Started from the bottom, now we here…
When it comes to the Houston restaurant scene, perhaps rapper and honorary native son Drake said it best. Over the past few years, we’ve garnered accolades big and small, from the city’s first James Beard Award in decades to a perch atop Travel + Leisure’s list of Best Cities for Foodies. We’ve been called everything from “America’s newest capital of great food” (thanks, Food & Wine) to “America’s next great food city” (thanks, GQ). Some of the claims seem a touch premature, to be completely honest. But if the Bayou City hasn’t quite reached the pantheon yet, make no mistake, the journey has begun.
It’s a journey all the more remarkable for the period in which it occurred, one which brought a sea change in attitudes toward food and its would-be purveyors. Consider how few tastemakers there were back in 1992, the last time Houston won a James Beard honor. Gourmet and Saveur were around, to be sure, but it would be years before the world birthed its first food blog, and eons before the arrival of Thrillist lists, Yelp reviews and Instagrammers. The crush of attention certainly brought greater excitement to the scene, but also greater scrutiny, greater pressure. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough for restaurants to be delicious. They had to invent whole new cuisines, with all the pretention, gimmickry and bad food that the term implies.
Restaurant patrons changed too. The public became ever wiser in the ways of food, demanding more of chefs, bartenders, even restaurant designers. There were challenges within as well, courtesy a nationwide talent shortage whose impact was especially severe here. Restaurateurs accustomed to competing for diners now found themselves doing the same for sous chefs, line cooks, pastry chefs and dishwashers.
Given all the tumult, you might be forgiven a certain nostalgia for the Houston of old, especially since the food scene these days resembles nothing so much as a zero-sum game of mutually assured destruction. But the whisk only spins forward. There’s no going back now, and no reason to. After all, while the stakes are higher than ever, so are our standards, thanks to a solid foundation established by our culinary forebears—RDG + Bar Annie, Hugo’s, Américas, Da Marco, Indika—and their descendants—Underbelly and Oxheart, Pax Americana and Pass & Provisions—whose chefs valiantly dedicated themselves to bringing Houston food to the national stage, and succeeded in record time.
Needless to say, it isn’t easy to be a pioneer anymore, not in a city full of them. But if Houston’s restaurateurs are intimidated, you’d never know it from the number of establishments opening around town. No fewer than 100 serious dining destinations threw open their doors between August 1 of last year and August 1 of this one (our period of consideration), and in many of them, we’re happy to report, that pioneering spirit is alive and well.
Over that same year, our editors and critics ate hundreds of meals (anonymously, on our own dime) discovering lots of special new places. But 10 of them were very special. Ten of them managed to display unique passions while staying rooted in the real world, offering a cunning combination of creative and clever, visionary yet patient. There’s no laurel-resting or gimmickry to be found at Houstonia’s 10 Best New Restaurants, nothing but pure talent, love of craft, and damn good food.