Brunch might be Houston’s most popular meal. Every Saturday and Sunday morning, droves of residents go out — maybe in jeans or perhaps in their Sunday best – in search of one of the greatest meals ever invented. It’s one where cocktails in the morning or early afternoon are not just okay but encouraged. It’s when sweet French toast and maple syrup-drenched pancakes parlay for diners' affections with savory bacon, sausage, hash or eggs.
The best brunches are sumptuous, lingering affairs. These are feasts; a sanctioned, communal type of hedonism that allows diners to reconnect with friends and family over the kind of over-the-top meal that's available only on weekends. Here are a dozen Houston restaurants that really understand what brunch is all about.
12. Davis St. at Hermann Park, 5925 Almeda. The atmosphere on any given Sunday is convivial and vibrant. During brunch, executive chef Jonathan Penright can usually be spotted manning the kitchen pass, checking over big platters of salmon Benedict and fried chicken before they are taken to hungry diners. Sizable pancakes topped with bananas Foster are a don’t-miss item thanks to just the right amount of caramelized syrup on top. Sunday brunch runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., so it’s possible to sleep late and still be able to land a hearty meal.
11. Ritual, 602 Studewood. We hope Ritual plans to expand its brunch menu with a few more dishes. As it stands, there are only eight to choose from. That said, what's available are good choices that showcase the farm-fresh egg and meat program. The Butcher’s Breakfast, for example, is enough to satisfy even the ravenous. It has three slices of delectable, house-cured bacon, a link of coarsely ground sausage, a petite steak, fried potatoes and outstanding grits, and is topped with a fried duck egg.
10. Étoile Cuisine et Bar, 1101-11 Uptown Park. Étoile has one of the most extensive brunch menus around, and it will be especially appealing to those who want dishes more on the “lunch” side of the equation. Brunch is served both Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The ravioli filled with duxelles (finely chopped mushrooms) and accented with port wine, white truffle oil and aged parmesan are especially pleasing. Plenty of French classics are on hand as well, including toasted brioche, omelettes, croque-madame (a croissant version topped with broiled ham, Gruyère and béchamel) and croque-monsieur (same as the croque-madame without the egg). There is always at least one specially created brunch cocktail to try, too.
9. Izakaya, 318 Gray. Chef Jean Philippe-Gaston’s brunch creations are fun and funky, yet very serious when it comes to ingredient quality and execution. Diners may shake their heads in wonder when they have the “Menoodles” — a fusion of menudo and ramen. Why didn't anyone think of this sooner? In fact, culinary mash-ups are a brunch-time specialty at Izakaya. Diners might also dig the musubi bibimbap — homemade "Spam" over sizzling rice with unagi sauce and topped with a fried egg and nori — or The Japanese French Guy, a take on croque-monsieur topped with Japanese curry sauce, pork katsu and a fried egg. Brunch is on Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.
8. Rainbow Lodge, 2011 Ella. Big windows with a view of lush greenery and fruit trees make brunch at Rainbow Lodge feel as if it’s being enjoyed near a country road instead of less than a mile from a Houston freeway. As if that weren’t enough incentive to linger, mimosas and glasses of the house sparkling wine are only $2 until 3 p.m. The braised buffalo short rib “Benedict” with poached eggs and jalapeño hollandaise on Texas toast was divinely juicy and meaty. Really hungry folks might prefer the mixed grill plate of game sausage, venison, Texas quail, blistered jalapeños and rösti (Swiss-style grated and fried) potatoes with two eggs.
7. Bernadine’s and 6. Hunky Dory, 1801 North Shepherd. We put these two together because they are right next door to each other and are both owned by the Treadsack restaurant group. However, the cuisines are very different, so choose based on mood. The very fine brunch at Bernadine’s features a special Sunday punch (such as a recent offering that involved orange juice spiked with mezcal), Southern specialties like beignets and fresh Gulf coast seafood. Hunky Dory’s brunch is British-influenced and includes tender scones with clotted cream and homemade jam, boldly spiced lamb vindaloo and the impressively large Smithfield’s Breakfast with a British banger (sausage), back bacon, black pudding, mushrooms, Heinz baked beans, a fried slice of bread and eggs. In other words, diners really can’t go wrong at either place. Brunch is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
5. Arnaldo Richards’ Picos, 3601 Kirby. Picos's big buffet and festive atmosphere — which includes live guitarists — make it a top pick for Sunday brunch in Houston. The all-you-can-eat feast includes several types of meats with mole (the pork in coloradito, a brick-red mole made from roasted peppers, is a favorite); pans full of tamales; paella; red and green posole; and good old-fashioned cheese enchiladas. Save room for dessert so as not to miss out on creamy rice pudding and the cinnamon- and sugar-encrusted churros. Brunch hours are from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays.
4. Hubbell & Hudson Bistro, 24 Waterway, #125, The Woodlands. Chef Austin Simmons and his staff make the best pancakes. No, it’s true. These are tall and fluffy flying saucers of delight, slathered in coffee-infused butter that soaks right into the airy little holes in the surface. As if they're not enough of a bread-y breakfast delight, there’s also thickly crusted brioche French toast topped with bananas Foster that might make diners weak in the knees. Like the pancakes, it’s topped with whipped maple syrup and coffee butter. On the savory side, Hubbell & Hudson’s rendition of chicken and waffles is a must-order item. A boneless, spicy, battered chicken breast rides high on a thick Belgian waffle topped with two fried eggs. Saturday brunch is from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Sunday brunch is from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. A more extensive menu is available on Sundays, but everything mentioned here is on the shorter “greatest hits” menu on Saturdays. We had no complaints about the selection.
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3. Caracol, 2200 Post Oak #160 and 2. Hugo’s, 1600 Westheimer
Caracol and Hugo’s have several similarities when it comes to brunch. They’re both owned by the married power couple of businesswoman Tracy Vaught and chef Hugo Ortega. Ortega’s brother, Ruben, oversees the fantastic dessert program, which often incorporates gorgeous chocolate made from their own in-house roasted cacao beans. Both restaurants put forth buffet-style brunches that are to die for (or to dine for), and beverage director Sean Beck oversees the killer wine and cocktail programs at both places. Here's how to choose between them: Hugo’s focuses on interior Mexican food. Caracol is all about coastal Mexican cuisine. So, for the most beef, pork, cheese and chicken dishes, aim for Hugo’s. For more seafood, including ceviche, fresh fish, shrimp, oysters and roasted red snapper, head to Caracol. That said, there’s lots of crossover between the two when it comes to meats, so Caracol might have delectable lamb ribs while Hugo’s sports banana leaf-roasted red snapper in achiote sauce.
1. Brennan’s of Houston, 3300 Smith. This beloved Creole restaurant is the granddaddy when it comes to luxurious brunches. Brunch is held on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The latter is the more festive of the two days, as that’s when a strolling band wanders from one dining room to the next playing feel-good jazz standards like “When The Saints Go Marching In” and “What A Wonderful World.” General manager and former executive chef Carl Walker still keeps a watchful eye on the place, as does president Alex Brennan-Martin. In the kitchen, chef Danny Trace and the rest of the talented staff skillfully prepare not only Brennan’s classics, like turtle soup and Bananas Foster finished table-side, but seasonally driven inventions. For example, when peaches are in season, they’ll show up in dishes like Texas peaches and cream pain perdu with applewood smoked country ham, homestead sorghum granola, Creole cream cheese whip and bayou rum cane syrup. Honestly, brunch at Brennan’s of Houston is a bucket list item every Houstonian needs to check off. Be sure to watch the video above to see Brennan's of Houston's Sunday brunch in action.