While it's known for its palatial homes and immaculately manicured landscapes, the River Oaks area is also home to some of Houston's most exciting and satisfying restaurants. Here are our favorites in and just around the neighborhood (we're defining the area for these purposes as west of Kirby Drive, north of Richmond Avenue, east of the 610 Loop, and south of Memorial Drive).
The owners might be fitness-minded, but this restaurant, whose original location is in Newport Beach, is all about indulgence. You might be surprised by how many brunch items include ice cream, but even at dinner, you'll need to plan a workout after filling up on fried, Parmesan-crusted cubes of meatloaf and a Bosscat Burger, where tangy comeback sauce spills over a big ol' beef patty stacked with bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion. Brown-liquor connoisseurs will love the restaurant's whiskey room, which includes bottles from Kentucky, Tennessee, and elsewhere, plus a nice selection of scotches.
When you slide into one of the restaurant’s dark wood booths, you travel back a few decades to an era when Houston food was simply Southern. The dry-aged ribeye comes flanked with that old steakhouse favorite, garlic mashed potatoes, and sautéed spinach. The pimiento biscuits are excellent. The perfectly crusted chicken-fried steak is one of the best in Texas.
If it’s a Friday evening after another long week, just call chef/owner Lynette Hawkins's cozy Italian café, and order the pappardelle ai funghi e gorgonzola already. Get the biggest order you can, and pair it with a dry wine—ask for one from the house list of featured female winemakers. The mushrooms, gently peppered and cloaked in creamy, salty Parmesan sauce, are pure indulgence. If you need a meatier bite, the imported orecchiette giorgione with chile-inflected lamb meatballs will do.
As the name would imply, this is the place to get a slice of pie 24 hours a day. Of course, if you’re not there for a slice of Bayou Goo (our favorite with its pecan crust topped by a layer of sweet cream cheese, vanilla custard, and chocolate chunks), you can also indulge in whipped cream–covered waffles or an open-faced chili cheeseburger.
It’s hard not to have a rousing good time at MAD. Stunning small plates such as gulas (baby eels served like spaghetti with potato chips and quail eggs) and Mad 'n Beef (a DIY beef bolognese with cheddar) are some of the most fun you'll have at a restaurant, while big paella plates are sure to keep your hunger at bay (we can't get enough of the paella with Norwegian lobster and cuttlefish). MAD is made for dining in, but chef Luis Roger is skilled enough to make anything work for a takeout container. If you do head into the restaurant, be prepared to take photos in the ultra-neon bathroom hallway.
The fish is the thing to get at this swanky River Oaks surf-and-turf spot from a Maryland-based hospitality group. The rotating selection usually includes branzino from the Mediterranean, red snapper from the Gulf, dover sole from Holland, and yellowtail from Hawaii, known as Kona Kampachi—my favorite. Tender and buttery, it’s served deboned, filleted, and topped with olive oil, oregano, and capers. If you prefer to stay on land, Ouzo Bay offers a handful of steaks and chops. The perfectly medium rare, 14-ounce bison short rib—glazed with black garlic sauce and served with smoky yogurt and herbaceous gremolata—is outstanding.
Anita Jaisinghani’s fast-casual café has been an unqualified hit since day one, offering Gulf Coast–Indian fusion fare at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sure, an order of saag paneer and butter chicken might be the most basic of Indian food orders (blame one small, picky 3-year-old), but the punchy creaminess of the former and the gentle heat of the latter prove that even with traditional everyday dishes, Jaisinghani is a cut above the rest. If you're ordering to-go, Pondicheri has a separate entrance and exit, and markers on the floor make social distancing a breeze.
Meats cooked on the charcoal robata grill and a range of premium sashimi make this an unusual but wonderful destination for surf and turf. Steak offerings include cuts from Idaho-based Snake River Farms, plus a selection of A5-grade wagyu, and you might want to pair yours with delectable sides like sweet corn with soy garlic butter and asparagus with wafu dressing and sesame.
The Ford Fry restaurant in River Oaks helmed by chef Bobby Matos maintains a slim but power-packed menu for takeout and dine-in service. It's hard to resist appetizers like sliced Texas peaches atop grilled bread slathered in basil pesto and burrata, combining sweet with intensely herbal flavors, because you'll want to make room for big entrées like oak-roasted snapper with toasted chile vinaigrette and jumbo head-on Gulf shrimp with citrus chermoula. Or you can do as I did, and opt for cacio e pepe tagliatelle with just a coating of grana padano sauce. As both are creamy and intensely peppery, it made for a tremendous midweek meal. Of course, splurging on Gulf and East Coast oysters at the restaurant's windowed oyster room is always a good option.
Want a meal that is so rich it’s downright life-affirming? Order up the best entrée from this stalwart: the shrimp and risotto. A Parmesan and Champagne beurre blanc makes the rice luxurious; the flavorful topper of charred jumbo shrimp makes it downright addictive. You’ll pay a bit to eat from Tiny Boxwoods, but it’s a dinner you won’t soon forget.
This sparkling River Oaks restaurant comes from chef Sunil Srivastava, the owner of the late Great W'Kana. Here, chef Sunil packs a deep menu with what he calls "forgotten" Indian cuisine, from succulent lamb dishes to ultra-spicy vegetable pots. From the gourmand menu, the khargosh ki saounth (braised and smoked rabbit with korma sauce) steals the show. Of course, the biryani is worth it too.