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.

Kanomwan It's like stumbling across a great noodle shop in the middle of Mexico. This East End legend offers no finery (plastic tablecloths, bare-bones walls) and barely there service, but the gai pad prig phao is some of the spiciest chicken and rice you'll find anywhere. Stir-fried chicken breast slices in chile paste and hot cashew nuts will light a fire in your belly, even if you eat it with the mounds of sticky rice. And the gang ped (choice of chicken or beef) swims in a sauce of Thai red curry, coconut milk and bamboo shoots. And Kanomwan's delicious cha yen (Thai tea with milk over ice) washes down the heat and keeps folks all over the city coming back for more.

The best thing about Mockingbird Bistro is the unpretentious menu. This is the perfect place to enjoy a big fat steak with french fries and an earthy Rhône red wine or a hamburger and a cold beer. In many cases, the quality of the ingredients elevates simple dishes to unexpected heights. A roasted beet salad with goat cheese, walnuts and greens is a humble masterpiece. The moules frites, a European cafe favorite that consists of a bucket of mussels in broth with french fries, may be the best in the city. Mockingbird serves their fries in a paper cone with mayonnaise on the side, Benelux-style. The french fries are good -- when they're freshly fried -- but it's the fat, grit-free, cultivated pei (Prince Edward Island) mussels that are really exceptional. The wine list here is well suited for those with limited budgets and adventurous tastes.

Caribbean Cuisine When the kitchen door swings open and a cook carts out another tray of patties, all eyes are on the pies. The golden-brown pastries with pungent meat-and-vegetable fillings are as much a staple of the island nation as is reggae music. Patties come with every dish at Caribbean Cuisine, a casual spot in an unassuming strip center where the food is authentically Jamaican and so are the accents. The cook makes a searing jerk sauce that's served with chicken, goat and pork dishes. Grab a Red Stripe from a cooler along the wall and tap your foot to the Rasta beat. Or peruse the mini-Jamaican grocery store in the corner -- anything to pass the time until the kitchen door swings open again.

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