Local Spotlight

Where to Dine Out for Graduation in Houston

With bright, bold and unexpected bursts of flavor, any dinner at Xochi is a celebration.
With bright, bold and unexpected bursts of flavor, any dinner at Xochi is a celebration. Photo by Troy Fields

It’s cap and gown season, a magical time of reflection, opportunity and celebration. And if there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that after years of painstaking exams and ramen noodle study sessions, the graduate has earned a good meal! So we rounded up ten spots that offer the ambiance and gustatory delight worthy of a special occasion, from family-friendly restaurants to epic, splurge-worthy meals.

Emmaline's main dining area features floor-to-ceiling steel and glass windows, offering a glimpse of the Houston skyline. - PHOTO BY MAI PHAM
Emmaline's main dining area features floor-to-ceiling steel and glass windows, offering a glimpse of the Houston skyline.
Photo by Mai Pham
Emmaline, 3210 West Dallas, 713-523-3210
With outdoor seating, a lively atmosphere and dressed up feel, this posh newcomer from industry vet Sam Governale (Fleming’s in River Oaks) is already a neighborhood gem. Built around an heirloom oak in Montrose, the space is both light and lush, with a menu of in-season shareables and larger American and European-inspired plates to match. Nosh on dreamy local burrata, charbroiled oysters and pearls and harissa-spiked tuna crudo, to start; then linger and enjoy conversation over wood-fired cioppino, hanger steak fritti and decadent lamb pappardelle.

Peli Peli, 5085 Westheimer, 281-257-9500; 110 Vintage Park, 281-257-9500; 23501 Cinco Ranch, 281-257-9500
Step outside the box with fiery South African fusion at this upscale stunner, named after the African-grown bird’s eye chili spice known as “peri peri” or “pili pili”. Each location offers a relaxed atmosphere and an unexpected boost of ambiance, from the Galleria location’s show-stopping canopy of lights to Vintage Park’s center-piece “tree of life” and Cinco Ranch’s striking Acacia wood ceiling. Visit any and you can indulge in boerewors sausage, tiger prawn cakes and filets dressed up with spicy peli cream sauce or the restaurant’s signature “Huguenot” topping—a blend of raspberry chipotle sauce, creamy blue cheese and bacon. At the end of the meal, toast to the grad’s accomplishments with a sticky toffee pudding or a South African melktart finished with brûlée crumble.

Hungry’s in Rice Village, 2356 Rice, 713-523-8652
If you’re looking for something casual that can accommodate a crowd, this budget and kid-friendly spot combines a picturesque setting with a menu that offers something for everyone. Parties of six or more can submit a request for reservations online, and the restaurant allows you to bring in an outside dessert for a cake cutting fee ($2 per person – maximum charge of $30). Guests can start with chipotle chili crab cakes, housemade hummus and fire-roasted brussels sprouts before moving onto entrees from Southern fried chicken and mushroom burgers to lemon pasta and grilled rainbow trout. A kids menu is also available, with classics like chicken fingers, pasta and meatballs, and grilled cheese.

Pappas Bros. Steakhouse Downtown,1200 McKinney, 713-658-1995
Nothing says special occasion like a big ol’ steak in the heart of Downtown. Pappas Bros. is easily one of the city’s finest steakhouses, providing a high-roller setting, flawless dry-aged beef, stellar service and laundry list of excellent wine. Dine on seafood towers soaring with chilled Gulf oysters, shrimp, crab claws and live Maine lobster, gorgeously marbled bone-in ribeyes; grade A steakhouse sides like jumbo asparagus and bubbling au gratin potatoes; and Texas-sized gooey pecan pie for dessert. After dinner, take a stroll around the nearby Discovery Green, which is open daily until 11 p.m.

Coppa Osteria, 5210 Morningside, 713-522-3535
Those looking for a relaxed, chic atmosphere and plenty of shareable plates can enjoy a night out at this Italian-inspired Rice Village gem, which boasts a playful dining area and dramatic touches from burning wax candles and a wall of wine. Start with burrata arancini, fritto misto and antipasti boards, then dig into everything from truffle-mushroom pizza and whole-roasted branzino to chicken “under a brick” and spaghetti carbonara, finished tableside. Finish with sparkling cotton candy for the graduate and some tiramisu and zeppole for the table. Parties of up to 12 can try to book the dough room for a private, family-style meal.

You don't want to miss the showstopping desserts at Xochi, like this stunning cacao. - PHOTO BY TROY FIELDS
You don't want to miss the showstopping desserts at Xochi, like this stunning cacao.
Photo by Troy Fields
Xochi, 1777 Walker, 713-400-3330
Why not try to score a table at the hottest restaurant from Houston’s hottest chef? Chef Hugo Ortega’s Downtown jewel lights up with the rich flavors of Oaxaca, Mexico – deep, earthy moles, colorful scratchmade masas, and surprisingly good adornments like chicatanas (flying ants) fascinate the tastebuds. Don’t miss out on postres (desserts), mainly anything featuring genius pastry chef Ruben Ortega’s homemade chocolate…surely the graduate has earned churros and Oaxacan hot chocolate, properly frothed at the table.

Maison Pucha Bistro
,1001 Studewood, 713-637-4976

It’s a family affair at this hot new French spot from chef Manuel Pucha (formerly of La Table) and his brothers, Cristian (GM and bevarge director) and Victor (pastry chef). The menu mixes reinvented bistro classics— think Peking-style duck a l'orange and Prime ribeye béarnaise with oh-so-perfect frites, alongside with nuances from the Pucha brothers’ Ecuadorian heritage, shown off in dishes like a serrano-kissed shrimp ceviche, bright gazpacho and a compelling Ecuadorian chocolate soufflé. The stylish, blue-hued dining space evokes the serenity of the French coast, making it a choice spot to unwind with family and friends for dinner, or a celebratory weekend brunch (steak frites and eggs, anyone?).

Crawfish & Noodles,11360 Bellaire, 281-988-8098
Want to show visiting family and friends what Houston cuisine is really about? Celebrate graduation with a family-style feast at Houston’s favorite Viet-Cajun crawfish joint (which has always been beloved to locals but has garnered even more attention after chef Trong Nguyen’s James Beard nom and recent appearance in David Chang’s Netflix series, Ugly Delicious). Pinch, peel and suck garlic-butter-soaked crawdads by the pound; then tack on Vietnamese specialties like stewed turkey neck, stir-fried noodles and oxtail hot pot. Don’t forget the banh mi to soak up all the juices.

click to enlarge Show Houston off with Ninfa's legendary mixed grill fajitas. - PHOTO BY TROY FIELDS
Show Houston off with Ninfa's legendary mixed grill fajitas.
Photo by Troy Fields
The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation, 2704 Navigation, 713-228-1175
What better way to celebrate than with sizzling hot fajitas at Houston’s favorite Tex-Mex haunt. You’ll obviously want to try some, but the menu is full of other treasures to be explored. Hunker down in the lively dining room and order some appetizers for the table – the queso flameado, stretchy cheese and chorizo flamed tableside and served inside soft tortillas, is always a hit; as is the epic guacamole. Main choices range from those signature fajitas to enchiladas de mole, cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork), and wood oven-grilled Texas redfish a la Veracruzana. Marshmallow-flambeed tres leches is the perfect end to the meal.

Yauatcha, 5045 Westheimer, 713-357-7588
This high-end dim sum teahouse is worthy of a special celebration. Even better, dining with a group means you can put a dent in the extensive menu. Guests have the option of ordering a la carte – think beautiful scallop shui mai and chive flower dumpling, crispy duck rolls and pork puffs, sticky rice and hand-pulled noodle, seabass claypot and whole Peking duck; or ordering from preset menus of shareables. Save room for stunningly beautiful (and tasty) desserts, like the tropical dome and malted milk and honey panna cotta.
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Brooke Viggiano is a contributing writer who is always looking to share Houston's coolest and tastiest happenings with the Houston Press readers.
Contact: Brooke Viggiano