The last time we tackled the Top 10 restaurants in River Oaks, Tony Mandola's was still open in what is now Brasserie 19's spot in the River Oaks Shopping Center. Needless to say, things have changed a bit in three years. And in spite of its ritzy exterior, River Oaks still has plenty of inexpensive holes-in-the-wall and divey spots to go along with the big-name restaurants that make bank with their society patrons.
Note: For the purposes of this post, River Oaks is defined as south of Buffalo Bayou, west of Dunlavy, east of Suffolk and north of Westheimer.
Although these spots fall outside the boundaries of River Oaks, they're still thought of as area classics. Get the pan-fried dumplings at Weslayan Cafe, and coffee with cookies at Tiny Boxwood's (if you can endure the long line).
10. Avalon Diner
Avalon Diner has been serving up some of the best greasy-spoon food in the city since 1938. The place is usually filled with regulars, and the waitstaff has been there for ages. There's something for every diner craving, from Blue Plate Special comfort food to arterially challenging breakfast staples. The lure of breakfast food all day long is reason enough to stop by and check it out at least once, and the milkshakes -- some of the best in the city -- long ago cemented Avalon Diner as a true Houston classic.
Except for the updated accents, this no-fuss coffeehouse in a mid-century strip center looks like a New Orleans original, with exposed brick walls, black-and-white photography and zydeco music in the background. The specialty here is, of course, beignets, which are as hot and fluffy as you remember them at Cafe du Monde. (Just remember not to inhale or exhale while taking a bite, unless you're looking for the perfect powdered sugar storm.) The house beverage, café au lait, is a vacation in a cup, but we recommend another treat: granitas, akin to frozen coffee smoothies. Crescent City also serves Cajun/Creole entrées, but it's the beignets that always draw me in -- especially late in the evening, after dinner has already settled. It's a good thing Crescent City stays open until 10 p.m.
8. Red Lion Pub
Don't let the red pleather-upholstered booths and faux Tudor timbers fool you. This isn't just another fake British pub. This is an authentically fake British pub, right down to the iconic red telephone box inside. Founder and owner Craig Mallinson is the son of British folk singer Sarah Mallinson, and he bakes the Cornish pasties himself. He even has the "Fruity" variety of HP sauce to slather on your sausage rolls. But it's not all Sunday roasts here; true to England's food culture (which incorporates Indian food much in the same way we do Tex-Mex), you'll find excellent curries on the menu, too. In cold months, enjoy the warmth of the cozy interior fireplace. But in warmer months, the tree-shaded patio is the place to be.
Leave it to Elouise Adams Jones to bring out the trendy and elegant best in old, homey favorites. Ouisie's Table's cream of mushroom soup, for example, in its thin, milky broth, is loaded with tons of mushrooms that fairly pop with freshness; fried oysters, for another, are so tender and juicy that they seem lighter than air. The chicken-fried steak -- once deemed the best in the state, and the winner of multiple Best of Houston® awards across many years -- used to only be available on Tuesdays, but proved so popular that Ouisie's was fairly forced to put it on the regular menu, complete with all the fixings: mashed potatoes with black pepper milk gravy, black eyed peas, mustard greens and Lucy's corn pudding.
If you like Central Market but hate the parking, you'll love Relish Fine Foods -- especially since it's located right down the street from the grocery giant. The vibe at Relish is very similar: part grocery store with high-end goods and local products such as Slow Dough bread and Way Back When milk, part ready-made foods you can eat at Relish or on the go. An assortment of gourmet soups, salads and sandwiches are all made with local ingredients and change with the seasons, but not all is light here: Check out the Rice Krispies treats made with brown butter or the salted caramel brownies from Relish's in-house pastry chef.
Américas is the restaurant responsible -- along with its owners, the Cordúa family -- for first introducing Houston to South American cuisine. As with its sister restaurant, Churrascos, the menu has barely changed since Américas' inception on Post Oak Boulevard (which is now closed). The only real difference at the River Oaks buildout is the rather insane interior: a mishmash of Aeon Flux and The Lion King as staged on Broadway, as envisioned by Tim Burton's Beetlejuice. (Compare this with the old Post Oak location's aesthetic of "Dr. Seuss on acid," however, and the dining room seems right on track.) Stick with classics like the churrasco steak or the smoky crab claws and try not to stare -- at the enormous booths or the socialites packed into them.
We gave Giacomo's a Best of Houston® award for Best Date Night in 2011, and that sentiment still stands. You get a lot of bang for your buck at Lynette Hawkins' cozy, romantic bistro on a quiet stretch of Westheimer thanks to a clever menu that encourages sharing of small, smartly priced plates of Italian classics: eggplant involtini, spaghetti carbonara, swiss chard crepes and more. The wine list is just as affordable as the menu, and there's even a cute wine bar in which to enjoy it.
Mockingbird Bistro is so sequestered in a little neighborhood south of West Gray, finding your way back can sometimes feel like searching out Brigadoon in the mists. But this just part of the charm at John Sheely's funky neighborhood cafe, which has been serving what seems like the same rotation of patrons for the last 11 years. Sheely, along with talented sous chef Jose Luis Vela, pack them in at lunch and dinner every day with a solid and well-executed menu of bistro classics: foie gras, onion soup, roasted chicken, steak frites and and Old World-heavy wine list. While over-the-top burgers like the $32 foie-topped Wagyu burger hold court at night, happy hour is a less expensive time to visit and indulge in $5 bar bites, cocktails, wines and beer.
Backstreet Cafe hasn't changed all that much since we awarded it Best Brunch back in 2004, but that's why we like it. The classic River Oaks restaurant is the oldest of Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega's restaurants -- tucked into every nook and cranny of a century-old house, including its lush backyard -- and has run smoothly for years precisely because of that consistency. The menu doesn't stagnate, but does continue to offer old favorites like gingerbread waffles and perfect Eggs Benedict over cheddar-chive biscuits for brunch. The service -- including longtime sommelier Sean Beck -- has remained consistently excellent, too, guaranteeing that pretty much every meal at Backstreet will be a success.
Note: Backstreet Cafe is currently closed for remodeling, but will reopen on January 24.
1. Brasserie 19
A River Oaks playground for Houston's rich and famous, Brasserie 19 nevertheless has the food to match the crowds and the hype, turning out classic French and Belgian staples like steak frites and cassoulet alongside an impressive list of beers, wines and cocktails to match. Executive chef Amanda McGraw has also begun to branch out into more modern daily specials such as a 63-degree over parmesan custard and pickled shrimp with smoked crème fraîche -- all of which have been equally well-received. The sleek, marble-topped bar is the place to be if you're young and single, while the restaurant's main floor is a gathering point for socialites and food-lovers alike. The egalitarian patio is the most pleasant spot to dine, however, with far less noise and a pretty view of the brightly lit River Oaks Theatre marquee across West Gray.
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Check out our other Top 10 neighborhood lists:
Top 10 in Montrose 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