Contributing editor and diehard New Yorker Kate Donnelly headed to Houston and discovered its many rich culinary and cultural offerings.
HOUSTON, Texas – I never had a reason to visit Houston until my sister and her family moved there. But the city is experiencing a culinary explosion right now, and the already thriving art and cultural scene remains a draw for discerning, soulful art lovers. So what began as my wary, stubborn, New York-centric attitude has turned into an open, loving embrace and endorsement of H-Town. See? I'm already using the local term.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Yes, everything is bigger in Texas. Houston is a city of close to six million, known for its energy industry and its vastly sprawled urban areas, connected by highways and bi-ways. Expect to spend a lot of time driving — and for your car time to be handsomely rewarded. The destination barrios you'll want to visit are bustling Downtown, the quaint Montrose, the upscale River Oaks, the creative clusters of West University-Rice Village, the walkable Museum District, the revamped Upper Kirby, the business and retail Memorial and massive shopping and food stretch of Galleria/Uptown.
WHERE TO EAT
A hip, neon spot located in the restored Tower Theatre. Inside, it's a throwback to old Tex-Mex, with black-and-white photos and a large screen playing old Mexican movies. It's best at brunch for bacon enchiladas, puffy tacos, and sides of refried beans made with real rendered lard. It's a given that you'll order one or two lethal margaritas made with Espolón Tequila.
A great and charming spot for an afternoon snack and a glass of wine. The menu changes seasonally, but the kitchen is always devoted to goat cheese. If it's nice outside, nab a patio seat. Afterwards, stroll over to the Provencal-chic Indulge Decor to pick up soft linens, Juliska glass, soaps, and candles.
The place to people watch in town, it reminded me of New York's famed, bustling Balthazar. It also serves great food, like tuna and steak tartar, saffron-spiced bouillabaisse, 16-ounce ribeye steaks with bone marrow, and, of course, crispy frites. The wine list is extensive and conducted by iPad.
Small, critically-hailed serious food for serious people. Located in the Warehouse District, its exposed brick 30-seat locale is the inventive brainchild of native Houston husband and wife duo Jason Yu and Karen Man. It's nearly impossible to get in, so hope for the best by reserving online or emailing . Good luck!
The best sushi in Houston, and easily one of the top ten in America. Choose a few dishes and let your server select the rest. Don't miss walu walu (oak-grilled escolar), smoked yellow tail with yucca chips, and charred Brussels sprouts. This is a place where foodies and sports fans break bread, so to speak: The night I was there, half of Houston Texans' defensive line was eating (heartily) at the next table.
Both are old-school, white-tablecloth dining classics that don't disappoint in the way of truffles, wines, or service.
Pass and Provisions
Welcome to two separate food entities under one roof. The Pass is a more cerebral, formal affair, while the open, industrial Provisions dishes great pizzas and pastas.
Hugo Ortega's hip, new, upscale Mexican-inspired place. Signature dishes: ostiones asados (wood-roasted Gulf of Mexico oysters with chipotle butter) and birria mascota (bone-in short rib with roasted tomoto salsa).
Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette
The swank, retro spot on San Felipe naturally does great oysters, and gumbos and grass-fed burgers don't disappoint either. They serve three mac-and-cheese options, but my favorite was king crab, tarragon, and fontina.
A modern, Korean-Japanese-inspired kitchen and the perfect setting for beautifully plated specialties like blistered shisito peppers, jellyfish salad, and prime boneless short-rib steamed buns.
WHERE TO DRINK
A dim railroad-like space with bang-up cocktails made by bartenders. (Please don't call them “mixologists.” They hate that.)
The bar in Montrose is setting the bar for craft beers.
Black Lab Pub
A warm spot to nab a pint of Guinness. Afterwards, head over to Eatsie Boys for a dose of hip-hoppy Beatise Boys sandwich references like Matzah Ball Pho.
Under the Volcano
A divey joint open 365 days a year with a sweet jukebox, mojitos, and Cuba Libres. Monday night is steak night.
The Ginger Man
A classic beer bar that's always introducing a rotating menu of American micro-brewed suds.
WHAT TO SEE
Houston's contemporary art scene is bursting at the seams. Here's how to make the most of you time.
Begin your tour with a quiet moment at Rothko Chapel, a moody non-denominational chapel commissioned by fashionable art (and oil royalty) power couple John and Dominique de Menil. Outside, the grounds are serene and stunning — Barrnett Newman's amazing bronze sculpture, The Broken Obelisk sits in a shallow reflecting pool.
Wander down the street to the premiere Menil Collection, with airy, natural-light filled galleries. The front lawn showcases contemporary landscape artist Michael Helzer's "negative space" sculpture.
Don't miss Cy Twombly's collection, which is housed in a separate gallery.
Menil's bookshop sits in a small house full of well-curated books and a stellar children's section of puzzles and games.
A few miles away, the Museum District includes the expansive Museum of Fine Arts and edgy The Contemporary Arts Museum. Don't miss the Isamu Noguchi-designed urban retreat Cullen Sculpture Garden, with pieces by Louise Bourgeois, Henri Matisse, and Auguste Rodin.
Adults and kids will love the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which recently unveiled a spectacular $85-million-dollar Dinosaur Hall. It's like being in Jurassic Park.
Houston doesn't have much in the way of zoning, so architecture lovers and modernists should visit Houston Mod promoting landmarks like the boxy Philip Johnson-designed University of St. Thomas campus, which the Menils directly commissioned.
WHERE TO STAY
A hip, upscale boutique hotel within stone's throw of the Museum District.
Omni Hotel Galleria
Located uptown in the Post/Galleria area and convenient for shops and restaurants.
MORE ON FATHOM
Inset photos, from top: Tiny Boxwoods, Uchi, Ginger Man.