Chances are that if you're heading downtown for a night out at the opera, the symphony or the Alley, you're not simply grabbing McDonald's on your way -- you want to make an evening of this, as well you should.
Many restaurants have done away with theater menus, meaning you'll have to order judiciously from the regular menus and advise staff that you need this meal to be slightly more fast-paced than normal. Fortunately, downtown is rich with restaurants that cater to the theater crowd -- and even a few in Midtown that offer complimentary shuttles to and from the Theater District so you don't have to walk.
10. The Blue Fish
One of the closest dining options to Jones Hall, the Alley, the Houston Ballet and the Wortham is this sushi palace that fronts Bayou Place. The Dallas-based chain features Americanized sushi at its cheekiest, with a giant ahi tuna tower that's smashed into bits tableside as its gleeful signature dish. Although there's no theater menu here, just tell the staff that you're heading to a show and they'll speed things up accordingly.
9. MKT Bar
MKT Bar inside the two-story Phoenicia grocery store is where you head for a lighter, more casual pre-show meal that doesn't skimp on flavor. I love the pizzas -- especially on thick whole wheat and kalamata olive crust -- and the za'atar-dusted fries, and the small but tight selection of wines and craft beers at the long, inviting bar. If you're taking in a movie at nearby Discovery Green, simply take a picnic instead -- either get MKT Bar's food to go or build your own basket inside the grocery store.
I've heard claims that 17 has a theater menu, although its Web site doesn't mention one and calls to the restaurant resulted in a confused employee asking me what a "prix fixe" menu is. However, the restaurant makes some mean modern American food and it's close -- only six blocks away from the Theater District. But if that's too far to hoof it, the Hotel Alden also offers shuttle service.
7. The Grove
Although the restaurant no longer offers the great three-course menu that netted The Grove a Best of Houston® award for Best Pre- or Post-Theater Restaurant in 2010, it's still a swank place to watch the sun set over downtown's lush Discovery Green before heading out to the theater. I prefer The Grove, however, for pre-gaming prior to events or concerts at the nearby Toyota Center.
There's not much within walking distance from the Hobby Center for the Performing aRTS except for Bayou Place. And then there's Artista, from the Cordúa family of restaurants, which not only is within the Hobby Center itself but has smashing views of downtown from its second-story aerie. In keeping with its location, Artista has divided its South American-influenced menu into sections such as Act 1, Act 2 and Accompaniments.
The last time I went to The Capitol before a show at the Alley Theatre, my friends and I had such a good time that we ended up missing Santaland Diaries entirely and stayed put in our big red booth. Most nights, there's a show to be seen here as well -- whether at the always busy bar or on the main stage, where live acts are frequently booked. The straightforward menu has something for everyone, including a snazzy grown-up hot dog topped with brisket chili.
Much like The Grove, Quattro is an ideal spot for an intimate dinner before concerts at the Toyota Center or the nearby House of Blues. It offers great views from inside the Four Seasons hotel and even better food from chef Maurizio Ferrarese, but the real deal comes on big concert nights: Quattro offers free valet parking, a prix fixe menu and complimentary post-dinner drinks when big-name artists such as Lady Gaga, Madonna and Andrea Bocelli come to town to play the Toyota Center.
Damian's has been one of the city's best Italian restaurants going on 30 years, and shows no signs of stopping. Look for the house special osso bucco that's served only on Friday and Saturday nights. And although Damian's is in Midtown, it offers a private shuttle to the Theater District that will drop you at the door of the Wortham, Jones Hall or the Alley Theatre. Just remember to make reservations.
The grand, theatrical dining room at Line & Lariat is a great pre-opening act, and chef David Luna's food is guaranteed to draw applause. The Theater District is within easy walking distance, but if you're taking in shows at the Rodeo this season, Line & Lariat has you covered there, too: Valet for $6 and leave your car parked at Line & Lariat after dinner; just hop on the Metro Light Rail that's right outside and get dropped off at Reliant Park.
Brennan's offers a dedicated shuttle to the Theater District -- with drop-offs at the Alley, the Wortham, Jones Hall and the Hobby Center -- during both lunch and dinner, so you can valet your car at the restaurant without worries. Reservations are required, of course, as one would expect at Houston's grande dame Cajun restaurant with a fabulous French Quarter flair. Brennan's is fine dining at the peak of its game, and has been my choice for pre-theater dining since my mother first took me there before the Nutcracker when I was ten years old.