When most people think of Houston, Texas, the first thoughts that come to mind are heat, humidity, and concrete; bright city lights, a maze of traffic-bearing highways, and industries led by energy and aerospace. If you’re a sports fan, the Texans, the Rockets, and the recent World Series contenders, the Astros may also come up. As the fourth largest city in the country, Houston is home to diverse ethnicities and interests. Key elements that have influenced a vibrant cultural fabric accented by Texas heritage and youthful innovation.
Houston has earned several nicknames since its inception in the 1830s. From the “Magnolia City” for an old magnolia grove that was ripped out in the 1930s, to the “Bayou City” for the steam ferry named “Bayou City,” that worked the routes between Houston and Galveston before the Civil War, the Space City for playing a prominent role as the center of activity for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Energy Capital of the World for the proliferation of energy firms headquartered in town, and H-town, which is apparently popular because it takes one less keystroke to type. But when you sample from its wide selection of culinary offerings, from glitzy steak restaurants to hole-in-the-wall barbecue joints and every ethnic dish you can imagine, it’s perhaps time that Houston earns the moniker “Flavor City.”
And while places like Austin, San Antonio, the Hill Country, Marfa, or Big Bend may draw much of the travel appeal in Texas, in truth, there’s something magnetic about Houston if you choose to dig in a little bit. Let’s be clear – a weekend in the Bayou City isn’t nearly enough to get an authentic taste for all it has to offer. (The range of genuine and well-executed cuisine on every level would take a year to savor alone,) But if you’re looking to skim the surface for a short romantic getaway or with the family in tow, here are a few—relatively new—worthwhile places to stay, eat, and enjoy to get a true feel for the heart of Houston.
Named for Charlotte Baldwin Allen, a matriarch of Houston who used her inheritance to finance the city’s founding in the early nineteenth century, this high-end and locally-focused independent hotel is a tribute to her legacy as a founding businesswoman, philanthropist, and visionary. While Texas historical figures such as Sam Houston, William B. Travis, Stephen F. Austin, and Mirabeau B. Lamar’s contributions continue to be celebrated, Charlotte Baldwin Allen’s story is largely unsung.
Though her friend Sam Houston suggested calling the newly formed town “Charlottesville,” she capitalized on his more famous surname. She also became the primary financial driver of Houston’s entire construction industry, bankrolling the navy and building the short-lived Capitol of the Republic of Texas.
Located at the center-point of Downtown, Midtown, and Buffalo Bayou Park, the hotel is situated at Allen Parkway and only a short walk from the Theater District and the Main Street METRORail line. (It’s also just a quick drive to Washington Avenue, the Arts District, The Heights, Montrose, Museum District, and River Oaks.)
This contemporary property offers visitors an opportunity to discover an authentically sophisticated and modern Houston experience featuring elegant yet cozy rooms, amenities such as a luxury nail salon, local retailer Sloan Hall, and activated green space. It’s also home to a signature restaurant, Rosalie Italian Soul, from Top Chef Master winner Chris Cosentino. Views from the higher floors afford a true glimpse of the city’s downtown appeal.
Located in the heart of the Montrose neighborhood, commonly referred to as the birthplace of Texas counterculture, La Colombe D’Or is an intersection where history, art, and luxe comfort collide. Housed in a 1920s mansion, the hotel’s original structure is the former home of one of Houston’s most influential couples, Walter and Ella Fondren. Early benefactors of the Texas oil boom at the turn of the twentieth century, Walter transitioned from a laboring roughneck to become one of the founders of the Humble Oil Company, now Exxon Company. (In previous years, Ella would use a portion of their wedding dowry to invest in Texaco, a decision that would eventually be worth millions.) The Fondrens built the Jazz-era mansion in 1923, which later served as a school building and as a Red Cross facility.
In 1979, the Zimmerman family took ownership of the property. The Zimmerman’s, a well-traveled, art-loving family, opened the mansion as a small boutique hotel, inspired by an auberge in Southern France of the same name where young artists used to stay and commune. They took advantage of the space to display pieces from the family’s extensive art collection. But in the last couple of years, the family employed a grander vision for the area, restoring the original structure to its prime and expanding the property to include a modern residential tower with an additional 18 hotel rooms.
The suites in the mansion marry an old-world vibe with artistic elegance and modern accents. In contrast, the new tower suites offer a fresh, contemporary feel with infinitely more space to display a wide range of art in various mediums, from paintings to sculptures. Beyond the main property, just across the street, lies a collection of garden bungalows. Once a 1940s two-story apartment complex, the Zimmerman’s reimagined the u-shaped layout into luxury hotel suites, each with its own eclectic feel and design. With an entryway through an ornate black iron gate, the bungalows surround a shady garden courtyard adorned with gas-lit gothic sconces, ivy-covered walls, and babbling water fountains, a scene evocative of New Orleans’ French Quarter.
Be sure to take advantage of the sophisticated European-inspired fare at Tonight & Tomorrow, where breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served in an elegant dining room accented with rich green velvet seating and dark original wood framing. (Don’t miss the adjoining Bar No. 3 for a selection of creative cocktails and bar snacks.)
Located in the city’s Fourth Ward, Bludorn’s is the vision of Seattle native Aaron Bludorn. His extensive experience has seen him on both the East and West Coast, working with esteemed mentors such as Michelin-starred Daniel Boulud and Douglass Keane. His menu reflects his background applying fine dining techniques to French-inspired Gulf Coast fare in a refined yet relaxed neighborhood setting. The vibrant space serves as the perfect backdrop to indulge in a perfectly juicy burger, a dozen oysters on the half shell, or a soulful lobster pot pie for two. You’ll even find a few Greek-inspired splashes in deference to his co-owner and wife, Victoria Pappas Bludorn, of Houston’s celebrated Greek restaurant family, the Pappas. (Pappas Bros Steakhouse, Pappadeux, Pappasito’s, Pappas Bar-B-Q) Drawing on her previous experiences at Bar Boulud and The French Laundry, the dessert from pastry chef Alejandra Salas is not to be missed. S’mores ice cream cones flambéed table-side are a visual (and tasty) treat, but the crispy, doughy cinnamon-sugar-dusted churros are absolute heaven. (Salas has worked the recipe to perfection over the years.)
The expansive dining room is glitzy and bright, where magnetic energy emanates from the gregarious banter from each table. Friendly, attentive hospitality makes every occasion feel special, whether in for a wedding anniversary or simply just a Tuesday night with friends, not surprising considering the pedigree of its owners.
This downtown locale tucked into the first floor of the Market Square Tower opened last summer as the slightly more casual kid sister of the feelin’-fancy Georgia James steakhouse. It’s part of the family of restaurants from Underbelly Hospitality from James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd. Committed to authenticity and heritage, Shepherd has shared a commitment to spotlighting the “underbelly” of Houston’s flavorful side. The Tavern is dark and cozy with gilded accents‚—a nod to the Art Deco decor of the existing building—and every bit as elegant in design as the original. Here, chef Matt Coburn sources seasonal, local ingredients from a fleet of area farmers and purveyors. The menu, though abbreviated, offers a wide range of flavorful appetizers, salads, and wood-fired entrées. There’s a $25 burger that’s thick and juicy, topped with smoked onion “fancy sauce,” creamy American cheese, onions, and pickles. And it’s worth every penny. The crispy karaage chicken nuggets with fermented chili-soy glaze are a sweet-and-spicy starter, but the decadent chocolate-pecan pie cake steals the show with silken pecan-praline buttercream and crunchy fried pie-crust sprinkles. It’s the perfect spot for those glammed up to catch a night at the symphony or ballet who want to grab a proper meal before the show.
Stop in for brunch and bubbles on the garden patio at Ostia, an Italian and New American-inspired trattoria in Montrose. Here, chef-owner Travis McShane features an inviting menu of pasta, seasonal salads, wood-fired pizzas, and composed entrées. A former protégé of Barbuto chef Jonathan Waxman, McShane returned to his native Houston to share his approach to seasonal flavor with his hometown. The wine menu offers a range of Italian selections with an added emphasis on classic Champagne. Though salads and small plates vary with the season, the roasted check with lemon and salsa verde is a menu mainstay and one of the juiciest and most tender executions in recent memory. Of course, you can’t go wrong with a light and classic Margherita pizza with a fruity glass of Lambrusco to wash it all down.
There are some who make a veritable pilgrimage to a particular town simply to dine at one heralded spot. In Napa, it’s The French Laundry. In New York, it’s 11 Madison Park. In Chicago, it’s Alinea. For Houston, that culinary experience is March. Located above sister restaurant Rosie Cannonball in Montrose, this elegant fine dining restaurant is led by Goodnight Hospitality business partners Chef Felipe Riccio and Master Sommelier June Rodil. Here, Riccio and his team of chefs—Ian Payne, Christian Hernandez, Matt Hamilton, Shawn Gawle—examine the various regions in the Mediterranean where boundaries meet and intersect, creating tension, conflict, and diversity through food. In short, you’re going to get a true taste of place with a reverence to tradition balanced with innovative flare. But you won’t get every corner of the Mediterranean in one sitting. Instead, Riccio and his team dive deep into one specific area, introducing guests to one region’s unique flavors and preparations through spices, meats, and local vegetables. Last spring, it was the Maghreb region of northern Africa. This fall, the menu focuses on the Southern Spanish areas of Andalucía and Murcia with modern interpretations of classic salmorejo tomato and bread soup, escabeche de mariscos with Iberico ham, harissa sofrito, and clam broth, and rich and tender Rabo de Toro (oxtail stew) with a braised greens in Calasparra rice.
Before you even see the dining room, an evening at March begins in the bar, tucked away in its own mezzanine room where cozy lounging vignettes await. It starts with house-made vermouth. A fashionably-uniformed server brings an elegant vintage glass alongside a glass-walled canteen filled with white vermouth steeping in a colorful array of flowers, herbs, and spices of the season. The pour is just an aperitif but also an enticing glimpse at what lies ahead. Stick with the vermouth, or select a cocktail from the curated menu of culinary-driven creations from the bar team led by Alex Negranza. The first course of the set menu is served here, typically in the form of four composed bites to introduce guests to the region of the season. Once finished, guests are led into the formal dining room
The wine list is extensive, with more than 11,000 bottles in the cellar. But if you’re putting your dining experience in the capable hands of Chef Riccio’s team for a six- or nine-course meal, you may as well relinquish vinous control to the expertise of Rodil and beverage director Mark Sayre for either the “Classic” or “Premium” wine pairing. To be clear, March isn’t the only game in town. There are a lot of fine dining experiences here that make a memorable experience. But if there’s any pinnacle hospitality experience that helps bring recognition to Houston as a dining destination, March is that place.
For a flavorful journey to India, stop in for an evening at Musaafer. One of the first new restaurants to open during the pandemic, the project was a labor of love for chef Mayank Istwal, who hired most of his staff directly from India to pursue their dream of modernizing neoteric Indian cuisine and telling the story of their native country’s heritage and culture. Istwal has traveled extensively across India, gathering recipes and inspiration to cultivate a menu inspired by the 29 states of India, which is perhaps how the restaurant landed its name, which means “traveler” in Hindi and Urdu. Try the tender texture of mushroom ceviche with coconut, curry leaf, and crunchy boondi, or Nalli Nihari lamb shank, slowly braised and served with saffron-cauliflower risotto. Pastry Chef Ruschit Harneja dazzles with sweet treats such as Rajasthani Ghevar, a traditional disc-shaped syrup cake given a modern, artful presentation.
For dinner, or late-night drinks and snacks, Nancy’s Hustle is the place. Located in the gentrified quadrant of east downtown, or “EaDo,” this bustling hotspot isn’t really new (it opened in late 2017), but it has an eclectic appeal that has made it a classic “must” when visiting Houston’s dining scene. Here co-owner and celebrated Houston cocktail specialist Sean Jensen and co-owner and chef Jason Vaughan keep a fresh and lively menu with the crowd favorite “Nancy Cakes” taking top honors as the most requested dish, and with good reason. Fluffy, buttery cornmeal cakes, airy, whipped cultured butter, and delectably salty smoked trout roe, they’ve become a local icon. Most of the menu changes with the season, but another standard is the juicy burger with melted American cheese, pickles, and tomato on a toasted brioche English muffin. Flashy—primarily with their flavorful food—yet neighborhood casual, Nancy’s is where you want to end a long day with great food and a good glass of wine or a boozy cocktail. Though there may be a bit of a wait, it’s well worth it.
Husband and wife team Patrick Feges and Erin Smith have made their mark on Texas barbecue with their two locations of Feges BBQ. (The first is a food-court version in Greenway Plaza downtown, and the second is a new stand-alone lunch and dinner restaurant in the Spring Branch neighborhood.) Self-taught pit master Feges first served in Iraq, earning a Purple Heart for injuries sustained during combat before finding his passion for cooking during recovery. He worked in Houston’s fine-dining restaurants, Brennan’s and Underbelly, before focusing on barbecue full-time. Smith started her career in fine dining at New York’s Per Se and Babbo before moving home to Houston to run several kitchens and spend a year as a sommelier at the popular Houston wine bar, Camerata. Their unique strengths have helped to garner a loyal following for both locations, where marrying hospitality with Texas barbecue goes hand-in-hand. Don’t miss the small yet well-appointed wine selection, including some funky offerings that pair well with smoked meats like Cleto Chiarli Vecchia Modena Lambrusco, rosé from Austrian winemaker Heidi Schrock, and Chateau Combel La Serre, a robust Malbec that pairs perfectly with a Texas-sized barbecue platter.
For a taste of authentic Tex-Mex cuisine, head to the Heights neighborhood for lunch and order a combo plate at Superica. Here, classics like tacos, tamales, and enchiladas take center stage, along with grilled fajitas, ceviche, and beloved chip-dipping favorite, chile con queso—in Texas, more commonly referred to as queso. The kitchen is an homage to the favorite Texas spots of celebrated Atlanta-based chef Ford Fry, who grew up in Houston and brought his version of Tex-Mex to Georgia in 2015. Its success prompted him to open a sister location in his hometown with seasoned chef Kevin Maxey, a Texas native and Gramercy Tavern alum, at the helm. Thematic cocktails include classics such as frozen margaritas and Palomas as well as favorites such as the “Matador” with pineapple and cilantro and non-alcoholic refreshers such as “Jamaica Tea” and daily agua frescas.
For something with a bit of Italian flare, check out Tiny Champions. A sibling to Nancy’s Hustle, this low-key EaDo spot serves up tasty small plates, house-made pasta, and wood-fired pizzas made with artisan sourdough crust that’s so crisp and delicious, you won’t leave a crumb behind. The menu changes seasonally, but the soul of flavor behind each dish remains a hallmark of co-owner and executive chef Jason Vaughan and his team. Shaved mushroom salad dusted with freshly grated parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil is a simple yet pleasurable revelation. A pizza with a snappy chili-ricotta base, crispy salami finocchiona, fennel, and fresh mozzarella is heaven. Wash it all down with a selection from the funky-fresh wine menu and finish it off with a scoop of mint stracciatella ice cream, and you’ll leave feeling like you’ve reached actual tiny champion status.
What to do:
My family is originally from Houston. Growing up, I have happy memories of my grandmother taking me to the zoo when I’d come for a visit. Now that I have a family of my own, I’m amazed at how well the Houston Zoo has evolved over the years. The 55-acre park is home to more than 6,000 animals from 900 species, and with more than 2.1 million visitors a year, it is the second most visited zoo in the country. The open landscape offers beautiful, spacious domains for animals, ample educational and interactive displays and activities, shady walkways, and plenty of fun for kids to enjoy. Its location within the expansive 445-acre Hermann Park makes it a perfect building block for a day outdoors. From the zoo, stroll the many trails and gardens throughout the park. You could hop aboard the 50-year-old mini train that winds its way around the park for a scenic tour or catch an evening show at the Miller Outdoor Theatre, offering one of the most diverse seasons of outdoor entertainment from music to theater. All performances at Miller Theatre are family-friendly and free of charge.
Part of an international sensation, thanks to Netflix hit Emily in Paris, the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit has now found a permanent home in Houston. Located in a 16,500-square-foot warehouse near downtown, the interactive experience offers a unique way to experience the work of celebrated impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh with a digital exhibit that puts art lovers virtually in his most loved pieces. The Lighthouse Immersive and Impact exhibit employs 500,000 cubic feet of moving projections that bring the artist’s individual brushstrokes to life. The whole experience is set to an engaging original score for an added audio dimension.
If you’re looking for a fun way to blow off some steam with friends or family, Palace Social on Bellaire Boulevard offers an excellent escape for an afternoon (or evening) of fun. A modern space reimagined version of the original Palace Bowling Lanes, a former longtime neighborhood favorite, the new 27,000-square-foot venue offers eight bowling lanes along with much more, including a sprawling arcade, virtual reality games, two multi-sport simulators, a sports lounge outfitted with big-screen TVs, and special event rooms for karaoke and private parties. The dining menu offers an array of dishes from queso and chips to pizzas, salads, sandwiches, and burgers. Unlike many warehouse gaming spots, Palace Social provides a bright and airy contemporary design with retro, mid-century accents and plenty of natural light.
This unique art experience offers guests 40-plus unique exhibits overflowing with dazzling displays of light generated by 9 million LEDs, color, sound, and natural elements. If you’ve ever been to the Meow Wolf exhibits in Santa Fe, Denver, or Las Vegas, it’s a little bit like that, but with more of an outer space feel. Designed for all ages, the 40,000-square-foot arts and entertainment concept features works by over two dozen artists along with advanced technological elements like projection mapping from 111 projectors, holograms, augmented reality, light-mapping, motion tracking, gamification, and more. While opening during the pandemic, Seismique created a completely touchless experience where guests can utilize an integrated mobile app for the space to avoid touching dials and knobs. Though it’s a bit of a drive from the central part of town, the experience is well worth the effort, especially for ages six and up.