Downtown Houston is one of the most exciting, energetic places in the city, offering authentic, multicultural dining, touring and entertainment experiences. Year-round events at Discovery Green, the renovated Allen’s Landing Park, art at Market Square and water shows on Main Street Square have Houstonians flocking to the area with friends and family. The restaurants in this area have a range of specialties. Some focus on weekday lunches ideal for downtown workers, while others offer dining experiences that cater to theater-and concert-goers, tourists, staycationers and people-watchers. We’ve picked our favorites from casual to fancy with restaurants offering humble tacos and horchata to upscale venues serving Chilean sea bass with vintage Bordeaux. We’ve also included our favorite food halls for those who want to try a variety of cuisines in one go.
Cultivated F+B, 701 Texas: The historic Lancaster Hotel’s restaurant recently updated its menu and decor. Chef de cuisine Joseph Vinson’s whimsical takes on the classics include Lobster Wellington with scallop filling and saffron cream and a deviled egg collection of four varieties of the Southern favorite, including bacon and smoked salmon and roasted red pepper. Brunch is the standout meal time thanks to dishes such as the Texas-shaped Bananas Foster Waffle and Braised Ribs Benedict served with sautéed spinach, grilled tomato and hollandaise. Elegant details prevail, from the rock candy coffee stirrers served with cappuccino to the fine local art collection throughout the facilities.
El Taco Rico, 1818 Hamilton: Don’t let the filling station location fool you. The drive-through spot lets you try some of Houston’s best tacos without even having to leave your car. This humble taco stand gets all the basics right starting with fresh, housemade tortillas, tangy marinated pastor (pork) and tortas lightly scorched on a griddle. Freshly made aguas frescas such as horchata (lightly sweetened vanilla-rice water), jamaica (hibiscus tea) and piña (pineapple) will help your tongue cope with the roasted jalapeño sauce served on the side. The steam-table menu rotates to keep things interesting but there are always tacos, pupusas, tortas, and quesadillas with your choice of fajita beef, pastor, chicken or shrimp. Roasted chicken, wings, salad and a burger are thrown in for good measure and birria tacos — complete with savory dipping sauce — are sometimes served as a special.
Hearsay, 218 Travis: This self-described “chic-antique” gastropub has us longing for the Roaring ’20s. The antique part is the original location in the W.L. Foley building, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It is the perfect setting for retro, speakeasy-inspired cocktails such as the Hemingway Daiquiri made of Plantation Rum, Maraska Maraschino and grapefruit juice or the Whitney with Stoli Razberi Vodka, Champagne and muddled blackberries. The menu offers Wagyu beef in many forms, including the namesake Hearsay Burger and a Wagyu Dog that can be served on a grilled bun or made into a corndog with jalapeño cornbread batter. More substantial plates, such as decadent beef short rib braised with Shiner and smoked gouda grits are also on order, as well as hefty snacks like Cheesesteak Egg Rolls made with smoked brisket and cheddar.
The Nash, 1110 Rusk: The vaulted veranda is an opulent setting for an eclectic menu as are the floor-to-ceiling windows that flood the dining room. European-style Wild Mushroom Toast with wild mushroom duxelle and goat and Asiago cheeses share the menu with Malaysian-inspired Forbidden Eggs (soft-boiled then deep-fried eggs dressed with sweet chili tamarind sauce). Larger plates such as Atlantic salmon glazed with miso satisfy hearty appetites, as does the pork porterhouse, a 14-ounce pork steak with blue cheese mashed potatoes and caramelized apples. Crafted cocktails range from rich and caffeinated, such as the Downtown Espress made of rye, espresso and oat milk, to light-and-airy like the Prickly Rose made with prickly rose, gin and enhanced with lavender mist.
Niko Niko’s Market Square, 301 Milam: Chrisanthios Fetokakis opened his Montrose gyro shop in 1977 in an old filling station with equipment he borrowed from Pete Pappas–the late founder of Pappas Restaurants. Even though the downtown stand is an abbreviated version of the original, it serves the same skin-on french fries, spanakopita and souvlaki that Houstonians line up for at the flagship. The stand also caters to the downtown crowd with espresso drinks such as butter pecan-infused Hera’s Honey Nut Latte and hearty breakfasts like the Cypriot Breakfast with eggs, loukaniko (Greek sausage), grilled halloumi cheese, salad and pita. Dine al fresco while enjoying one of many mosaics and water features on Market Square. Whatever dish you order, be sure and ask for extra tzatziki and safe room for the housemade desserts such as baklava and Greek cookies.
Potente, 500 Crawford: Restaurateur Jim Crane, owner of the Houston Astros, created a luxurious Italian food destination featuring dishes developed by chef Danny Trace (formerly of Brennan’s of Houston and others). Placing local ingredients center stage is Trace’s stock and trade, and his preference is evident in dishes such as Tonno, which is Louisiana yellowfin tuna and Texas shrimp prepared with pineapple, roasted corn and cucumber sake. Italian specialties grace the menu as well, like the hard-to-find Polipetti Arrostiti, or black squid ink spaghetti with charred octopus, and the must-try Spaghetti al Tartufo Nero, which is black pepper pasta with Parmigiano Reggiano and black winter truffle shaved table side. The 11-page wine list skews towards French and Italian varietals best shared by the bottle. If you have been searching for the Chateau Latour first growth 1988 Bourdeau, Potente is the place for you.
Rosalie Italian Soul, 400 Dallas: If you prefer your pasta in a light-hearted setting, head to the fashionable C. Baldwin Hotel and the restaurant opened by Top Chef Masters winner Chef Chris Cosentino, and named for his grandmother. Dishes include rigatoni made with Texas wild boar ragu or Great Grandma’s Meatballs — a homespun classic. Crispy arancini is a must-order appetizer for its magically crispy crust and creamy risotto interior. You will also find pizzas, salads and pastas. The thick-cut, bone-in ribeye is made from Painted Hills Natural Beef with roasted fennel, arugula and two salsas. Local red snapper is served with cracked olives and shaved fennel. Drinks have a festive vibe thanks to names such as Jessica Rabbit made with Cuervo Tradicional Blanco Tequila, sour cherry molasses and ginger, or The Dalai Mama made with Tito’s Vodka and butterfly pea flower.
Stato 550, 1415 Louisiana: Heart-stirring views of downtown are the uncontested attraction of this Wedge International Tower eatery. Floor-to-ceiling windows line the dining room and guests also have access to the open-air terrace. Come for the views and stay for the mezze-inspired lunch and elevated cocktails. The house favorite is the Strato Burger made from house ground brisket, topped with Fontina cheese and nestled in a challah bun. The menu has recently been updated to add lighter pasta dishes such as Crab Aglio e Olio, which is classic olive oil- and garlic-accented spaghetti dotted with chunks of tender crab meat. The restaurant closes at 8 p.m., but that still allows for time to unwind with a Violet Drop made with crème de violet, and perhaps Salami and Manchego Flatbread.
Toro Toro, 1300 Lamar: Celebrate Latin dishes with Japanese twists at chef Richard Sandoval’s decadent steakhouse located at the Four Seasons Hotel. Start with the “suviche bar” featuring multiple ceviches, sushis and Wagyu beef tiradito (a carpaccio-like Peruvian dish). Those who prefer cooked starters can choose antelope anticucho, or skewered marinated tenderloin marinated in ajì adobo, or sweet corn empanadas with avocado purée for dipping. The tremendously sized 52-ounce prime tomahawk, south Texas antelope tenderloin and Chilean sea bass are impressive splurges for dinner. Lunch is a more affordable affair, with quick dishes such as grilled tiger prawns al ajillo (made with garlic and chiles) served alongside Mexican street corn. The wine list flaunts Latin wines like Monte Xanic Calixa Syrah Blend from the Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico.
Xochi, 1777 Walker: Oaxaca is known as the land of the seven moles. In reality there are many more. Xochi is a love letter from owners Tracy Vaught and chef Hugo Ortega to this region deemed an Intangible Cultural Heritage site by Unesco. Located at the Marriott Marquis hotel, you will find housemade tamales, tortillas and fresh cheeses (a feature of all the restaurants in the H-Town Restaurant Group family). Mole has its own section on the dinner menu and may be poured over braised beef cheeks, as with the Cachetes de Res en Mole Pasilla, over wild mushrooms in Hongos en Mole Amarillo, or over shrimp in Camarones en Mole Verde. One of the specialties of the house is mole chicatana made with roasted flying ants — considered a prized, seasonal delicacy in Mexico. At lunch, tlayudas, or large, thin crispy tortillas laden with braised meats or mushrooms, are popular.
Mezcal, another specialty of Oaxaca, is prominent on the drink menu, with choices that include Masa Menos made from Los Vecinos Mezcal, Gem & Bolt Damiano Mezcal, Canton’s Ginger, corn puree and guava. Don’t skip James Beard semifinalist pastry chef Ruben Ortega’s chocolate desserts prepared from cacao bean-to-dish, such as the Cacao, a cocoa pod shaped shell filled with a magical assortment of chocolate in different textures and forms.
Zydeco Louisiana Diner, 1119 Pease: If you don’t have a Creole grandmother on hand, this Louisiana eatery will ensure your supper reflects secret family recipes — three generations to be exact. Constants on the menu include po-boys filled with fried oysters, shrimp, catfish or crawfish, or you can skip the sandwich and opt for a plate of the seafood instead fortified with jambalaya and fries. The daily specials, however, really pique interest such as stuffed pork chops on Tuesdays and salmon Creole on Fridays. The specials come with classic sides like corn maque choux, stewed okra and tomatoes and black eyed peas. If that doesn’t have you asking for a doggie bag, the homemade bread pudding is sure to have you loosening your belt a notch or two.
Downtown Houston’s Food Halls
Houston has several food halls downtown that are well worth visiting. These are great places to bring finicky friends. With so many options, you can sink your teeth into a West African curry while others play it safe with a tried-and-true pizza. Each hall contains endless options, including a few that made our annual, end-of-year “Best New Restaurants” lists.
Bravery Chef Hall, 409 Travis: Downtown’s first food hall offers chef-driven restaurants and beverage spots. Belly up to one of Bravery’s counters and watch chefs preparing a diverse array of foods. Here you will find season three Masterchef winner Christine Ha’s food stall: The Blind Goat . This James Beard semi-finalist for Best New Restaurant in 2020 is known for its Shaking Beef with Rice dressed in a light vinaigrette. Margaux’s Oyster Bar features oysters from the east and Gulf coasts, such as Misty Point oysters from Chesapeake Bay, that are available raw or chargrilled with roasted garlic and fennel butter. Kokoro, headed by chefs Patrick Pham and Daniel Lee goes the extra mile with artful creations that will challenge your idea of what sushi should look like. Hotate Serrano, for example, is a Japanese scallop sliced and wedged with orange slices, topped with serrano pepper and then placed atop light ponzu sauce. Wagyu Toast is a tidy package of Kinoko Mushroom duxelles with chimichurri, quail egg and caviar. The Chicken Fat Rice is crafted with aromatic chicken fat, chicken skin and shallot furikake — a far cry from the chicken fried rice of take-out fame.
The Post, 401 Franklin: By far the biggest, newest downtown food hall has the most options. There is plenty here to hold anyone’s interest, including Lea Jane’s Hot Chicken, Thai Kun’s Black Noodles and Return to Sender (a full bar) which anchors the center of the vast room. In addition to a dizzying array of food choices, Pop Soap is a handy place to pick up pop star-inspired gifts, soaps and candles. GolfstrØmmen by chef Christopher Haatuft from Lysverket in Norway is earning the attention of restaurant critics and gourmands alike. Because GolfstrØmmen only sells sustainably and ethically harvested seafood, the menu changes often based on what’s fresh and available. If you see something tempting, such as Fried Whole Scorpion Fish, get it, because there is no guarantee it will be there the next time you visit. With seafood this fresh, crudo and varietal oysters are also can’t-lose options for seafood lovers.
Understory, 800 Capital: This food hall is located at the base of the Bank of America Tower where five entry points to Houston’s tunnel system intersect. Understory features are high ceilings, plenty of sunlight, ping pong tables and numerous seating options, all of which create a comfortable space that we love. Lounge on comfy banquettes or have a quick meal at one of the many lunch counters. The vendors include established favorites such as local roaster Boomtown Coffee and combination pastry shop and restaurant Common Bond, which sells a swoon-worthy pistachio croissant.
America loves its burgers and Houston loves its melting pot. Flip ‘n Patties’ Filipino take on burgers uses siopao (steamed) buns and Akaushi beef as the base of a variety of tasty burgers. The Flip ‘n Patties burger is so decadent it includes a breaded and deep-fried portobello, mounds of cheese and bacon along with a secret sauce. The Jeepney burger includes a longganisa patty – a sweet Filipino sausage not unlike breakfast sausage, a fried egg and banana ketchup aioli. While the burgers are popular, appetizers like crispy Pupu Chicken with its “ancient old family recipe” and chicharrones with vinegar based suka dipping sauce are not to be missed.
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