Honorable Mention: Fluff Bake Bar, 314 Gray
Fluff Bake Bar is more of a bakery than a restaurant but it's a must-visit Midtown establishment. There’s a small but surprisingly astute wine program and the staff can help guide guests to good choices for pairing with desserts. Even people who don't have a sweet tooth should still drop by for the outstanding charcuterie platter. A recent example included spicy 'nduja (a luscious, spreadable sausage), chunky goat mortadella studded through with pistachios, loukaniko, a cured Greek sausage and several cheeses from the Houston Dairymaids, including Casatica di Bufala (soft cheese made of Italian water buffalo milk), Chiriboga Blue and Cabot cloth-wrapped cheddar.
Hopefully you do have a sweet tooth, though, because it would just be a shame to not be in the mood for pastry chef Rebecca Masson's chocolatey Veruca Salt cake (named "Best Cake" for Best of Houston 2015), oaty Hobnobs or her insane(ly delicious) Couch Potato cookies with potato chips, chocolate chips, pretzel bits and corn flakes all held together with marshmallow.
Honorable Mention: Spec’s Deli, 2410 Smith
Spec's deli counter has been a boon to harried workers for years and its big sandwiches, piled high with meats, cheeses and veggies, are good values, too. The Lucky Lucy ($7.50) is like a Reuben but with both pastrami and corned beef—in other words, a sandwich that has achieved its higher purpose. For vegetarians, there’s The Rabbit ($6.99) with grilled eggplant, squash, zucchini, roasted red peppers, sprouts, feta and pesto on toasted focccia. They’re known for their burgers, too, such as the Smoke & Pepper burger with cheddar cheese, pepper bacon and bacon aioli with lettuce, tomato and red onion. For a sweet snack afterward, don't fail to check out the huge aisle of fancy chocolate bars. Bonus: you can restock your booze cabinet while grabbing lunch and that's a perk that you'll never get at Subway or Which Wich.
10. (Tie) Pho Saigon, 2808 Milam / Thien An Sandwiches, 2611 San Jacinto
Which of these popular casual Vietnamese spots to select depends on what's desired. People who don't have a lot of time on their lunch hour should head to no-frills Pho Saigon. On rainy or cold days, Houstonians queue up for a own comforting bowl full of broth, thin rice noodles and beef spiked to taste with hoisin and Sriracha. The people who run it are total pros at getting people seated and served quickly. The pho (Vietnamese noodle soup), cha gio (Vietnamese-style eggrolls) and cafe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee) are all just great. Service can be brusk but they'll get you back to the office quickly.
Thien An Sandwiches used to be in a small, modest strip center location but relocated several months ago to a bigger, stand-alone building with an ample parking lot. The name alludes to the great banh mi, but it also dishes out good bowls of pho. It's a nicer setting than Pho Saigon, but service can be slow.
9. The Breakfast Klub, 3711 Travis
Going to The Breakfast Klub can be a communal experience. It's far more than just getting some grub. There's often a line on Saturday and Sunday mornings, but so what? Staff members walk up and down the lines greeting guests and handing out menus and there's nothing wrong with striking up a conversation with a fellow Houstonian. Once inside, order at the register, grab a cup of above-average coffee and hunker down over a soul-satisfying plate of either spicy chicken wings and a giant, Belgian waffle or the acclaimed catfish and grits. They serve lunch, too, so don't hesitate to explore the other menu options. These are just the famous ones.
8. Artisans, 3201 Louisiana
Artisans, the classy French restaurant endeavor by chefs Jacques Fox and David Denis, as well as sommelier Sylvain Denis, is a perfect place for a business lunch during the day. At night, it's equally suited as a romantic date spot. The interior is fun and impressive, with a vast open kitchen and counter seating that allows diners to watch all of the work that goes into the artfully plated meals. Spend a little with the three-course business meals for $29 or a lot by splurging on Petrossian caviar with blinis and Champagne for $120. The six-course tasting menu with wine pairings is actually a good value at $139 for a decadent, celebratory meal.
7. Damian’s Cucina Italiana, 3011 Smith
You don't get to stick around for over 30 years if you don't have something good to offer. The granddad of downtown Houston Italian restaurants started in 1983. (Carla Soriano, now Gomez, wrote a lovely article marking the 30th anniversary that's recommended reading before you go.) Damian's serves up big bowls of Italian soup (Milo Hamilton's Pasta e Fagioli was named for the legendary sports announcer years before his death because he loved it so), platters pasta and classic veal dishes, like veal marsala and rosemary-rubbed veal chops with a big side order of old-school service. That kind of service never goes out of style.
6. Jinya Ramen, 3201 Louisiana
JINYA Ramen, which started making waves in the Houston area with its outstanding, complex ramen with a location in Webster, is one of the restaurants that filled in a big deficit in places to eat late at night in Midtown. There are many kinds of ramen available here: tonkotsu, miso, chicken and even a vegetarian option, but the fried dumplings and rice bowls with various meaty toppings are also delightful. The craft beer and sake lists are small but it's not hard to find a good pairing.
4. Ibiza, 2450 Louisiana #300
Ibiza is the restaurant that put chef Charles Clark in the national spotlight and set him along the restaurateur path along with business partner Grant Cooper. (The duo also own Coppa Osteria, SaltAir, Punk's Simple Southern Cusine and other endeavors with corporate executive chef Brandi Key having a big role in the direction of the cuisine these days.) Ibiza has a nice patio and when the weather's good, inspired cuisine like La Plancha Style Octopus with Chorizo and Piquillo Peppers stuff with pulled pork and topped with Alabama white barbecue sauce tastes mighty fine indeed. People with hearty appetites will meet their match in the Braised Pork Osso Buco with Bleu Cheese and Bacon Mashed Potatoes.
4. Weights + Measures, 2808 Caroline
Weights + Measures is an ambitious project that serves diners from early in the morning until late in the evening. In the mornings, it's a great stop for doughnuts and pastries from the in-house Slow Dough Bake Shop and people who aren't rushing to work can have a sit-down breakfast inside the restaurant proper. Next is casual lunch service with burger and sandwich options as the afternoon fades into happy hour. As night falls, it's time for dinner and this is where Weights + Measures really pulls the stops out. Dive into a four-course meal here starting with something as simple as chicken liver and toast or as elaborate as wood grilled mortadella with a balsamic reduction, pistachio crunch and a fried egg. The Lacquered Duck Breast is a customer favorite, as are the piping hot "Doughknots" with cardamom and honey. It's also become a reliable stop for late-night cocktails.
3. Holley’s Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar, 3201 Louisiana
Chef Mark Holley spent a long time working for the Brennan family so it shouldn't be surprising that his fare has a New Orleans vibe. That's not his only inspiration, though. Holley's has been an opportunity for him to branch out and reach for inspiration ranging from the low country to Asian cuisine. The LH Gumbo may very well be the best in Houston and yet warming, spicy Koonce's Peanut Soup could give it a run for the money. For dinner, the Blackened Grouper with Carolina Gold rice, creamer peas, Kimchi-seasoned greens and ham hock pot liquor is strongly recommended but a couple dining together will delight in the amazing presentation of the Thai-Style Fried Snapper for two. Do not miss the coconut cake, unless you are allergic, in which case we feel very sorry for you.
2. Oporto Fooding House, 125 West Gray #500
Oporto was the Houston Press "Best New Restaurant" choice for Best Of Houston 2015. It's at the end of a somewhat triangular building in Midtown, so the front is narrower than the back, but they made the best out of an awkward design situation. It's gorgeous inside—dark, sexy and classy. Owned by husband and wife team Rick Di Virgilio and chef Shiva Patel-Di Virgilio, Oporto is like an equivalent love match between their earlier endeavors — the original Oporto and Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen. Have a casual meal at the bar or bring friends and indulge in a multi-course dinner. The seafood-heavy menu includes croquetas de bacalhau (salted cod croquettes), polvo com batatas (charred octopus) and littleneck clams bathed in white wine sauce. There's a wine list spanning the world from Portugal to Chile that makes it almost too easy to find a splendid pairing.
1. Brennan’s of Houston, 3300 Smith
Brennan's of Houston opened in 1967 and to this day it is still considered a very special place to go to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. The business crowd loves the sumptuous Creole-inspired lunches and tiny dollar martinis at lunchtime and a visit doesn't seem complete without a bowl of the famous Turtle Soup. The restaurant, which had to be rebuilt after a fire during Hurricane Ike, features several elegant private dining rooms perfect for any celebration. Chef Danny Trace doesn't allow this old Houston classic to become staid, though, relying on a true farm-to-table program (as in, he actually sources directly from local farmers and ranchers) and international cuisines to inspire new seasonal dishes. The casual crowd delights in happy hour at the bar and on the patio with small bites and drink specials. Houston legends Carl Walker (former chef and now general manager) and longtime head bartender Richard Middleton are still responsible for steering the ship and teaching the young ones a thing or two.
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