By Forbes Travel Guide Correspondent Mai Pham | July 17, 2017
Until recently, downtown Houston wasn’t a place you went to dine unless there was a purpose behind it. Maybe, if you were in the area for business, to see a concert or catch a Houston Astros game, you’d plan a meal there. But largely, the downtown food scene has been overshadowed by gastronomic enticement elsewhere in the Bayou City.
Thanks to Super Bowl LI, however, the neighborhood is suddenly flush with new places to try. From chef-driven Mexican cuisine and Italian fine dining to a 25-seat boutique cocktail bar, here’s what’s happening in downtown Houston right now.
Anyone who is familiar with the Houston restaurant scene will have heard of Hugo Ortega. The beloved chef and his restaurateur wife, Tracy Vaught, are behind some of the city’s most enduring and highly lauded restaurants (Hugo’s, Caracol and Backstreet Cafe).
Xochi is their latest and most ambitious project to date. Located on the ground floor of the newly debuted Marriott Marquis Houston, Xochi specializes in chef-driven Oaxacan cuisine.
Highlights here include one of the seven Mexican moles on rotation, the slow-cooked suckling pig known as lechon and pastry chef Ruben Ortega’s phenomenal dessert that resembles a cacao pod.
And if you’d like to pair any of those treats with a tipple, beverage director Sean Beck’s excellent selection of mezcals and craft cocktails does just the trick.
Potente’s Balsamic Duck, Photo Credit: Potente
Astros owner Jim Crane has a vision for the downtown Houston area surrounding Minute Maid Park. He wants people to enjoy themselves before the first pitch and long after the last out. Naturally, you need great food and drink options for that to happen.
That vision served as the inspiration behind his new, glamorous fine-dining restaurant, Potente.
The gilded onyx entryway of this Gensler-designed stunner leads you to an intimate dining room with half-moon-shaped booths and tables flanked by high-backed chairs. A futuristic iPad menu lends flair, from which you may choose Italian classics such as frutti di mare, housemade pastas or the indulgent filetto di manzo with pistachio gremolata by executive chef Danny Trace. A wine list composed primarily of Italian and California labels and a sexy bar adjacent to the dining room invite you to linger.
Osso & Kristalla’s Dagwood Sandwich, Photo Credit: Osso & Kristalla
Osso & Kristalla
Just next door to Potente is the billionaire owner’s second downtown establishment, this one styled as a family friendly, casual trattoria. (A patio connects the two eateries.)
Mornings at the all-day eatery are defined by Italian coffee and house-baked goods like croissants or bomboloni(Italian doughnuts) from pastry chef David Berg.
Lunch and dinner bring a choice of salads, sandwiches, wood-oven fired pizzas, housemade pastas and entrées such as the Sicilian barbecue shrimp from chef Trace.
A canopy of large-format black-and-gold chandeliers and zigzag-patterned tiled floors provide ample opportunity for some Instagrammable photo opportunities as well.
Grotto Downtown, Photo Credit: Connie Anderson Photography
It may fall under the umbrella of the Grotto Ristorante chain, but Grotto Downtown was conceived as, and runs as, its own independent venture. Guiding its conception were two main imperatives: first, that it would serve small plates; second, that everything in the restaurant would be made from scratch.
Wood-fired pizzas are done from dough tossed high in the air. And, of course, local produce is incorporated wherever possible. Executive chef Sean Hochstein’s small plates are fun and delicious. Try the pasta carbonara topped with a fried egg, Calabrian chili cauliflower and grilled beef skewers served with Parmesan fries.
A lively ambience and décor — soaring ceilings punctuated by metal chandeliers, a festive bar, beautiful artisanal tile flooring and an outdoor patio kitted with loungers and fire pits — also make for a great night out on the town.
Brasserie du Parc, Photo Credit: Brasserie du Parc
Brasserie du Parc
One block away from Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Four Seasons Hotel Houston, situated directly across the street from Discovery Green park, is this restaurant, downtown’s new spot for classic French fare.
The latest venture for chef Philippe Verpiand and his wife, Monica, who also own Etoile Cuisine et Bar in Uptown Park, Brasserie du Parc provides an alluring bar and charming enclosed terrace that brings a little bit of France to Texas.
Expect classics like steak frites, moules marinières (mussels) and foie gras au torchon, and save room for the decadent desserts.
If you’re only in need of a snack, opt for crepes on the go from the Creperie du Parc takeaway window.
Local Foods Downtown’s Spring Harvest Salad, Photo Credit: Julie Soefer Photography
Local Foods Downtown
The fourth outpost of Benjy Levit and Dylan Murray’s adored temple to from-scratch sandwiches, Local Foods Downtown’s hip 10,000-square-foot, warehouse-like space is awash in cheerful shades of blue and green on all three floors.
Perfect for a casual meal any time of day, Local Foods Downtown delivers a feast of healthy favorites such as the truffled egg salad or crunchy chicken sandwich, farm-fresh salad and housemade soup.
Pescatarians and seafood lovers can also embrace the new raw bar and ceviche program overseen by chef Geoff Hundt, with items like Gulf shrimp ceviche with jackfruit, red snapper campechana or the local oyster shooters made with peperoncini vodka and a bloody mary vinaigrette.
The Pearl Restaurant & Bar’s Grouper, Photo Credit: Shannon O’Hara
The Pearl Restaurant & Bar
The Sam Houston Hotel, built in 1924 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, recently debuted this newly renovated and re-concepted lobby eatery.
Designed by H3D Hospitality Design, the 125-seat space provides a respite from the hustle and bustle of the outside world with a space decked out with vintage brass light fixtures, chesterfield sofas in caramel-colored leather, and zinc and brass tables.
The seafood-driven menu includes winners such as classic shrimp and grits, scallop carbonara and simply grilled fish, complemented by boozy cocktails and an excellent scotch collection at The Pearl Bar.
Bayou & Bottle, Photo Credit: Don Riddle
Bayou & Bottle
Rich, caramel-toned design elements and low ambient lighting create allure at Bayou & Bottle, celebrity chef Richard Sandoval’s swanky lobby bar at Four Seasons Hotel Houston.
Debuting in January 2017 after a multi-million-dollar renovation, the 30-seat bar boasts a 125-label whisky and bourbon list, an extensive craft beer selection and custom cocktails, with a whiskey sommelier on hand to help with flights and tastings.
Nosh on a menu of globally influenced bar bites, ranging from Korean barbecue chicken wings to beef fat fries, as well as larger plates like the black garlic pan-seared scallops.
After dinner, linger in a booth or lounge chair, or snag one of the two private Topgolf suites to practice your swing on a simulated green.
Biggio’s Sports Bar’s Loaded Nachos, Photo Credit: Biggio’s Houston
Biggio’s Sports Bar
Opened in partnership with Houston Astros Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, this upscale hangout wins by ensuring that everything is big and beautiful. The bi-level space features two different bar areas: a more intimate spot with a patio upstairs and a sprawling downstairs with 40 bar stools.
Massive TVs are like wallpaper here — in total, nine big screens and two nearly 50-foot-tall Jumbotrons grace the space — ensuring that everyone has a great view of the game.
On the food front, popular items include the massive beef hot dogs, burgers and shareable plates of loaded nachos, brisket tacos and flatbreads.
Craft beer, top-shelf spirits and cocktails aplenty are de rigueur.
Tongue-Cut Sparrow’s Pimm’s Spritz, Photo Credit: Elizabeth Conley
Part speakeasy, part ultra-refined boutique cocktail bar, Tongue-Cut Sparrow derives its name from a Japanese fable while the actual concept is modeled after the bespoke bars its principals encountered in Tokyo. It is a place for serious cocktail drinkers.
There’s only one caveat: Though the owners make it clear that walk-ins are always welcome, during peak hours, the only way to ensure that you’ll snag one of the bar’s 25 seats without waiting is to make a reservation ahead of time.
Either way, entrance is gained via an unmarked door at the rear of The Pastry War mezcaleria on Main Street.
Once inside, you’re in for an experience involving meticulously crafted cocktails. It all begins with warm towels (to clean your hands) from a well-dressed bartender and is followed by your choice of 16 classic (see: a martini, a gimlet, a French 75) and four original cocktails, all prepared with a precision rivaling that of any other bar in the city.