Best of Houston

The Rest of the Best: Houston's Top 10 First Date Spots

There was a period of time in my life when I couldn't get enough of that first date feeling. It's akin to the adrenaline rush of skydiving or rock climbing -- except often with the promise of food or drinks in lieu of potentially plummeting to your death. (Sure, there's the danger of emotional pain instead of physical pain, but that probably won't happen until at least several dates away.)

Since a first date is often the initial and most important impression you'll make, you want that impression to be memorable. But how do you achieve "memorable" without also committing the cardinal sin of trying too hard? You plan an awesome, low-key, casual yet elegant first date -- that's how.

Although I've been out of the dating game for a while now, I still remember that my favorite first dates were just like that: low-key and loose. I enjoyed it immensely when a guy planned an evening that started out with coffee and/or a drink, with the possibility of more to come if that first sip went well. (And by "more to come," I mean dinner or hopping over to another bar to continue the evening. Get with it.) When the first-date planning was left to me, I often did the same.

Were I still dating today, these are ten of the afternoons or evenings I'd plan for a first date. All of these destinations also double as terrific occasions to reconnect with your spouse or partner as well, so book a babysitter and make it a date.

Note: Most of these first dates involve a small degree of walking, so ditch the crazy heels.

10. Plonk and Petrol Station

Plonk is casual enough for a glass of wine at the bar, yet the wine selection under owner Scott Miller will impress even the fussiest wine drinker. If all goes well, stay for dinner and grab a seat on Plonk's beautiful, garden-flanked patio. And if you manage not to drink Plonk's cellar dry, head to Petrol Station afterward for a dessert beer and more lush outdoor seating. Both of these somewhat-hidden gems are in the Garden Oaks/Oak Forest area, and you'll look like a champ for seeking them out.

9. Blacksmith, El Real Tex-Mex Cafe and The Hay Merchant

Blacksmith closes at 5 p.m. every day, so keep that in mind as you're planning. Meet up for a coffee at one of the best coffee shops in the city and watch the traffic trickle by on Westheimer. Afterward, walk across the street for a classic Tex-Mex dinner at El Real, then work it off by walking back across Westheimer to The Hay Merchant and finishing the night with pints and pinball (there are three newly-installed machines; the AC/DC pinball table is by far the best).

8. Sale-Sucre, Fitzgerald's and BB's Cafe

If you already know your first date and have an established comfort level, why not plan an evening around a band you both like? Have a not-too-fancy French dinner at cozy Gallic cafe Sale-Sucre first, then walk a few doors down White Oak to Fitzgerald's for a show. After it's over, compare notes over a sweet, boozy Hurricane at BB's Cafe, right across the street.

7. Leon's Lounge, Kim Tai or Reef and Mongoose vs. Cobra

Meet up for pre-dinner cocktails at Leon's Lounge (the oldest continuously operating bar in Houston) and enjoy this unspoiled patch of Midtown over Leon's terrific liquor selection. For dinner -- depending on your date -- go upscale and impressive at seafood palace Reef, or go super-low-key at scruffy Vietnamese diner Kim Tai. One has great fish, the other has great pho, both are half a block away. Close out your night with punch and poetry back across the street at Mongoose vs. Cobra, the beer bar that offers a more refined drinking experience than you'd expect.

6. Charity Saloon or Line & Lariat, Goro & Gun or Batanga and Bad News Bar or La Carafe

There's so much to do around Market Square right now that you can make several dates out of this downtown destination. To go slightly upscale, get pre-dinner drinks inside the gorgeous, converted bank lobby at Line & Lariat, then walk across Congress for modern tapas at newcomer Batanga. Finish off the night with a stroll in the park and a glass of wine at La Carafe. To go slightly grittier, start out with cocktails and shuffleboard at Charity Saloon (and learn a lot about your date by which charity he chooses to support with his drink ticket), then dinner at ramen bar Goro & Gun right around the corner on Main Street. Walk upstairs afterward and take in the enchanting Houston skyline at night with a daiquiri on the second-story patio at Bad News Bar.

5. Dinner and a movie at Tiny Boxwood's

Most people only think of Tiny Boxwood's for lunch. But the West Alabama bistro offers dinner, too -- and a new menu from former Brasserie 19 executive chef Amanda McGraw. Even better, it offers Saturday night movies every weekend starting at 7:30 p.m. Spread out on the lush grass of the nursery-cum-cafe and enjoy a fun twist on the typical dinner-and-a-movie-date.

4. Brasil or Agora, Da Marco or Vinoteca Poscol and Poison Girl

Again, a matter of personal preference: Coffee at either Brasil or Agora -- both at the corner of Westheimer and Dunlavy -- features great outdoor seating and cozy, artsy indoor spaces as well. To really pull out all the stops, walk down Westheimer to Da Marco for the best Italian food in the city. Or to get chef Marco Wiles's food on the cheap, head across the street to little sister restaurant Vinoteca Poscol. Either way, wind down afterward with pinball and one of the best whiskey selections in the country at Poison Girl. Whatever route you choose, this date will definitely afford the best people-watching opportunities.

3. The Tasting Room, Bistro Alex and Monnalisa

There are a lot of ways to do a date right at CityCentre, but this trio is my favorite. Enjoy a glass of wine (and usually some live music) at The Tasting Room, then walk across the fountain-flanked lawn for dinner at Bistro Alex -- the chic little sister to Brennan's, featuring the same sort of classic Creole cuisine with a modern twist. Go ultra-lux after dinner in the adjoining Monnalisa bar, with a second-story swimming pool and deck that overlooks the entire CityCentre complex or stay cozy by the indoor fire pit. You can even make a staycation out of it by booking a room at the boutique-y Hotel Sorella.

2. Double Trouble, Tacos a Go-Go or Sparrow and Alley Kat

As with Market Square, there's so much to do on the "Best Block in Houston" that you can make several dates out of this two-block stretch of Main Street in Midtown. Aside from the Ensemble Theatre, you can catch live shows at the Continental Club every night of the week -- plus, there's usually live music at Natachee's and Big Top Lounge on the weekends, too. Start out with coffee and/or cocktails at Tiki-themed Double Trouble, browse the record selection at Sig's Lagoon next door and walk across the street to eat dinner at Tacos a Go-Go (low-key), Julia's Bistro (mid-range) or Monica Pope's new restaurant, Sparrow (high-end). If you don't catch a show, finish off the evening with drinks at the sleek, surprisingly upscale Alley Kat lounge, which recently took the place of The Mink.

1. Down House

With the perfect mix of fancy and casual, this eatery/drinkery in the Heights is a dynamic spot to take a first date for caffeine, a laid-back lunch or a romantic dinner. Open daily from 9 a.m. to midnight, the cafe/restaurant/bar -- decked out with Victorian decor in some spots, modern industrial hip in others -- delivers with amazing coffee, salads and grass-fed Texas beef burgers, lots of local beers on tap and a no-joke cocktail list that includes barrel-aged Manhattans and bourbon mai tais. Predictably, it's often busy on weekend nights, but not enough of a zoo to make you change your plans. Plus, the spot is a good launching pad for the next bar, a movie or a show.

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Katharine Shilcutt