In throwing together last-minute lunch plans this past Saturday, I inadvertently found a restaurant that ended up being absolutely perfect for our varied needs, and all because I selfishly wanted to try a new place (finally, selfishness is paying off!). This insistence can sometimes end—and has ended—in disaster for my friends, who will dutifully gather themselves up and eat where they know I need to go for work, whether that means waiting over an hour for a breakfast taco or stopping to get Whataburger after a dinner of particularly precious portions.
Graffiti's at Union St.
2003 Union St.
The new Graffiti's at Union St., however, was a crowd-pleaser from the moment we walked in. We're a straggling bunch by nature. Graffiti's is a fast-casual counter-service joint. This means that we didn't have to keep a waiter waiting as we trickled in, and it also meant that the hungriest among us could order and receive our food before the latest of us arrived (we do not stand on traditions like politely waiting for the entire group to be seated).
Washington Avenue, for its breadth of restaurants old and new, does not have much in the way of casual counter-service places; it's dominated instead by full-service restaurants which, to be fair, are terrific, but also demand less casual use by their patrons. At Graffiti's, it's easy to drop in for a burger or a beer or a milkshake or even a Mason jar full of banana pudding, and either linger in the cavernous dining room or be on your merry way. This doesn't mean the food is rushed, however, nor that it's too pricey for counter-service.
This is the argument I heard recently from a friend who'd gone and found the cost of a burger too dear for the casual surroundings, though I personally disagree with her assessment. The burgers range from $11.95 for a standard set-up to $17.45 for the Imperial topped with brisket, onion rings and mac 'n' cheese, which are pricier than average for certain, but here you're getting what you pay for. The beef is freshly ground and hand-formed into loose, well-seasoned patties. The poppyseed buns are sweet and light. The vegetables are crisp, bright and clean, just like the flavors of the burgers themselves.
My vegetarian friend was able to seek refuge in Graffiti's selection of salads, while the more peckish eaters were content with a basket of fried dill pickle slices and spicy ranch dressing. My athlete friend—who was having a so-called "fat kid weekend" in which she indulged in the foods she would never normally eat—made a beeline for the Imperial burger and polished it off in five minutes flat. I managed to catch a few stray bits of macaroni and cheese as they fell from her burger, and even those few scraps were enough to assure me that Graffiti's knows what it's doing in that arena too (no surprise its baked mac 'n' cheese is already a best-seller).
Even the aforementioned banana pudding-in-a-jar was a hit, purchased after everyone had settled in for a while, peeled the labels off their condensation-drenched Shiner bottles, refilled their black currant iced teas for the third time and finished the last of their burgers or pickles. The jars sit in a little refrigerated case near the register, tempting you with layers of bananas and vanilla pudding (made with real cream and real vanilla extract, I'm told) and those crumbles of vanilla wafers that are so evocative of childhood. Split between six of us, the dessert was the perfect amount to go around, and we scraped every last bit out with teaspoons like we were kids again ourselves.
Ultimately, that's what Graffiti's aims to evoke—a sense of nostalgia. You see it in the tables that are bric-a-brac'd with old Houston postcards and Astroworld memorabilia, in the giant mural of the Astrodome wrought in vintage splendor that greets you as you walk in, in the antique Coca-Cola collectibles that make up a bulk of the decor. Its big, beautiful burgers and fast, friendly service remind me of my first visit to Fuddruckers as a kid and how eagerly I awaited every return trip with my mother; a more modern correlation would be Bernie's Burger Bus, which similarly traffics in pleasant childhood memories delivered via bombastic burgers and cheeky milkshakes. At a time when every new restaurant is trying to be just that—new, innovative, different-just-for-the-sake-of-it—there's something refreshing to be said for Graffiti's, where they're simply making good food and serving it with a genuine smile.