For the next 20 weeks, we'll be rounding up the runners-up to our 2011 Best of Houston® winners. In many categories, picking each year's winner is no easy task. We'll be spotlighting 20 of those categories, in which the winner had hefty competition from other Houston bars and restaurants.
Most people have their own, definite and occasionally unique ideas of what is "romantic." For example, an old friend of mine once tried to woo a girl by making her lasagna in his home to the sounds of the most romantic music he could think of: the soundtrack to Gladiator. (Long story short, they ended up dating for years.)
That applies to me, as well. I have my own ideas of what's romantic in a restaurant: quirky or eccentric spaces that encourage cozy dining and long stretches of time spent at a table over excellent food and wine. These other 16 restaurants just narrowly missed making the cut -- that's how many gorgeous dining rooms we have in this city. Your mileage, as always, may vary -- and we want to hear about your own favorite Houston restaurants for romance in the comments section below.
It's evident from the moment that you walk into The Capitol at St. Germain that it's no mere restaurant. Its dual bars, private lounge and main stage replete with red velvet curtains signal a modern supper club, the type that hosts intimate jazz bands during the week and full shows on the weekends. But there's nothing stuffy about this swanky downtown supper club, which offers playful and well-constructed dishes on its full menu, such as a foie gras trio called Menage à Foie and wickedly strong gin martinis.
9. Sushi Raku
This popular Midtown spot beckons with its blue-light-wrapped trees planted along the sidewalk outside the glass-walled entrance. Inside, attention to aesthetics extends to the artwork and exquisitely composed plates of sushi and sashimi. Well-dressed patrons fill the restaurant during happy hour, almost contributing to the artful décor and the sense that you're dining in a Los Angeles hot spot. Extensive offerings of sushi rolls and nigiri are complemented by grilled items and cold and hot sides. A full bar offers specialty cocktails, beer and wine, and a special chef's menu features seafood flown in daily from Tokyo.
This is a perfect place to enjoy a big fat steak with frites and an earthy Rhône red wine, or simply an amazingly rich Kobe hamburger and a cold beer. The American-Mediterranean menu from Chef John Sheely and his right-hand man, Jose-Luis Vela, doesn't try to wow you with cleverness, but the quality of the ingredients elevates the simple dishes to unexpected heights. The medieval decor is a welcome breath of funkiness that keeps the restaurant from being too stuffy, and the newly extended bar -- all done in the same elegant mahogany as the original -- has a revamped cocktail menu and an allure that makes you want to stay put all night long.
7. Just Dinner
Just Dinner is coincidentally just down the street from Mockingbird, set inside of a nondescript Montrose house next to the Guild Shop that can be easy to miss (this is also part of its charm). It features a warm and welcoming interior that makes you feel right at home -- if your mom was a skilled Italian chef and had an Ethan Allen credit card. You can pair your food with your own wine as Just Dinner is BYOB, though they do charge a corkage fee. There aren't many tables, and reservations for the nightly dinner service are highly recommended.
Everything about Giacomo's whispers romance, but not in that cheesy Harlequin sense. It's effortlessly and casually romantic, just as you'd want your date to be. Fairy lights twinkle in the canopy of the sweet little patio; the wine bar is dimly lit and well-stocked with Italian classics; the dining room is low-slung and moddish; and the small plates of elegant (and surprisingly inexpensive) food are meant to be shared, leading to plenty of Lady and the Tramp-style moments along the way as you both go for that last little chard-filled raviolo and lock eyes.
The allure here is simple: Old-fashioned Italian food in a charming little cottage with a romantic atmosphere. For an intimate evening, reserve a table in the tiny bar, or ask for a table on the patio if the weather is right for dining al fresco and then dig in to pan-fried rainbow trout with capers or tender vitello alla Romana topped with prosciutto, sage and a white wine sauce.
You don't have to eat blood pudding, ox hearts, tongues or livers to enjoy a meal at Feast -- but if you do, you'll find yourself in hog heaven. The two British chefs, Richard Knight and James Silk, are disciples of Fergus Henderson, a chef known for his offal cookery and a cookbook called The Whole Beast, but the menu includes plenty of dishes for innards-averse diners. There's also plenty of seafood among the entrees along with lamb shanks, chicken and usually at least one vegetarian creation. But for adventurous diners, there's nothing better than tucking into a sumptuous dish of Bath chaps or a whole-roasted cow's head for pure, messy fun -- especially with one of Feast's excellent Spanish reds. The dining room may seem bare-bones to some, but the spare feel of the place only allows you to concentrate on your food and company even more.
Yes, it's a Landry's-owned spot. Yes, it was once the site of the beloved Rainbow Lodge. But don't let these facts deter you from dining here, as the restaurant is every bit as gorgeous as it once was and has, in fact, struck a bit of a modern edge with its Blue Bar that complements the rustic aesthetic quite nicely. Houston doesn't have a wealth of beautiful vistas, so it's nice to see a restaurant that makes use of what little scenery we have. Brenner's does so by highlighting its views onto the lush, verdant banks of Buffalo Bayou (nicely cleaned up and manicured here) and enhancing the sights with seriously choice cuts of meat like wet-aged, USDA Prime steaks.
François Rabelais's writings were known for combining earthy humor and sophisticated themes. And this tiny French cafe honors its namesake with delicious irony. Though located in a sophisticated urban shopping center in Rice Village, Café Rabelais features rustic peasant dishes from the French countryside. Try the astonishing mussels in cream sauce, the merguez et frites (lamb sausage and french fries) or a goat cheese and olive tart. The blackboard menu might also include steak salad, bavette frites (flank steak and french fries) or an old-fashioned vegetable potage. The mottled cream-colored walls look like old plaster, and somehow the French rural look is absolutely charming despite the parking lot outside the window. Others think so too, and the bistro -- which famously does not take reservations -- fills up every night by at least 6:30 p.m. Grab a spot on the list or, if you're really lucky, one at the bar while you wait.
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I could be biased on this one, because the Rainbow Lodge (its original location, which is now Brenner's on the Bayou) is where my parents got married 21 fantastic years ago. For me, the Lodge -- regardless of location -- will always speak to the deep-seated romantic in all of us. The rugged and rustic appeal of its restored log cabin is enhanced by lush views of its garden-filled acreage and stunning food, all underscored by the sense that you're dining after a long day's adventures in the Alaskan wilderness. This is a place that both men and woman can ideally agree is romantic, with three fireplaces throughout the restaurant and game meats dominating an elegant menu. Maybe you'll find it so romantic this Valentine's Day, you'll end up getting married there someday too...