From the continuing expansion of the convention campus to the revival of historic downtown, Houston is expanding in every direction. Ahead of hosting the 2016 NCAA Men’s Final Four this April and Super Bowl 51 in 2017, that includes lighting up the scoreboard with a blaze of new restaurants and bars.
“With nearly 10,000 restaurants representing cuisine from more than 70 countries and American regions, Houston’s culinary scene is as ethnically diverse as its residents,” says Mike Waterman, president of the Greater Houston CVB. “We truly have something for everyone.”
In this latest evolution of Houston’s nationally recognized culinary story, the city’s chefs, restaurateurs and scene-makers are emphasizing inventive concepts and exceptional experiences—with the group market very much in mind.
So goes the restaurant business, but only two of the five venues cited by The New York Times in its 2010 salute to Houston’s dining scene are still in business: event-capable seafood shrine Reef and “gastropub meets Texas icehouse” concept Beaver’s. Like Houston itself, however, the scene is all about momentum.
Among the game-changers du jour is Chris Shepherd, who won James Beard honors as Best Chef: Southwest in 2014 for Underbelly, his homage to American Creole cuisine drawn from Houston’s myriad diverse cultures. His Beard win was the first for Houston since Robert Del Grande in 1992.
Native Houstonian Justin Yu, a James Beard nominee for Best Chef: Southwest the last two years, is also out in front with his vegetable-centric Oxheart. Located in the Warehouse District, this hot ticket seats 30, including the 11-seat kitchen counter, with online reservations for up to six but also available for buyouts.
Oxheart also curates the bar snacks at Public Services Wine & Whisky, where Yu is a partner. Located in the landmark Cotton Exchange Building from 1884 and offering event space for up to 150, this inviting concept is among several transforming the downtown area, along with cocktail and live music joint The Nightingale Room and burlesque and cabaret spot Prohibition.
With three top event-capable Houston restaurants to his name, Backstreet Cafe, Hugo’s and Caracol, three-time James Beard finalist Hugo Ortega is yet another leader of the scene.
Opened in October 2015, State of Grace is the first Houston venture from Atlanta celebrity chef Ford Fry. Located across from his former high school, Fry’s stately River Oaks restaurant pays homage to Houston and Gulf Coast cuisine amid vintage and modern decor. Groups have a private dining room for 25; the Oyster Bar, for receptions of up to 35; and six-person Chef Counter.
Another hot 2015 newcomer is Helen Greek Food and Wine. As the name suggests, it’s all-Hellenic cuisine at this slender 40-seat taverna in Rice Village. Along with overseeing Houston’s first, and the nation’s second-largest, all-Greek wine list, owner and Iron Sommelier Evan Turner hosts exclusive Greek wine dinners and wine classes.