Restaurant Reviews

Take It Outside

With patio weather season in full swing, Houstonians are absolutely spoiled for places to enjoy the day outside. But sometimes the choices can be overwhelming, the pressure mounting as the sun creeps up in the sky on a beautiful Saturday morning. All you know is that you're in the mood for a patio, but how do you choose? With our help, of course.

First, you pick a category. Got kids in tow? Need a place with a fine wine selection? Want something a little off the beaten path? We've got you covered.

Patios to Pretend You're on Vacation

Las Ventanas, 14555 Grisby Rd., 281-752-6990
Destination: Puerto Vallarta. Las Ventanas is plain old gorgeous, period. Of course, you'd expect nothing less from the guys who originally brought you Las Alamedas on Buffalo Bayou. Think Mexican resort (minus the pool and hotel) at its finest, and you have Las Ventanas.

Flora & Muse, 12860 ­Queensbury Ln., 713-463-6873
Destination: Belgium. There's something about the pan-European menu — French here, Turkish there, high tea and Belgian waffles — that gives this Flora & Muse the vibe that you're in the crossroads of Europe, perhaps Brussels or Bruges. The invitingly shaded patio that obscures a view of CityCentre and the parking garages helps, too.

Cafe Mawal, 6006 Fairdale, 713-977-1999
Destination: Jordan. Is there anything more exotic-on-a-budget than dining on freshly cooked Jordanian cuisine and smoking shisha in an authentic Bedouin tent, its thick walls and low floor keeping you cool even during the scorching summer? Order the house special — Mawal-style chicken — and a cold glass of Arabic tea before indulging in the tobacco. We recommend double-apple.

Patios to Drink a Glass of Wine (or Several)

Backstreet Cafe, 1103 S. Shepherd, 713-521-2239
With one of the best sommeliers in the city — Sean Beck — and one of the prettiest patios, Backstreet is a surefire bet for this category. If you dress up, you can pretend like you're a Lady Who Lunches, even if only for the afternoon. And to quote Robb Walsh, the best thing about Backstreet Cafe is that "the food is better than it has to be."

Vineyard on the Square, 16135 City Walk, Sugar Land, 281-277-1851
Much like Cru in The Woodlands, the strength of the Vineyard's patio is its great people-watching along the Sugar Land Town Square. But more than just a nice patio, the Vineyard also has a state-of-the-art Enomatic wine system that allows it to offer up to 48 wines by the glass at any given time. And as at Block 7 Wine Co., you can purchase wines from its retail side to drink with no corkage fee, then take the rest home if you don't finish a bottle.

The Grove, 1611 ­Lamar, 713-337-7321
Is there a prettier sight in all of Houston than a bustling city park filled with farmers' market shoppers, little kids in swimsuits, happy dogs with Frisbees and beautiful old oak trees among the green grass? That's the view onto Discovery Green on Sundays from The Grove, although the view is equally fetching on every other day of the week — especially from the second-story patio onto the downtown skyline at dusk. Add a respectable wine list with plenty of intriguing options by the glass, and you have a stunner.

Patios to Take Your Kids

Mission Burrito, 2245 W. ­Alabama, 713-529-0535
It's the West Alabama incarnation of this burrito chain that's best for babies (or toddlers or kids), and that's because of the giant playground out front. Let your kids build their own burrito — you can't be fussy about the food when you're choosing the ingredients, right? — and then let them run it off in the mulch and on the jungle gym outside. Bonus: The place has better frozen margaritas than you'd expect, so pick a designated driver before you go.

Jimmy Changas, 5144 Center St., Pasadena, 713-575-2700
It's impossible to dislike Jimmy Changas if you have kids, especially if you have kids and you're on the southeast side of town. The palatial Tex-Mex restaurant has an enormous play area for the smaller kids, Jimmy's Jungle, and some beautiful outdoor lounging areas with fire-ringed fountains for teens who want to be cool and dine apart from their parents. The "Little Jimmys" menu also has a nice assortment of Tex-Mex items and standards like macaroni and cheese.

Red Balloon Cafe, 4410 ­Westway Park Blvd., 713-690-3114
The counter service-only Red Balloon, the fabulous little restaurant on a very not-little piece of land out in Northwest Houston, faces Carolyn Wolff Park and its generous allotment of old oaks. It's perfect for playing tag or whatever kids do these days when given green space and no portable gaming systems. We also hear that Chef Eric Grbic performs magic tricks for the kids on occasion when he's not cooking up shrimp or catfish specials.

Patios to Catch Up with Friends

Baba Yega, 2607 Grant, 713-522-0042
If the patio at Baba Yega were a person, it would be the Queen Mother. No other patio in Houston quite holds a candle to this sprawling, lush, quirky, sunny, wonderfully unique outdoor area that's expanded several times over the years. Even the "indoor area" has a patio feel to it, with views onto the beautifully landscaped gardens and fountains. There isn't a bad spot in the entire place, and the Sunday brunch buffet is the perfect way to catch up with your friends after a long week. (It's also the ideal kickoff spot for Sunday Funday, just saying.)

Grappino di Nino, 2817 W. ­Dallas, 713-522-5120
There's a reason that Robb Walsh once called Grappino di Nino — along with its sister restaurants on West Dallas, Vincent's and Nino's — "one of the most idyllic dining destinations in the city." Since 1977, the Mandola family has made certain that this little stretch of property bordering Montrose is always impeccably maintained, especially the elegant open-air patio that forms the main dining area of Grappino di Nino. Suggest this patio for post-work drinks with friends (half glasses of Italian wine are only $5), and you'll be hailed as a hero.

Moon Tower Inn, 3004 Canal, 832-266-0105
Hanging out at Moon Tower is more akin to going over to a friend's backyard than going to a restaurant. It's nearly impossible to leave after only an hour; this is the kind of place that demands you meet both old friends and new over endless pitchers of beer, horseshoes on the lawn and, of course, excellent hot dogs in fresh buns from Slow Dough Bread Co. Crawfish Sundays throughout the summer encourage this even more.

Unexpected Treasure Patios

Mediterraneo, 18033 Upper Bay Rd., Clear Lake, 281-333-3180
Down in Clear Lake, you could easily be forgiven for driving straight past Mediterraneo; after all, the Middle Eastern restaurant/market is in a slightly run-down strip center that looks like a chunk of Cheshire accidentally landed in Texas in all its Tudor glory. But the patio at Mediterraneo is glorious, all rainbow-colored umbrellas and lush foliage disguising the front entrance itself. Go for the sea breeze, stay for the hummus.

Plonk, 1214 W. 43rd, 713-290-1070
In winter, the patio is heated and cozy. In the summer, it's shaded with azure sails and cooled by misting fans. You're guaranteed to find comfort either way, even though the patio itself backs up to a Randalls in an Oak Forest strip center. But as pretty as the patio is, you're not going to notice. The excellent guanciale cheeseburger and stunning wine selection serve as pretty great distractions. And as if that weren't enough, the beer selection is just as good.

Bohemeo's, 708 Telephone Rd., 713-923-4277
The East End is only quiet for now. In another ten or 20 years, this part of Houston may very well look like Montrose does today. For now, enjoy the peace and quiet on the patio at colorful Bohemeo's, which also happens to offer some of our favorite coffee and fish tacos in town. The view of the downtown skyline at dusk is unparalleled, and live music at night is always a treat. Be sure to grab a sweet potato bar for dessert on your way out.

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Katharine Shilcutt