It's been a while since we tackled neighborhood lists on Eating Our Words, yet posts such as "Top 10 Restaurants in the Heights" continue to be perennial favorites with our readers each month. The last time we compiled a Top 10 Restaurants in Montrose list was well over two years ago, at which time places like Underbelly and Uchi weren't even gleams in their chefs' eyes.
And while we still adore places such as Canopy, Brasil and Nippon, it's time to update that Montrose list to include some of the newcomers that have made Lower Westheimer the city's best culinary corridor. It's an all-star list, too; no filler here.
Although it's too new to be ranked on the full list right now, my first (and so far only) visit to Cuchara gives me high hope that this fascinating Mexican restaurant will turn out to be one of the brightest new restaurants in a part of town already saturated with heavy-hitters, including Hugo's. Ditto the even newer Pass & Provisions, which is shaping up to be the Best New Restaurant of 2013 with its casual atmosphere and wildly creative dishes (have you ever had uni on a pizza?).
10. The Hay Merchant
While the food can sometimes be hit or miss at the all-craft beer bar, it's a matter of finding the really terrific stuff on Antoine Ware's menu of jazzed-up comfort classics and sticking with them: crispy pig's ears that are chewy and slightly sweet; half a barbecued chicken on a bed of creamy mac 'n' cheese; Vietnamese-style chicken wings in a caramelized fish sauce; the Butcher's Burger, made with house-ground beef that's some of the best in the city; or the chicken-fried water buffalo on those rare days when it's offered as a special. One thing is for certain whatever you order, however: This is not your father's pub grub.
Whether you're in the mood for all-day Mexican breakfast or just enjoying some of Trancito Diaz's freshly baked pastries with a cup of La Guadalupana's signature cinnamon-laced cafe de olla on the funky patio that shares space with a washateria, this old-school gem always offers you a dose of comfort and familiarity with your meal. Diaz is there every day greeting guests with a smile -- and sometimes a free slice of tres leches -- and the waitresses haven't changed in all the years I've been eating there.
There are two ways to look at Mark's: as a restaurant that hasn't changed its game in years, or as a restaurant that figured out long ago what its customers love and has faithfully stayed that course. If you look at it as the former (and consider the prices, too), you'll be unimpressed -- despite the beautiful location inside a renovated church. If you look at it as the latter, you'll see a chef -- Mark Cox -- who's committed to keeping his customers happy by offering big, swaggering portions of exceptionally well-prepared exotic fare made with interesting seasonal ingredients, such as a coffee-roasted Kurobuta pork loin with bourbon-glazed short ribs (and that's only listing a few of the items on the plate). It's a paradigm not often found in modern restaurants and it works very well for Mark's.
I loved L'Olivier from the moment I walked in and saw the herringbone marble floors in the charming, bright bar that leads into a low-key, comfortable dining room fitted with mod fixtures and a floor-to-ceiling glass wine room. Where Brasserie Max & Julie is all rustic, old-school, cozy French bistro, L'Olivier is light and airy and entirely modern -- an aesthetic reflected in its menu. You'll find a scallop, shrimp and fish ceviche in yuzu juice alongside more traditional favorites like paté, or a smoked salmon risotto (topped with a luscious poached egg) alongside that Julia Child favorite, boeuf bourguignon.
Although much of the buzz about chef Anita Jaisinghani's restaurants lately has been concentrated around Pondicheri, it's at older sister Indika where Jaisinghani first made her mark on Houston. Named the Best Indian Restaurant in Houston in 2006, 2007 and 2009 and "the best Indian restaurant in the country" by Robb Walsh, Indika doesn't skimp on spice and it offers the kind of exotic fare you wouldn't expect to find in gentrified Montrose: goat brains masala with apricot-pistachio naan, for example, or tandoori antelope.
Although its chefs -- Richard Knight and James Silk -- are well-known for cooking the kind of nose-to-tail British cuisine they learned under Fergus Henderson, there are actually far more dishes on Feast's menu than pork heart tartare, lamb tongue and beef sweetbreads (although those are all reliably excellent options). Vegetarians will take comfort in a dish of roasted portobello mushrooms with braised lentils and goat cheese, while pescatarians will enjoy a pan-fried filet of Gulf tuna. The wine and beer lists are short but stellar, and cocktails are well-made. Dessert is also a must here, with sticky toffee pudding standing out as the best in town.
4. Da Marco
We named Marco Wiles's signature restaurant, Da Marco, the Best Italian Restaurant in this year's Best of Houston® issue and the Best Restaurant (yes, in the entire city) in last year's Best of Houston® issue in part because you can be assured of a fantastic meal here along with some truly lovely service. Gourmet once called Da Marco, "as close to Italy as you can get without leaving Texas," and this still holds true. Part of that is due to Wiles's insistence on flying in the best Italian ingredients on a weekly basis such as fresh Mediterranean seafood and items for its separate cheese menu. And part of that is due to Wiles's deep knowledge of Italian cuisine made modern, seen in dishes such as branzino carpaccio with pine nuts and foie gras or simple, house-made tagliarini with shaved black truffles.
Owner/chef Hugo Ortega has become a Houston legend alongside wife and restaurateur Tracy Vaught -- who also operates Prego, Trevisio and Backstreet Cafe -- and their longtime sommelier, Sean Beck. The Hugo's team established the interior Mexican restaurant as one of the finest restaurants in the city, period, and set the bar for modern Mexican food across the country with their success. Ortega has continued to turn out stunning food since opening in 2002, including his famous lamb barbacoa, mole poblano and the best Sunday brunch in town.
James Beard Award-winning Austin chef Tyson Cole's ultramodern Japanese import, Uchi, occupies the old building that housed Houston classic Felix Mexican Restaurant for half a century -- and the young restaurant is already just as popular, positioning itself as a neighborhood restaurant that emphasizes high-quality food and the city's best service. You'll have to make reservations for this dinner-only spot if you want to sit in the steely-chic dining room, but walk-ins can usually be accommodated at the cozy bar. A spot-on sake list (as well as beer and wine) accompanies a menu of "hot" and "cold" "tastings" along with more traditional Japanese items such as sushi, sashimi and rolls. Happy hour is every weekday and offers some of Uchi's favorites -- machi cure with smoked yellowtail, for example, and the skewers of pork belly called bacon sen -- for a drastically reduced price (and you don't need reservations for happy hour!).
So many of what we've named Houston's best restaurants over the years have been in Montrose -- Da Marco in 2011, Feast in 2009, Da Marco once again in 2007 -- and Underbelly is no exception. The 2012 winner of Best Restaurant in our Best of Houston® issue made Time's list of places to eat prior to Armageddon before it was even open. Billed as "the story of Houston food," chef/owner Chris Shepherd's menu is heavy on the Mexican, Vietnamese, Korean, German, Middle Eastern and other ethnic influences that have shaped Houston's food scene in the last generation. It's heavy on meat, too, as befitting a chef known for his charcuterie, with a full butcher shop attached to the kitchen and a case full of cured meats as a focal point in the dining room. Lunch is quiet and the wood-toned wine bar inviting after work, but dinner services are consistently packed. And expect them to be even more crowded lately: We just named Underbelly's Korean braised goat and dumplings No. 1 on our 100 Favorite Dishes list and Houston Chronicle food critic Alison Cook just gave the restaurant a coveted four-star rating.
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Check out our other Top 10 neighborhood lists:
Top 10 in the Heights Top 10 in Rice Village Top 10 on Washington Avenue Top 10 in the East End Top 10 in the Galleria Top 10 in Midtown Top 10 in Memorial Top 10 in Upper Kirby Top 10 in Greenway Plaza Top 10 in The Woodlands Top 10 in Spring Branch Top 10 in Little India Top 10 in Far Northwest Houston Top 10 in Chinatown