Although Midtown may be more well-known for its bars and late-night clubs, there isn't a shortage of good food to be found -- even if the neighborhood is steadily losing many of the Vietnamese restaurants that once saturated the area.
In keeping with Midtown's current incarnation as the drinking-out capital of the city, much of the best food can be found in its pubs: Community Bar and Saint Dane both host wildly popular steak nights, while the Midtown Drinkery is where you'll find Chef Bob (coincidentally, formerly of Community Bar) cooking up a storm on Thursday nights.
Leon's Lounge offers some of the best empanadas you'll find in town (and, yes, they're homemade) while its neighbor across McGowen -- craft beer bar Mongoose versus Cobra -- has an excellent selection of sandwiches, sausages, cheeses and other grub (with healthier options on the way). Its sister bar, 13 Celsius, is even more notable for its own sandwiches, with meat and cheeses sliced to order. And Coaches Pub offers one of the more respectable pub burgers in town, a burger that's a steal at lunch.
And although it's not a restaurant, Spec's Deli also makes some of our favorite sandwiches in the city. Grab one at lunch and browse through the small but fascinating grocery section in the downtown liquor warehouse for some interesting side items and drinks to take back to the office with you.
But there's more to Midtown's food offerings than just pub grub.
Disclaimer: For the purposes of this post, Midtown is defined as south of I-45 (the Pierce Elevated), west of Highway 288, north of Highway 59 and east of Bagby. For a map of the area, visit the Midtown Houston website.
Honorable mention: Natachee's Supper 'n Punch
Nearly half of this list is located on what we like to call "The Best Block in Houston," a.k.a. the strip of land housing the Continental Club and Big Top as well as some of the best, most unique restaurants in the neighborhood. First up is Natachee's Supper 'n Punch, which one housed its own horse -- Lacy -- in the attached, grassy side yard until health inspectors told her to giddy-up and go. While sad, it made more room for the crowds that spill out of Natachee's in the evenings and the kids who play in its large sandbox area. The earnestly down-home joint on Main Street serves food your Southern mother might have made -- including an all-day breakfast -- but the menu really shines when you go for the basics: chicken-fried steak, meatloaf sandwiches and the pork 'n cheezy burger with thick strips of real bacon. The sweet potato pie and peach cobbler are must-haves, too.
10. Kim Tai
While it certainly looks sketchy from the outside, this family-run Vietnamese diner represents the best of Midtown's recent past with its solid pho, spring rolls and bun with crispy egg rolls and chargrilled pork. In keeping with the changing area, Kim Tai also offers diner classics like cheeseburgers, chicken-fried steak sandwiches and (like Natachee's) breakfast all day long. The egg rolls are hard to beat, and the iced Vietnamese coffee will make sure you don't fall asleep at work after a pho lunch, but the best bet here is the addictive ban bot chien that's topped with green onions and crispy fried garlic. The bright lights from Mongoose versus Cobra and Leon's Lounge a few feet away have hopefully helped raise Kim Tai's profile, as it's as deserving of the same praise (if not more) that's heaped on Mai's, Van Loc, Pho Saigon or any other Vietnamese joint in Midtown.
9. Les Givral's
Les Givral's has one of the most confusing names and one of the most confusing back stories of any restaurant in Houston. It's named after Givrals, a bakery in Paris which opened a branch in Saigon during the middle of the 19th century and became a fixture in the city. When one of the Givral Cafes was closed two years ago, Saigonese mourned its loss. No one quite knows when or why the apostrophe was incorporated into our own Les Givral's when it opened here, but the Les Givral's at 2704 Milam is one of the few remnants of the glut of banh mi shops "Little Saigon" held not 10 years ago. Half the banh mi shops Robb Walsh visited in his 2001 "Desperately Seeking Sandwiches" story are now gone, and this Les Givral's is actually the reincarnation of a Givral's Sandwich Shop that was originally run by Nga Chung before it was taken over by Staci Le's family in 2001. Le now runs the Les Givral's on Congress, but it's the little sandwich shop on Milam that still draws the biggest and most loyal crowds for one thing and one thing only: banh mi. And don't be fooled by imitations: Les Givral's Kahve on Washington pales in comparison to the original.
What makes the tapas at Majorca interesting is that they're more strongly influenced by North Africa than at any other tapas bar in town, and this twist works to its advantage by giving Majorca a little added edge. Chef Hicham Nafaa's extensive menu includes typical Spanish classics like paella, albóndigas (fat, filling meatballs that are best enjoyed with a fried egg on top) and gambas con arroz (prawns with rice). The merguez lamb that features in many dishes is wonderful, especially when tucked into a crusty sandwich and the delicious, cinnamon-spiced, house-made sangria is so good, you'll want to go ahead and order a pitcher and down it with friends on the patio fronting Midtown's busiest street. On weekends, Majorca offers no-cover live flamenco music and Sunday brunch here is also one of the best values in town: an all-you-can eat Spanish/Mediterranean spread with bottomless mimosas for just $14.95.
The shrine to Our Lady surrounded by bright jalapeño-shaped Christmas lights or the giant Carmen Miranda head out front should give you an idea about this place: It's a funky cantina with colorful decor serving cheap and tasty breakfast tacos all day long, including some of the best lamb barbacoa you'll taste in the city. The fish tacos are good, but even better when spiced up with some of Tacos a Go-Go's bright salsa and the famous chocolate taco can't be missed for dessert. There's a reason we bring all our out-of-town friends here.
There's a reason why there is a constant line outside the door here: the food. The hustle and bustle of this place is all part of the show, from hungry onlookers on the outside eagerly watching the food being delivered to tables, to the expression of satisfaction on the faces of customers leaving this shrine to soul food cuisine. Signature dishes include the incredible Katfish & Grits and the equally good Wings & Waffles, but my personal favorite is a combination of the two: Wings & Grits. While catfish and chicken may strike some as not suitable for breakfast, those people simply don't know what they're missing. While the breakfast klub has added tents to shade those standing in line each day, it's only encouraged the lines to get longer. Expect to wait about 90 minutes on a good day, and have your order ready when you get to the counter by God.
Ibiza -- the flagship restaurant in Charles Clark and Grant Cooper's mini-empire (the duo also run Coppa and Brasserie 19) -- offers a package deal of great value: an adventurous list of nearly 4,000 bottles of wine at prices close to retail, combined with imaginative, Cajun-gone-upscale dishes that show off chef Clark's Louisiana roots: Trailer Park Gumbo with roasted Guinea hen, a Basque green pepper and crab bisque or buttermilk-fried catfish with crawfish mashed potatoes. Red is the word to remember. Red meat dishes are generally what Ibiza does best, and the restaurant also boasts a long list of boutique red wines.
Charivari is the little German restaurant that fell to Midtown -- although there's much more to it than that. If you went to Germany, you probably wouldn't order the French food, yet that's the secret of eating well here. Romanian-born chef Johan Schuster is a master of the dishes of the European Borscht Belt, or what he calls "European Continental and New Contemporary Cuisine." If you order pasta di casa (a German spaetzle), risotto al Piemontese, Wiener schnitzel, veal Zurich, ribeye "Cafe de Paris," blini and caviar or Schuster's own "Budapest-style" foie gras, odds are you are in for an incredible treat. And don't miss Schuster's seasonal menus, where he serves everything from white asparagus to black bear.
Chef Bryan Caswell has been reeling in diners with his imaginative take on Gulf seafood for the past five years. And while nothing on Reef's current menu is that groundbreaking -- save the Filipino-inspired kinilaw created by a sous chef -- Caswell and Reef (along with fishmonger P.J. Stoops) should be credited with popularizing "trash fish" such as almaco jack, sea bream, scorpion fish and rainbow runner, making "Gulf by-catch" one of the most enduring buzz-phrases of the past few years. Were it not for Reef, you might never have heard of Gulf by-catch, let alone been able to enjoy it at places like Oxheart or purchase it yourself at Revival Market. The interior is cool but not lavish, the waitstaff wears blue jeans, and the bar menu includes sliders -- all of which gives this fine dining establishment a very relaxed vibe. And while it's certainly not cheap, it's a better deal than most seafood palaces in town.
2. Brennan's (Note: The original version of this list accidentally left Brennan's off. This oversight has been corrected.)
After burning to the ground during Hurricane Ike, the grande dame of Cajun cuisine is looking even better than ever, and is still a reliable place for business lunches, intimate showers, date nights and expense-account meals. Brennan's is a Houston institution for a reason, after all. Southern and Creole food reigns supreme here, with rich and buttery dishes that aren't on your Weight Watchers plan but are easily worth the extra calories. The Courtyard Bar -- a new addition -- is the perfect place for a lunchtime 25-cent martini, while the elegant John Staub room is cozy and quieter than the rest of the busy restaurant. The main dining room, however, is still the place to see and be seen, and current fall specials like braised oxtails and dumplings with crispy mustard greens keep the kitchen relevant.
Monica Pope is back and better than ever at Sparrow Bar + Kitchen, which exchanged the industrial (and somewhat hard-edged) aesthetic of t'afia for a more lush, casual and inviting dining room that practically begs you to overstay your welcome. Plush red loveseats serve as two-person chairs for some of the tables and not-too-dim lighting enhances the romantic vibe of the cozy dining room. But while the restaurant has had a facelift, the menu is still pure Monica: Pope reinvents classic dishes in exciting ways that don't push things too far, like creamy grits topped with frizzled slices of dusky antelope and a tangy gremolata or shiitake mushroom-filled dumplings in a surprisingly sweet blue cheese sauce. t'afia's roots are still quite evident in Pope's locally-sourced ingredients and modern Texana dishes, but Sparrow is a transformation in more ways than just its interior design. Dining there, one gets the sense that Pope has been released from the birdcage of t'afia and is delighting in the new freedoms that Sparrow affords her.
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