Houston’s most influential restaurants
Some restaurants and, with an initial success, restaurant groups have help set the tone for large swaths of the Houston dining landscape. Some have traction with trends happening elsewhere, and at least a couple local establishments have inspired concepts or dishes that have been replicated in other cities across the country. Some have even replicated themselves elsewhere, some multiple times over.
You won’t find many newcomers on this list of Houston’s most influential restaurants, as it usually take some time for a successful new concept to find emulators. Here are fifteen or so of the city’s most influential restaurants across a wide range of cuisines and price points. It’s a diverse dining city and this captures some of that diversity.
- Backstreet Café – Around forever, and always enjoyable to visit, Traci Vaught and company have parlayed success in this restaurant into long-running Prego, and the city’s best two Mexican restaurants, Hugo’s and Caracol. Beverage director Sean Beck was also one of the very first in the city, if not the first, to mix what are now known as craft cocktails and providing inspiration for the later generation of mixologists.
- Brennan’s – Since opening 1967, this sister restaurant to Commanders Palace in New Orleans, has been a favorite for Creole-spiced celebrations, brunch and business dining that has helped nurture the careers of several prominent chefs including Mark Cox, Mark Holley, Randy Evans and Chris Shepherd.
- Churrascos – Part of the restaurant firmament for so long, it might be hard to remember when this was cutting edge for the city, but it introduced what might be the city’s favorite dessert, tres leches, South American wines and Latin flavors that were not from Mexico.
- The Ginger Man – It’s a bar, but close enough. Back in the 1980s when the Rice Village was a rather desolate outpost in the evenings, The Ginger Man, spurned on by an invitation to legendary beer writer Michael Jackson, transformed into what became the first modern beer bar in the country. It’s true.
- Goode Co. Seafood – Just for popularizing its rendition of campechana, the Mexican seafood cocktail that is now served in countless local restaurants, it might merit mention in this, but, more so, for combining the often robust flavors of not just Mexico, but also those of neighboring southern Louisiana and the Texas Gulf Coast that now seems so natural on a menu here. It would be hard to imagine Danton’s and the Liberty Kitchen restaurants if there had not first been a Goode Co. Seafood.
- Ibiza – This first and very successful concept from Grant-Cooper Concepts – who had previously been part of a trio at Tasca downtown near the end of last century – this has been a springboard for other restaurants and cuisines, most notably at the shuttered Catalan with Chris Shepherd at the kitchen helm, currently with the popular Brasserie 19, Punk’s, Coppa and now SaltAir. These have provided an avenue for quality food in casually upscale and vibrant settings that are well-matched for much of the city’s dining public. They have also helped encouraged the trend of nicely priced and selected, Old World-heavy wine lists that makes dining even more enjoyable.
- Killen’s Barbecue – In business only since February 2014, this not only lived up to its considerable pre-opening hype, but Houston back on the national barbecue map, raised the bar for barbecue restaurants in the area, and has encouraged a slew of other new style smoked meat joints to open.
- Kim Son – More user-friendly to non-Vietnamese patrons, and usually much better, too, Kim Son provided an entry into Vietnamese for many Houstonians and reason for its continued success here.
- Landry's – The Landry's version of Lafayette, Louisiana style seafood found a receptive audience in the Houston area, and begat the Landry's chain of chain restaurants after Tilman Fertitta took control.
- Ninfa’s – Gave us fajitas, which is enough said. But, it also gave rise to the Laurenzo family and the top-notch El Tiempo restaurants.
- Pappasito’s – Responding to the clamor for fajitas, the Pappas family opened the first Pappasito’s on Richmond and Chimney Rock in 1983 that help satiate that desire while providing an inspiration and model for other local, suburban-friendly Tex-Mex palaces that sprang up in the next quarter century. It also helped spur the Pappas brand to other concepts and many other restaurants.
- RDG + Bar Annie – Opened in 2009, RDG + Bar Annie is really an evolution of the famed Café Annie that where, beginning in the 1980s, Chef Robert Del Grande introduced Houstonians to Southwestern cuisine, whose subtle influence is found in the Mexican flavors in many of today’s preparations, and the notion that excellent food and fine dining did not have to be rooted in France or the “Continent.” Very enjoyable for a cocktail, a somewhat casual meal, or the traditional upscale dining experience from one of the city’s top chefs, the restaurant help presage the restaurant with notable bar areas now found at places like Triniti and Pass & Provisions.
- Reef – Coming of a well-reviewed stint at Bank, his mentor Jean-Georges Vongrichten’s stab at the Houston market, Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd opened this locally attuned seafood restaurant that won national attention for Caswell and, at long last, more focus on the Houston area restaurant scene. This seemed to give Houston chefs more confidence promoting the area’s products and disparate cultural influences. It also led to other ventures, currently Little Bigs, El Real and Jackson Street Barbecue.
- Taqueria Arandas – With 30-plus area locations, Taqueria Arandas has helped define the locally familiar taqueria model, which was nearly unknown when the first location opened in the early 1980s. And, their terrific viscous, spicy green salsa dispensed with a squeeze bottle, is now find in many other outlets.
- Tony’s – For over forty years Tony’s has been the destination for wealthy Houstonians and well-connected visitors – once offering the “poetry of French food” and now mostly modern Italian – always known for its very high standards of food, wine and service, along with a sense of style, showing that local restaurants could aim and take inspiration from the top restaurants in the country and beyond.
- Underbelly – Juxtaposing many of the city’s ethnic cooking traditions onto a menu and often on a single plate and usually succeeding in dramatic fashion has brought Chef Chris Shepherd deserved national acclaim. That attention has helped shine more light on other local restaurants and chefs. Underbelly, which is boisterous and confident, interesting and extremely competent, has also helped show that a meal built around small plates can work well. The terrific wine program from Matthew Pridgen encourages customers to drink wine with its palatable price points and that help enhance Shepherd’s cuisine. It can serve as a model for other restaurants.