Houston's restaurant scene is hardly a monolith. From being home to some of the best taco restaurants in the country to some of the best Indian food, the best late-night eats, and even the first cannabis-centric restaurant in the entire state of Texas, our city really does have it all. But with all of that endless variety, how can anyone possibly settle on which Houston restaurants are the most essential? Well, although it took quite a bit of research (a task that required quite a lot of help from our stomachs, which were happy to oblige), we've settled on a list of restaurants that we believe are the most essential ones for every Houstonian to try. The following five restaurants are our favorites of the many that have opened of late, and they are all restaurants that laid the groundwork for our favorite new restaurants of 2022. They combine mind blowing kitchen execution at the highest level with thoughtful service and attention to detail. And most important of all, they are each perfect representations of the uniqueness and versatility of our city's vibrant culinary community.
Fourth Ward | bludornrestaurant.com
It’s likely during your visit at Aaron Bludorn’s namesake restaurant that Cherif Mbodji stops by your table, if only to chat. The affable Senegalese-born general manager, who hooked up with chef Bludorn while they worked at the Michelin-starred Café Boulud in Manhattan, will undoubtedly put you at ease, readying yourself for an unforgettable, sometimes theatrical evening. That’s just the name of the game at this sparkling Fourth Ward jewel. The restaurant opened in summer 2020, just as diners began returning to them. Chef-owner Bludorn, along with operations manager and wife Victoria Bludorn, opened courtyard seating and erected partitions to keep guests at ease. The result was a restaurant that felt like a necessary release.
The food is Bludorn’s story. His Northwestern roots and French training are in salmon with peas and tomato confit. Try the divine foie gras with brioche donut, a riff on a Café Boulud item. Lamb with couscous, yogurt, and mint is all Pappas-inspired Greek. Also, back to France: lobster comes in a pot pie. It’s to die for. Pastry chef Alejandra Salas, another Boulud alumna who also spent a hot minute at the French Laundry, keeps dessert simple … except the outrageous baked Alaska. Yup, everything at Bludorn is about sitting back, breathing out, and being part of the best show in town.
Montrose | marchrestaurant.com
Let’s talk about vermouth. At March, Goodnight Hospitality’s ultra-fine dining restaurant atop Rosie Cannonball in Montrose, dry and blanc vermouths are blended, then steeped in a glass container with herbs, flowers, and fruit. It’s a gorgeous arrangement, a beautiful drink, and the perfect opener for one of Houston’s most stunning dining experiences.
It took a while for March to open thanks to the pandemic and the hospitality group’s shifting priorities. But, patience pays off. Chef and partner Felipe Riccio has crafted a menu examining the crossing of cultures along the Mediterranean with a few standouts, and nothing so towering as a career-defining tuna ventresca. Meanwhile, master sommelier and partner June Rodil has thoughtfully curated a deep wine list that includes Lebanese offerings and rewarding Spanish riojas. Oh, and that vermouth …
The experience takes place in the closest thing in Montrose to a luxury vacation. The lounge, with its Murano glass chandelier and warm lighting, its leather and stateliness, and the dining room with its comfortable round chairs and calming pink walls, are impossible to leave. Alas, you’ll have to leave. But you’ll remember so much of it: the way the lounge looks behind a zippy gin martini, the tuna (oh, the tuna), and even the (especially the) vermouth.
East Downtown | tinychampionshouston.com
If Nancy’s Hustle was chef-owner Jason Vaughan bringing the buzziest possible restaurant to Houston, then sister Tiny Champions is him quietly giving the people what they want.
First, what they want is pizza, and wild versions of it like pineapple with speck and jalapeño and irresistibly buttery shrimp scampi with garlic, lemon, and red pepper. Next, it’s all of the small plates like crunchy cabbage salad with pistachio agrodolce and braised beans with charred pickles. The people want weirdo-shaped pasta like little radiators in tongue-stinging chili sauce, and funky wine like “cot boy,” a French red blend whose scent dances like the Talking Heads track that you’re bound to hear at the bar. It’s chill at Tiny Champions. There’s an outdoor seating area with picnic tables, great for sharing other crazy things like slices of anchovy and garlic pie and a bottle of Serbian sauvignon blanc. The absurd high-tops are great for two friends just shooting the you know what. Tiny Champions doesn’t look like it’s trying very hard, but one taste of just about anything will make you realize otherwise. This is serious business in a playful package, and all for the people.
Museum District | lejardinier-houston.com
No, Houston doesn’t need Michelin Star restaurants. The scene is that strong and self-sustaining. But we’re very happy that Le Jardinier, which won a Michelin Star in 2019 in New York, is here at the MFAH. And if it helps to bring the Michelin Guide down to H-Town … we ain’t gonna say no.
Le Jardinier is French for “the gardener,” so naturally, chef Alain Verzeroli’s mission is to combine seasonal ingredients and preparations with surgical French technique. With tall windows facing MFAH’s Cullen Sculpture Garden, and with a gorgeous Trenton Doyle Hancock tapestry of colorful trees serving as dining room backdrops, the results are often breathtaking.
The spring menu featured grilled bavette with nutty, wine-colored eggplant mousse; in summer, that entrée became tea-spiced duck breast with blackberry aigre-doux. For dessert, executive pastry chef Salvatore Martone presents a theatrical showstopper of yuzu mousse and blackberry compote with a puff pastry butterfly. Dishes rarely look and taste this unforgettable. Completing the experience is Le Jardinier’s spotless service, from charming sommeliers showcasing superbly balanced French reds to a roulette of servers checking tables and making small talk in sharp, perfectly tailored suits. Whether or not Houston needs outside plaudits is a question for another day. Either way, Le Jardinier is going to get them.
Uptown | turnershouston.com
Everything Benjamin Berg opens has some of his native New York in it, but Turner’s, a lower-level, dimly lit supper-club-style hangout with big-ticket dishes and super-cozy service, is so much big money and Manhattan that it’s only missing the New York Stock Exchange bell. Instead, courtesy legendary chef Robert Del Grande, there’s 22-ounce wagyu ribeye and tartare, lobster salad and branzino over white beans with pine nut pesto. There’s caviar and crab legs, lobster cocktail, and wedge salad that’s finished with a server slicing a slab of bacon tableside for the topper.
There’s also hot dog service and an open-faced ham and swiss, a reuben salad and housemade potato chips. Pair them with a $1,350 bottle of Champagne Salon, if you dare. The food and drinks seem to bellow from atop the Empire State Building they’re so boisterous.
And yet Turner’s is comfortable as a spring day in Central Park. Slip into a monstrous banquette as a piano player sets the mood. Around you are tons of photographs of the Big Apple and of a lot of things that happened in 1978. That’s the year Berg was born. Turner’s is the restaurant this owner and operator has wanted to open. It’s as big as his personality and serves as a triumph to his Rockefellerian approach to hospitality.