In inconspicuous corners across the Inner Loop, a quiet revolution is underway: a massive overhaul of the Houston neighborhood restaurant. At the following six spots, Houston’s finest—and savviest—chefs are pushing the boundaries of food and drink, creativity, and what it means to be, you know, hospitable. A lot of these “new” favorites are actually revamps from trusted pros, which isn’t a surprise; after all, success often means adapting to changing tastes. Oh, and before you ask: Yes, you can wear your shorts.
At her new restaurant in the old Shade space, owner Claire Smith has traded in country charm for a chic European bistro that embraces the changing 19th Street strip and proves that change will do you good. Whether you’re heading over for one of Chef Kent Domas's BLTs and champagne at brunch, zucchini fritters and strip steak before a Heights Theater show, or just a dang good cheeseburger for lunch, ending your meal with the olive oil cake is a must.
A rare spot that delights both hipsters and the clean-shaven? Only in EaDo, where you’ll find chef Jason Vaughan and a predominantly female cook line turning out shareable delights, from wondrously soft sourdough bread, to succulent, lamb-stuffed Turkish dumplings, to the roe-topped blinis called Nancy Cakes. A thoughtful selection of natural wines, a short-and-sweet cocktail list, and a reel-to-reel tape deck that blasts Nick Lowe and David Bowie add to the dining-for-all attitude.
James Beard Award–winning chef Justin Yu ditched his stringent tasting menu when he opened his new restaurant, T-Rex, in the Oxheart space downtown in 2017. The clever tweezer food he’s serving up is eccentric and fun: paper-thin wagyu that’s somehow chocolaty, say, or tomato toast that will make you wonder how you’ve lived without tomato fondant. The small crew here dances well in tight spaces, offers excellent wine-pairing advice, and expertly guides guests through the ordering process.
This modern take on a wood-fired pizzeria hits all the comfort notes—inside a former Pizza Hut in Timbergrove, no less, renovated with all the retro glitziness you’d expect from a restaurant offering valet service. The menu boasts house-made goat cheese burrata, beef carpaccio, and incredible, herbaceous focaccia that delivers a smoky thrill straight from the custom oven. The Neapolitan-style pizzas will delight the entire family—definitely a plus in this neighborhood.
Chef Martin Stayer and sommelier Sara Stayer were way ahead of the curve back in 2016, when they converted a Montrose bungalow into a fun, cozy restaurant offering an ever-changing menu of creative Houston cuisine. Bring friends, order a bottle of orange wine, and try the large HOV Lane platter, a seasonal smorgasbord that’ll feed the table with the likes of whole branzino or a chicken dinner. Round your meal out with small plates: chicken liver mousse, foie gras nigiri, and vegetarian bites like French feta with olives and toast.
This new undertaking from chef/owner Chris Shepherd is everything that was great about the old Underbelly, poured into a lively gastropub space in Montrose—and yet, it’s so much more. Chef de cuisine Nick Wong’s menu might not rock Korean goat dumplings or strictly head-to-tail cooking, but it’s wildly diverse and unruly, in the best way. Crispy puffed-rice salad, blood sausage–laced queso fundido, a boozy riff on salted plum soda, and an ever-changing Sunday dim sum menu will keep Montrosians (and everyone else) coming back for more. But in our book, the perfect bite is Lottie’s Huaraches, masa cakes topped with smoked trout roe, sort of like a crosstown rival of the Nancy Cakes at Nancy’s Hustle.