It seems like years ago that the James Beard Foundation announced its award finalists at Hugo's, surprisingly denying Houston restaurants in the process and making us all consider where our city ranks nationally in food conversations. But that was March.
2019 was a long year in Houston food and drink, but a good year nonetheless. We've seen the good, the bad, and the ugly crawfish eating in The Zimmern List. Over the last few months I've had some of the best meals I've yet enjoyed in the Bayou City. That'll get my hopes up for 2020. For now, let's talk about what defined food and drink in Houston this year:
The Beard Thing
We were riding high off the GQ piece and the other honors, then the James Beard Foundation came to town and revealed that no Houston restaurants, chefs, or bars were heading to the awards ceremony in Chicago. It was a massive letdown in the moment, but in retrospect it may very well be an anomaly.
When people talk about Houston food, they typically mention diversity, variety, and affordability as defining characteristics, and it's true: We may never run out of inexpensive options for dining out, whether it's a mom-and-pop taqueria, a Sichuan spot with complimentary soup and tea, or a place for a grab-and-go banh mi. And that doesn't even scratch the surface—think of the West African restaurants, the Pakistani restaurants, the shawarma trucks ... need I continue?
The Beard Foundation isn't likely to recognize that; still, a nod to a place like The Original Ninfa's on Navigation, an institution whose creations have spawned countless imitators over the decades, at least indirectly shows deference to our strengths. Really, where Beard is looking, and where most national writers tend to hang out, is closer to the chef-driven, destination dining tier. In this realm, Houston is still pretty young. We're only now seeing a new generation of chefs thrive with places like Squable and Indigo. It takes time for reputations to develop and for a scene to fully blossom. People know that the Bayou City is a great place to discover, but only now are diners across the country noticing its power.
The Millennial-ish All-Day Spot
I'm talking about restaurants, cafes, and bars that act as easygoing gathering places and just happen to serve pretty good food. More than a few of these spots have opened in the last year, including Greenway Coffee's Tropicales, Justin Yu and Bobby Heugel's Penny Quarter, and Four J's The Roastery (at multiple H-E-B locations only in Houston). You can expand this list to bars (The Toasted Coconut) and restaurants (Rosie Cannonball) that attempt to offer a variety of experiences for guests, whose demands from a meal out have changed considerably over the last generation.
Millennials, more than any other generational group, like to be seen while eating and drinking. They also have plenty of work to do, so why not take that laptop to a restaurant or bar? The response is the all-day cafe and bar that starts off with coffee service before transitioning to wine and original cocktails. And sure, you may not bring work to a place like Rosie Cannonball, but there's a casual nature to restaurants like that and, say, Nancy's Hustle and Nobie's. If you wanted to have a drink and nosh at the bar while sending out emails from your phone, who's stopping you? More and more, restaurants and bars are catering to experiences that go beyond the singular act of eating a two-hour meal. As millennials become parents, that trend may slow. What's next? You know, Rosie Cannonball has a kids menu ...
Food Hall Explosion
Another logical response to the on-the-go millennial generation is the food hall, which in 2019 made a huge leap forward in Houston with the openings of Bravery Chef Hall, Politan Row, and Understory. Each food hall is unique, but like the restaurants listed above, each also caters to experience. At Bravery, you can sit at a chef's counter and chat with the person who's making your goat curry, or you can simply wind down with a glass of draft wine. At Politan, you're encouraged to hang out, maybe by working at a quiet table, or by posting up at the beautiful bar in the middle of the Rice Village market. And at Understory, downtown workers rush in and out over lunchtime and throughout the late afternoon, when happy hour kicks into gear and games of ping-pong become as necessary as a 3:30 p.m. cup of coffee.
Plus, most of these food halls act as chef incubators, giving some of the city's rising stars opportunity to work in a fast-paced environment. So it's not unusual that some of the best food in the city can be found at these busy all-in-one spaces.
More food halls are to come in 2020, some with even more ambitious leanings. It'll be interesting to see just how many the city can hold.
Serious Pizza Town
Last year (at least late in the year) we all acknowledged that Houston was finally a destination for barbecue. This year, I'll say the same thing about pizza. I've eaten a lot of pizza lately, and I can honestly say that I believe a renaissance is happening in the Bayou City. A number of standalone pizzerias and restaurants, whether they realize it or not, are changing Neapolitan pizza in incredible ways. There's Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co. and its bold, inventive pies; The Gypsy Poet with a sourdough that's hard to beat; Rosalie with its outstanding balance of flavors; and Rosie Cannonball with its beautiful cheeses and blistered crusts.
That's not to mention other styles that really shined in 2019. Look to BOH at Bravery Chef Hall for very good Roman pizza, and have you ever had the Detroit-style pies at Pizaro's? If not, you're missing out.
Houston is a serious pizza city. Get used to it.
When a city has a good scene, outsiders want in, and we saw a lot more of that in 2019. Chefs and restaurateurs like Chris Cosentino and Troy Guard brought concepts to the Bayou City, while tried-and-true titles like Mendocino Farms and Sweetgreen decided it was high time to open Houston locations. Oh, and then there's In-N-Out, which finally arrived late in the year.
That's not to mention the 2021 arrival of Tyson Cole's and Aaron Franklin's Loro from Austin, plus, at some point down the line, Austin's Home Slice and Portland's Voodoo Donuts.
The same is true in the beer industry, as New Orleans brewery Urban South will open a spot at Sawyer Yards in early 2020.
Yup, the invasion is on. I'm excited for 2020 ... are you?