The portion of Westheimer that runs through River Oaks and Montrose has changed significantly in the past 15 years thanks in part to new restaurants hoping to beat the odds and obtain a lasting patronage. Most don’t (hence the ever-changing quality of city’s restaurant landscape), and thus those that manage to survive and even thrive deserve our attention.
Empire Café was one of the first establishments I ate at during what I called my "Houston audition visit," the point of which was to decide whether I could stomach living and (more importantly, at least, for me) eating in the city during my predicted five-year stint in graduate school.
Then and now the food at Empire Café was solid but not remarkable. The breakfast and brunch menu features include egg dishes of predictable varieties plus pancakes and waffles (the latter of which comes in a not-so-predictable flavor: gingerbread!). At lunch and dinner, you can nosh on club sandwiches; individual pizzas with different meat and vegetable toppings and without gluten in your crust; and the cafe’s signature chicken salad tossed with mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, avocados, slices of hard-boiled eggs, and toasted pita chips with balsamic vinaigrette.
But what stole my heart at Empire Café and secured my long-term loyalty was its decadent cakes, thickly frosted towering tiers in rotating flavors such as milk chocolate with Nutella icing, cookies and cream, carrot, coconut cream, red velvet, and “toll house crunch” (yellow cake with milk chocolate chips and milk chocolate frosting). The large, shareable (in theory) slices are terrific but on Mondays taste even better.
Why? Because they’re half the price, which means for just over four bucks and change (including tax) you can ward off the beginning-of-the-workweek blues with an enormous sugary (but never cloying!) slab of delicious cake.
In 2007, it was the best deal on cake slices in town; in 2019, it still is.