Editor’s Note: Welcome to The Greats, a series on the restaurants that define their cities. Here now, a guide to the Houston Greats.
Once characterized as a land run by cowboys and oil and gas, the modern-day city of Houston escapes easy definition. A large and diverse community makes up the current landscape of a city full of people that, despite being laidback, work hard to change for the better, always keep an eye on the next big opportunity, and help each other when times get tough.
Restaurants are an integral part of what makes a city great, and what makes it unique. And while all restaurants provide welcome meals, there are some that truly help to define what it means to live in Houston.
Whether they serve as meeting places in important moments in history, create ripple effects in a movement that grows larger than themselves, or open up new possibilities for what certain cuisines can be, there are some places that deserve special recognition for their contributions to the city they help shape.
The following 17 restaurants make up The Greats: a list of restaurants that encompass the spirit of what it means to live in Houston.
Phil and Derek’s (Downtown)
Created with entertainment in mind, Phil and Derek’s brings the spirit of New Orleans to Houston with Cajun and Creole food, an outdoor patio, and live shows that range from jazz and R&B to stand up comedy and cabaret. Weekend brunch is a perennial favorite and attracts large crowds hoping to dine and drink while listening to live music. Cajun staples such as gumbo share a menu with Southern favorites like fried green tomatoes, in addition to the brunch must-order, chicken and waffles.
Dining at the restaurant: Dining is available inside the restaurant, and on the outdoor patio.
Takeout: Phil and Derek’s offers takeout.
When James Beard-award winning chef and owner Tyson Cole opened this Houston outpost nearly a decade ago, he brought a different kind of upscale sushi experience to the city. Uchi’s sushi, sashimi, and extensive sake list underscore Cole’s years of working under Japanese masters, and the “hot” and “cool” tasting menus of composed and cooked dishes surprise and delight diners by incorporating local ingredients and seasonal specials. The attentive service and consistently excellent food with chef de cuisine Chris Davies at the helm has made the restaurant a standout in its own right, and a perennial favorite with a loyal following.
Dining at the restaurant: Uchi is currently open for dine-in service with reservation only, limited seating.
Takeout: Uchi offers takeout and delivery.
Despite opening last spring in the throes of the pandemic, this upscale Galleria restaurant has already made a name for itself as a top contender in Houston fine dining. Featuring reinterpreted dishes from 29 states in India, the a la carte menu offers options to please everyone from vegans to meat lovers. Set in an elegant two-story space, with high ceilings and large windows, the setting combined with the attentive service makes this an exciting new favorite to explore in its second year.
Dining at the restaurant: Dining is available at Mussafer, with social distancing and limited seating.
Takeout: Musaafer offers takeout and delivery.
Ninfa’s on Navigation (East End)
Tex Mex may be ubiquitous in the Bayou City, but the Ninfa’s name is the one that’s known for introducing fajitas to the world in the form of tacos al carbon. Nearly 50 years after the original Ninfa’s opened its doors, it’s still considered the pinnacle of high-end Tex Mex, and the home of perfectly tart and boozy margaritas, aptly named Ninfaritas. Under current chef Alex Padilla, the restaurant continues to thrive, and recently garnered an Outstanding Restaurant nod from James Beard for the first time in its history.
Dining at the restaurant: Dine-in is available at socially distanced tables inside the restaurant and on the outdoor deck.
Takeout: Ninfa’s offers takeout and delivery.
MF Sushi (Museum District)
This city is no stranger to high-end fish, but there’s something special about Chris “Magic Fingers” Kinjo’s traditional sushi. Lauded for the multi-course omakase experience reminiscent of Japan’s sushi masters, MF Sushi’s fresh fish is unrivaled in the city. With deft knife strokes and minimal accents, the focus is wholly on pristine, melt-in-your-mouth fish and shellfish selections you won’t find anywhere else.
Dining at the restaurant: Dining is available inside the restaurant, at reduced capacity.
Takeout: MF Sushi does not offer takeout at this time.
Tony’s (Upper Kirby, Shepherd Corridor)
With over five decades under its belt, Tony’s has been the standard bearer for fine dining in Houston for more than half a century. Over the years, oil barons, celebrities, the society set, and social climbers have all congregated to eat, drink, and be seen at Tony’s — even Princess Margaret enjoyed a party thrown for her in the wine cellar on a visit to Houston. Luckily for Houstonians, the family-run Italian restaurant has evolved over the years, with food that’s more impressive than the clientele. New and exciting menu items from chef Austin Waiter, such as the dry-aged duck, feel right at home alongside classics like the signature pasta portanova, tossed tableside in a 36-month aged Parmesan sauce, then finished with Osetra caviar.
Dining at the restaurant: Dine-in is available in the spacious dining room.
Takeout: Tony’s offers takeout.
Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille (Multiple locations)
What started as a local family butcher shop in 1979 has grown into a fine dining favorite across the Greater
Houston area. Rooted in the same hospitality that still anchors the retail shop, each Perry’s Steakhouse location is upscale, but feels tailored to its neighborhood clientele. Yes, there is tableside meat carving, a much-loved seven-finger-high pork chop, seafood towers, and flaming desserts à la bananas foster — but it’s the friendly service and the way that diners feel at ease that makes Perry’s a mainstay for everything from birthdays to anniversaries to lunch with an old friend. For special occasion options and holidays, check out the restaurant’s Experiences, reservable through OpenTable.
Dining at the restaurant: Socially distanced dining is available, with extra space between tables and a limited number of seated diners.
Takeout: Perry’s offers takeout and delivery.
Peli Peli South African Kitchen (Galleria)
Named for the traditional African spice blend made from bird’s eye chile, this South African fine dining restaurant excels at vibrant spectacle. Whether it’s the colorful LED ceiling above diners’ heads, or the 11 signature South African sauces that accompany a selection of meat skewers, the experience of eating here stands out. From pub food to curry and wood-grilled meats, the spice blends weaved throughout the menu continue to make Peli Peli a standout ten years after its original debut.
Dining at the restaurant: Dine-in is available at the restaurant, where extra space between tables is in place in addition to social distancing and a limited number of seated diners.
Takeout: Peli Peli offers takeout.
Kiran’s (Upper Kirby)
Chef Kiran Verma, Houston’s “godmother of Indian fine dining,” blazed her own path to showcase her version of world-class north Indian food with her namesake restaurant. The first clue that Kiran’s is something special starts when diners enter through a grand, hammered brass door and step into the serene, chandelier-filled dining room. The kitchen consistently puts out excellent fare from an extensive menu featuring Indian street food and classics such as butter chicken and vindaloo, and local ingredients shine in dishes like chef Kiran’s shrimp and grits. On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, the afternoon tea service is an indulgent experience not to be missed.
Dining at the restaurant: Dine-in is available both inside the restaurant and on the outside patio.
Takeout: Takeout is available on OpenTable.
Rainbow Lodge (Lazybrook/Timbergrove)
Named for its well-appointed, refurbished century-old hunting cabin digs, Rainbow Lodge is a go-to choice for ambience, but more importantly, for its seasonal menus featuring wild game and Gulf fish. Chef Mark Schmidt’s kitchen serves up everything from South Texas-sourced antelope loin to rainbow trout with lump crab and pecan brown butter to duck confit, and sommelier Marc Borel’s wine list is one of the best in the city. Surrounded by kitchen gardens and landscaped grounds, the large outdoor patio offers diners an excellent view of White Oak Bayou, whether it’s over a bottle of wine, or savoring wild game burgers on Fridays.
Dining at the restaurant: Dine-in is available inside the cabin or outside on the expansive outdoor patio.
Takeout: Rainbow Lodge offers takeout and delivery.
BCN Taste & Tradition (Midtown/Montrose)
When Catalan-born chef Luis Roger opened BCN Taste & Tradition, the goal was to introduce Houstonians to his native food in a way that reflected his modern fine dining bonafides, which include a stint training under legendary chef Ferran Adria of elBulli fame. BCN, named for Barcelona’s airport code, quickly became known not only for Roger’s exceptional Spanish cuisine and painstakingly crafted small plates, but also for the Old World service, all-Spanish wine list, and signature gin and tonics. As one of the city’s most luxurious dining experiences, it’s an ideal restaurant for special occasions, or a special night out seated near original works of art by Miró and Picasso.
Dining at the restaurant: Dine in is available at BCN’s dining room inside a renovated former 1920s-era Victorian mansion.
Takeout: BCN Taste & Tradition offers takeout.
Killen’s Steakhouse (Pearland)
In a city that takes its steak very seriously, rising to the top of the pack, especially as a family-owned option, is a feat. But that’s exactly what executive chef Ronnie Killen, who made the Killen name famous with his Pearland restaurant, did. Hand-cut steaks, which include hard-to-find Japanese wagyu options, plus a focus on fresh ingredients and singularly delicious desserts such as crème brûleé bread pudding, have garnered many nationwide accolades, including honors as a top steakhouse in Thrillist, Travel & Leisure, and the Daily Meal, among others.
Dining at the restaurant: Dine-in is available with socially distanced tables and a limited number of seated diners.
Takeout: Killen’s Steakhouse offers takeout and delivery
After decades of serving an upscale Post Oak crowd, beloved fine dining staple Masraff’s takes on its second act in a new location near Bunker Hill. The new iteration is light, bright, and modern, with attentive service and classic Houston favorites such as steaks, wild-caught seafood, and wild game still at the core of the dining experience. The new lounge and patio offer ideal spots to enjoy an excellent happy hour, where crispy fried Gulf oysters pair perfectly with a Masraff’s jalapeño- and cucumber-infused G&T.
Dining at the restaurant: Dine-in is available inside the restaurant and on the shaded outdoor patio.
Takeout: Masraff’s offers takeout.
Brasserie 19 (River Oaks)
Casually elegant Brasserie 19 marries classic French brasserie-style food with a well-priced wine list and a see-and-be-seen River Oaks clientele. Owners Charles Clark and Grant Cooper created a philosophy for their restaurants that encourages access to an expansive wine list with bottles priced just above retail, which makes it easy to sample a wide variety of bubbles alongside oysters on the half shell, or a nice Pinot Noir with steak frites. Whether the occasion calls for a shared bottle on the patio with light bites, or a romantic dinner for two that lingers into the night, Brasserie 19 makes for a great excuse to dress up and go out on the town.
Dining at the restaurant: Brasserie 19 is open for dine-in, both inside the restaurant and on its outdoor patio.
Takeout: Brasserie 19 offers takeout and delivery.
Goode Co. Armadillo Palace (Upper Kirby, Shepherd Corridor)
Goode Co.’s Armadillo Palace is downright charming, from the large silver armadillo at the restaurant’s entrance to the indoor dance hall and live-fire barbecue pits. Built with three stages and a huge outdoor patio space, this unique complex was made to entertain, and to create an evening where dinner, dancing, and a show can all be had in one place. Although COVID has put a damper on dancing, the Texas-style food coming from the kitchen is worth the trip all on its own. Whether it’s mesquite-smoked redfish, rotisseried cabrito, or a slice of Goode’s famous pecan pie, it’s delicious on the patio or enjoyed via takeout at home.
Dining at the restaurant: Dine-in is available inside the restaurant and on the expansive outdoor patio.
Takeout: Goode Co. Armadillo Palace offers takeout through Goode Co. Chicken.
B&B Butchers and Restaurant (Washington Corridor)
This classic fine dining steakhouse has created devotees not just across Houston, but across the country, too. The high-quality house-aged USDA Prime beef, along with certified Kobe beef from Tajima cattle, is just one element of many that lands B&B Butchers on “best of” lists year after year. The thick-cut bacon, covered in truffle honey and crumbled blue cheese, is just one example of the restaurant’s signature dishes that make it a favorite for any occasion worthy of a hefty steak or shellfish tower. Housed in a revamped historic building, exposed brick walls offer a romantic atmosphere in both the ground-floor dining room and leading up to the spacious second-floor bar and roof deck.
Dining at the restaurant: Dining is available both inside the restaurant and on the second-floor roof deck.
Takeout: B&B Butchers and Restaurant offers takeout and delivery.
The Blind Goat (Downtown)
This gastropub located inside Bravery Chef Hall is casual by design, which makes the food from MasterChef winner Christine Ha’s kitchen that much more delightful. Ha’s menus and inventive Vietnamese dishes change with the seasons, but fresh local ingredients are always at the forefront of every dish. Because of the nature of the food hall, it’s easy to enjoy a bowl of Ha’s dry pho or chicken lemongrass vermicelli with a glass of wine from the Bravery Wine Bar across the way.
Dining at the restaurant: Dine-in is available inside the food hall and at Blind Goat’s bar counter.
Takeout: The Blind Goat offers takeout.
Lauren McDowell is a Houston-area native and freelance food and lifestyle writer with an M.A. in Food Studies from New York University.