overcome the martinis of the previous night with eye-opening cups of coffee. Just outside, the downtown trolley brakes to a stop, the driver dashing in for an OJ. He'll have to wait his turn behind the police duo and the likely parolee, the yuppies, law students, retirees and the rest of a down-and-out and up-and-coming mix as demographically diverse as there is to be found anywhere in the city. Proprietor Mike Baba, with his trademark grin and good-natured ways, presides over this rich array of customers in this longtime fixture at the southeast end of downtown. The small grocery, grill and deli that he and his family operate is a corner business in the Houston House apartments -- and a cornerstone for a legion of loyal patrons. More than mere foodstuffs are served up in this place. Regulars find themselves developing strange appetites for the other offerings dispensed -- news and gossip, helpful advice, humor from the give-and-take of customers and staff, mutual respect and heartfelt first-name interest in the lives that intersect here, however briefly. A dozen or so blocks north, downtown is busy redeveloping with boutique cafes and watering holes intent on instant status as the "in" place -- and intimate place -- to be. But for now, they can only hope to eventually evolve into the rich, diverse texture and honest atmosphere that the Baba family has cultivated so naturally.

Shiva Indian Restaurant From the saag paneer to the rice pudding, this Rice Village spot and its Sugar Land cousin serve up some of the best vegetarian Indian food around. Fun Indian decor and soothing music, along with good spinach pakora, creamy curry with rice and fresh-baked nan add to the busy buffet at noontime. And candlelight and friendly service make nighttime dining a romantic experience. Shiva offers some of the best Indian food around, with an emphasis on vegetarian dishes (including the mango ice cream). But entrées like the moist and tender tandoori chicken make this a place all your friends (veggie or not) can enjoy.

When The New York Times reviewed San Domenico, a restaurant thought by many to serve the best Italian food in Manhattan, the critic raved about an incomparable pasta dish that was so good it was unfair to the competition. It was a giant ravioli stuffed with a poached egg yolk and drenched in truffle butter. Sound good? Well, you're in luck. You can get that same "incomparable" pasta dish any night of the week at Da Marco. Which just goes to show, Da Marco's competition isn't in Houston -- it's in New York. The food here is a radical departure from the old-fashioned red sauce-smothered fare that's served in most Houston Italian restaurants. But sophisticated palates will recognize chef Marco Wiles's take on Italian as truly world-class.
Celebrating its tenth year this December, Barnaby's is a landmark in the Montrose. Named in memory of principal owner Jeffrey Gale's beloved sheepdog, the restaurant is adorned with cute images of the pooch. And the menu, consisting primarily of good ol' fashioned comfort food, reflects the people of the neighborhood itself: simple with an eccentric flair. Normally we wouldn't think of ordering meat loaf at a restaurant, but here the dish is so good (especially with the mashed potatoes) that it's difficult to order anything else. The blue cheese and bacon burger is another taste bud tingler. Veggie? Wonderful meatless alternatives pepper the Barnaby's selection, like the Pacific Rim stir-fry and a mouth-watering spinach and cheese lasagna. Chase them all down with the delightfully refreshing lemonade, not too tart, not too sweet. One meat lover likes to share a rack of tender smoked ribs and the excellent, crispy shoestring fries as an appetizer. That might sound insane, but everything is so well crafted, it's almost a shame to leave the place having tasted only one entrée. The top-notch nibbles are sure to make the dear doggy proud.

T'afia T'afia, the starkly minimalist Midtown restaurant run by star chef Monica Pope, is named after a Mediterranean beverage that's made by marinating fruit in a mixture of wine and spirits. The bar offers several varieties of these innovative cocktails, and they're incredibly refreshing. So are Pope's high ideals. Her allegiance to local organic farmers is legendary, and now she's working to improve the Houston food scene in other ways. Her "local market tasting menu" features five courses of Texas artisanal food products. You might get local duck prosciutto with Texas oranges, or Pure Luck Farm goat cheese with toasted pecans. T'afia also hosts a weekend farmers' market in the parking lot where Houstonians can buy some of the same high-quality ingredients that are served at the restaurant. Not only is Pope turning out some of the most innovative, cutting-edge cuisine in Houston, she's also single-handedly creating a market for Texas-produced specialty foods.

Blue Nile Ethiopian Restaurant Once the only Ethiopian eatery in town, Blue Nile now has some stiff competition. The new guys in town, Addisaba on De Moss Drive, are serving up some awesome yedoro wot. They also have a bar and a big-screen television set. But Blue Nile holds on to the title, thanks to superior vegetables and a more relaxing atmosphere. Blue Nile has some great meat dishes, but their seven vegetable selections are all knock-outs. The yemisser wot -- a red lentil stew seasoned with ginger, garlic and berbere sauce -- is often described as the African version of vegetarian chili. The shirro wot, a bright yellow pureed pea stew, is sensational here as well. But the best thing about Blue Nile is their traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, in which coffee is offered with frankincense, a basket of popcorn and a spirit of quiet meditation. Try that while you're sitting in front of a big-screen TV.

You're out having fun. You've had a few. You get the munchies. But you want to keep partying (or a member of your party wants to keep partying). Cosmos Cafe will keep everyone happy. The bar/live music venue/eatery serves food until midnight Mondays through Thursdays, until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and until 10 p.m. on Sundays. And we're not talking typical bar food here. Try the grilled tuna fillet sandwich with wasabi mayo, the pork chops with rosemary or the Thai beef salad. All go down well with alcohol. And you better believe you can light up that after-dinner smoke right at your table.
Even foodies will agree that sometimes comfort means more than cuisine, though the elegantly casual Auntie Pasto's offers a solid mix of both. It's not surprising that pasta reigns supreme here, with the 22 menu offerings ranging from black bean pasta (a Southwestern mix of cilantro, peppers, black beans, goat cheese and chicken over fettuccini) to crawfish ravioli. Feeling creative? Regulars and first-timers can improvise dishes off the no-nonsense menu. Appetizers like the tomato mozzarella are simple and pleasing. Thin-crust pizzas, namely the roasted garlic chicken and the four-cheese, feature sweet, buttery, fire-roasted crusts. And the sinful To Die For dessert also warrants a trip. This decadent, fruit-laden cousin of tiramisu features a freshly baked almond torte that houses berries, delicately sweet mascarpone and ladyfingers soaked in rum, peach schnapps, orange juice and Sprite. Flirting with death never tasted so good.

The wine room at the Rainbow Lodge will seat six, but to enjoy a really long lunch, it's better to go just as a pair. The cozy room is actually the wine steward's office, so you'll be luxuriating next to some of the all-time great bottles of wine. (Don't be tempted to lift one, since any suspicious-looking packages may be inspected.) The waitstaff is expertly trained, meaning they know when to take their leave and allow you some privacy to enjoy the wild game that the restaurant is famous for -- or perhaps even a wild game of your own. Along one wall is a comfortable bench seat where you can have a nice tête-à-tête with your guest. The menu is heavy with venison, quail, duck, elk and buffalo, but the chef does an equally outstanding job with salmon, trout and lobster. With the perfect food, elegant surroundings, outstanding wines and a good companion, lunch could turn into dinner before you know it.

We know what you're thinking. You saw "Galleria" and imagined meals at Morton's Steakhouse, or Cafe Annie or any number of high-dollar restaurants. That's why Chacho's is a natural choice. Located just down the street from the Galleria in a faux adobe building with bright pastel colors, Chacho's offers first-rate Tex-Mex made with fresh ingredients for paltry sums. As a result, Chacho's gives the House of Pies a run for its money as the best post-2 a.m. eatery for all your sobering-up needs. But it would be folly to arrive after last call. Their margaritas are terrific.

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