The season of endings, new beginnings and ugly polyester robes is almost upon us: In just a few weeks, family and friends will begin flocking in to witness graduation ceremonies across Houston.
As the resident family food blogger and an imminent graduate, I’ve been racking my brain to come up with suggestions that will both satiate and entertain my relatives during mealtime. My research among other food-obsessed friends as well as my constant restaurant stalking culled my original mountain of ideas down to these ten: establishments that showcase some of the best creativity and execution that Houston has to offer with a group-friendly atmosphere and decent parking. Oh, and they have to take reservations.
With those stipulations in mind, here are ten of the best restaurants in Houston at which to celebrate a graduation:
North Italia: From the ethereally light zucca chips (thin zucchini ribbons fried until golden) to the truffle garlic bread to the daily made-in-house pastas and small-but-delicious pizza and protein list, North Italia’s menu is solidly crowd-pleasing with little not to like (except maybe the trek out to the Galleria during rush hour — but the nearby garage or valet makes things a little less painful). The light-filled restaurant is great for groups, the prices are very reasonable, and catching one of the happy hours (3-6 p.m. on weekdays or all day Sunday) can make for an even more economical celebratory meal.
Artisans: Yes, celebrating your graduation with a large party might require taking out a second mortgage, but this cozy, rustic-chic French restaurant in Midtown is bound to execute everything perfectly, from its rich, silky soups of the day to the foie gras to the pistachio-crusted sea bass. Complete with a French-focused wine list and a long dessert list to follow — crème brûlée, tart tatin and millefuille, to name a few — Artisans consistently turns out exemplary French cuisine in a gorgeous setting. Artisans also has several private dining rooms that can accommodate groups of 12-14 diners.
Américas: Equipped with a number of private and semi-private rooms of varying sizes as well as one of the funkiest interior designs in Houston, Américas is one of the nicest-on-the-eyes locations to celebrate a graduation. The Latin American establishment’s “The Churrasco” was voted one of the top 20 steaks in America by Esquire magazine, and its tres leches has consistently been touted as one of the best in Houston— but don’t miss out on the expertly executed seafood, ceviches or other delicious desserts.
Corner Table: For those with family members adhering to special diets (particularly paleo or gluten-free, though Corner Table is also good at accommodating vegetarians), Corner Table is an essential restaurant to have in your back pocket. In addition to its main dining room and cabana-style patio, there's a private dining room for larger parties. From the raw vegan pad thai to a paleo paella, Corner Table is your best bet to find something for any restricted dieter in your life.
Caracol: Utterly fresh ceviche, oysters and other small bites inspired by the Mexican coast are even better enjoyed in Caracol’s stunning light-filled restaurant and with the knowledge that the food you’re eating has been hand-selected by a team committed to responsible sourcing. Inventive and flavorful, Caracol’s dishes range from expertly cooked seafood to one of the most extensive and exciting vegetarian menus I’ve seen at a restaurant lately. You must end your meal with El Coco, a chocolate shell of a coconut filled with coconut buttercream, ganache and streusel. You get to crack it open with a mallet. *mike drop*
Da Marco: Consistently voted one of the top restaurants in Houston, Da Marco makes for a top-notch elegant celebratory dinner with its Tuscan-inspired dishes. Be aware that there is a dress code here (jackets are preferred for guys), and be prepared to drop a pretty penny on creations like sweet corn ravioli with lobster, whole branzino or maple leaf duck. Dolce Vita and Poscol fall under the same ownership and are less expensive, but still superior options for a celebratory dinner.
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Brennan’s: If you have relatives flying in from far-off locales who are curious about Southern cuisine, Brennan’s is a great way to show them a little New Orleans flair without having to make the actual trip. The vest-clad waiters will make your visit to the classy dining room just as comfortable as the rich food will. You’re not going to find the restaurant's famous turtle soup or creole lobster “on a stick” anywhere else in Houston, and the bananas Foster, flamed tableside, is a fabulous ending to the night (as are the free pralines).
Kata Robata: While you could go with Uchi, my personal favorite sushi in town comes from Kata Robata. It’s easy to put together little plates of kobe beef skewers, sashimi, a few rolls, bites like the uni chawanmushi (a protein-studded version of the Japanese-style egg custard), bulk it all up with the miso lobster mac ‘n’ cheese and end up with a phenomenal feast. Or if you have just a couple of serious sushi connoisseurs in your party, opting for the omakase is another way to ensure you’re celebrating graduation the right way.
Underbelly: Those with foodie families can’t skip James Beard Award-winning Chris Shepherd’s accolade-laden crown jewel of a restaurant. Self-described as “The Story of Houston Food,” Shepherd attempts to express his take on Houston’s New American Creole cuisine or merging of diverse cultures with local ingredients through items like smoked pork roast with corn grits and coffee-roasted carrots or Korean braised goat and dumplings or spice-crusted catfish with new potatoes and corn maque choux. The entire menu is designed for sharing, making it perfect for a graduation group, large or small.
Coppa Osteria: In my opinion, Coppa Osteria is one of the best places to celebrate an occasion (and, ultimately, my final pick). While waiting for your party to gather, you can cluster around the bar off to the side. Once you're seated, it’s hard not to find something that pleases everyone in a large group — the menu spans a wide variety of pasta, pizza, protein, salad, antipasti and side dishes. The truffle-kissed burrata makes a jaw-dropping shared starter, and the scamorza pizza and spaghetti carbonara just makes for happy eating. Coppa’s “Dough” room will fit a party of up to 12, and if you happen to feel like bringing in your own celebratory cake, the staff will do a bang-up job of slicing and serving it for you.