UPDATED: The 10 Best New Houston Restaurants of 2012

Categories: Top 10

uchi-9.7868038.131.jpg
Photo by Mai Pham
Which restaurant is the new standardbearer for neighborhood restaurants in Houston?
Note: An earlier version of this article accidentally listed Coppa Ristorante Italiano among the top 10 new restaurants. While we love Coppa, it was on last year's list of top 10 restaurants and is therefore, obviously, excluded from this year's list. We apologize for the error.

If I had to pick one word to describe the mad, exciting rush of restaurant activity that's defined 2012, it would be this: exhilarating. Followed closely by: exhausting. Trying to keep up with every single new restaurant that's flung open its doors in exuberance -- welcoming the city's burgeoning food scene with wide-open arms -- has been nothing short of both.

And trying to choose a favorite from among the bevy of ground-breaking, inventive, adventurous and unique restaurants that have opened this year would be like trying to choose a favorite child. I rank things at least twice a week on Eating...Our Words. But I simply couldn't rank the 10 best new restaurants of 2012.

Each restaurant on the list below is different -- entirely different -- from its counterparts, and that's what makes comparing and contrasting them all so difficult. But it's also what makes Houston's dining scene the terrifically fun place it's become over the last year. No longer are we content to be known just for Tex-Mex, barbecue and burgers. In addition to our wonderful home-grown cuisines, we are now learning to celebrate our rich ethnic heritage and the keen, modern tastes of chefs determined to throw it all together with their own global influences in a way that can only be described as revolutionary for our city.

Our tastes and expectations are changing as a city. We are growing up, all of us together, and journeying into a new phase of dining. We want to support locally produced foodstuffs but we want a more international interpretation of our Houstonian culture and cuisine. We want our chefs to go away for a while, to learn new skills and hone their ideas, but we want them to come back and show it all off. We want modern techniques and flavors, but we want a casual and approachable dining experience.

And all 10 of the restaurants on this list -- as disparate as they may be -- fit our new expectations and desires to a tee. The only caveat: A restaurant must have been open for at least three months to qualify for a spot. (And there's already a whole slate of restaurants shaping up to make next year's list...)

Coppa Ristorante Italiano: The Gamechanger

Charles Clark and Grant Cooper have big plans for Coppa, beyond simply the flagship location on Washington Avenue. The team plan to take the concept -- and chef Brandi Key's excellent, modern Italian food -- citywide. And possibly even statewide, if all goes well. "It's a concept we think we could take to Dallas and Austin," Clark told CultureMap's Sarah Rufca back in June. And aside from proving that Washington Avenue is capable of sustaining interesting, dynamic restaurants even as the club scene fades away, Coppa has proven something else too.

Coppa -- one of Houston's most anticipated new restaurants, rebranded into something wholly new after the departure of larger-than-life chef Chris Shepherd and the closure of Catalan -- was handed over to a female executive chef. Key's done so well in her role that the second location in Houston is set to open in Rice Village in 2013. This movement marks the first time in recent memory that an all-male restaurant group has thrown everything behind a woman-run kitchen. Typically, if a female chef wants to expand her base of operations, she is the owner/operator and must do the lion's share of the work herself. And female chefs the world over will tell you that securing funding from investors for a restaurant of their own is tough enough -- as tough as talking an existing restaurant into hiring a female chef. Key and Coppa have proven that the best person to fill Chris Shepherd's shoes was, in fact, a woman.

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Photo by Troy Fields
Guru Burgers & Crepes: The Underdog

Guru Burgers & Crepes has almost zero obligation to be good. Out here in Sugar Land, two types of restaurants thrive: big chains and tiny ethnic spots. There's very little in between that's noteworthy, but Guru Burgers is aiming to change that with an impressive and thorough devotion to its food and service that's rarely seen even in Houston proper.

That the little family-run place in Sugar Land Town Square is thriving is even more impressive considering how it could easily be quite terrible. Guru Burgers specializes in three items that are almost painfully trendy at the moment: gourmet burgers, craft beer and crepes. And any of these three could quickly go off the rails, but Guru Burgers' commitment to coming up with clever burger combinations and tracking down interesting craft beers from across the country instead makes it a destination much in the same way that burger fanatics make the trek down Westheimer to visit The Burger Guys. And while the crepes are only average right now, the pitch-perfect burgers and sweet, crispy beet chips more than make up for this minor deficit.

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Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
L'Olivier: The Phoenix

Along with restaurants like Artisans just down the street and Etoile Cuisine et Bar in Uptown Park, the chic and unfussy L'Olivier represents a renaissance of fine French dining in Houston after years of dormancy. The classics never die; they are simply reborn into former adult bookstores, transforming a once-shabby corner of Montrose into the type of place where you'll see River Oaks matrons rubbing elbows with hipsters who've walked over from their duplexes. And it's chef Olivier Ciesielski who's drawing them in.

Ciesielski, who helmed the kitchen at longtime favorite Tony's for a decade, was a fixture on the society and dining scene for years before his split from owner Tony Vallone. Interestingly, fans of both Ciesielski and Tony's don't seem to have chosen sides (Houstonians are nothing if not good at getting along with each other) and instead now flock to both Ciesielski's old and new restaurants. At his new home along with partner Mary Clarkson, Ciesielski turns out fine-tuned French standards in a cute, modern setting and keeps the menu from stagnating with completely un-French dishes like tropical ceviche with yuzu juice.

Location Info

Local Foods

2424 Dunstan Road, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Guru Burgers & Crepes

2268 Texas Drive, Sugar Land, TX

Category: Restaurant

L'Olivier

240 Westheimer Road, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

La Fisheria

4705 Inker St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Oxheart

1302 Nance St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

The Pass

807 Taft St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Roost

1972 Fairview St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Triniti

2815 S. Shepherd Drive, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Uchi

904 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Underbelly

1100 Westheimer Road, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

My Voice Nation Help
60 comments
robinspierre
robinspierre

Michiru Japanese in Greenway Plaza is very, very good. And the staff is informed and able to recommend stuff with aplomb. Very rare for a new place.

GuruBurgers
GuruBurgers

@BreweryInc thanks! We need to stop by sometime! Always hear good things from @Buffbrew crew about what you guys are doing over there!

Jalapeno
Jalapeno

I don't get it.  Coppa opened in AUGUST of 2011!  And the new location is not open yet?  Why is it here?  If that new location is valet free, I'll gladly dine there.  I have given up on the rude bridge trolls at the parking expansive location on Washington.  Absolutely NO REASON for a valet there except to enrich some person who can't earn money legitimately.

pappacharlies
pappacharlies

@EatingOurWords @uchihouston there are times the comments section makes me feel very intelligent

Kauaichic
Kauaichic

@EatingOurWords @UchiHouston That's dumb!

ErikVidor
ErikVidor

@kshilcutt people are assholes.

cordabunny
cordabunny

@eatingourwords Can you say OCD over sushi? Just look at all the past comments. Obviously this dude takes himself waaay too seriously!

cordabunny
cordabunny

@EatingOurWords @UchiHouston Obviously it involves a little bit of OCD!! Have you seen their past comments?? Its a bit overboard.

HTownChowDown
HTownChowDown

@EatingOurWords @UchiHouston Neither is @UnderbellyHOU - no complaint there.

Adam Holcomb
Adam Holcomb

The best place I've eaten this year is easily Torchy's Tacos. It opened December 2011, so maybe it doesn't qualify.

Ghirardello
Ghirardello

Possible to call  Cove a restaurant? Or what is the term for a restaurant like that? Barnacle? Shroom? 

vydakinfo
vydakinfo

Uchi is a "Japanese farmhouse cuisine restaurant."  OMG  I truly wish Houstonians would learn a little about Japanese cuisine.  Especially food critics.  As Allison Cook stated, she wondered by Japanese expats and traveling Japanese businessmen do NOT eat there.  It's because it isn't Japanese at all.  People are eating the wrong fish, poorly identified and overpriced, saying 'I Love Uchi.  It's the best.'  Theyhave no idea what they are eating.  Even Uchi advertises itself as Japanese-Inspired cuisine, not Japanese.  Uchi's success is a testament to fanfare and publicity.

Katrina Velvet
Katrina Velvet

umm.. please keep going with the suggestions lol. i love all of this!!

Sean Casey Caldwell
Sean Casey Caldwell

I thoroughly enjoyed the food at MF Sushi. The service, however, still needs quite a bit of polish.

Anel Del Angel
Anel Del Angel

Miyakos I lovef every bit of it the ambiance , the food &.the staff is great

Ghirardello
Ghirardello

Solid list and more than a little helpful. I can't say how much happier my year has been finding places like La Fisheria and L'Olivier near my neighborhood. 

Nathan Baxter Simar
Nathan Baxter Simar

Nope. I relocated to Minnesota. Small town. Limited possibilities, restaurant food only passable...

GuruBurgers
GuruBurgers

@SLTownSquare @houstonpress @eatingourwords that is definitely an honor!! Thank you very much!

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

@Jalapeno You are completely correct. I can't believe I did this. So embarrassing. (I'd instruct anyone who's friends with me on Facebook to go witness my pathetic self-flagellation over there.) Getting with my editor today to get this fixed.

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

@Ghirardello If Cove were a full-fledged, standalone restaurant (and had been open for at least three months), it would definitely be on this list. Super impressed with the little place. Little barnacle? LOL

CarlRosa
CarlRosa

You've got to get off of this issue, hon.  So far, I've received four texts and a handful of emails and FB posts about this.....and I am not even in the middle of it.  Here's the scoop - it doesn't matter who anyone says.  Katharine has the right to support and promote her choices.  You're irritating people who merely wish to enjoy a great meal.  You've got to leave it alone.  I can appreciate your passion but it is misdirected.  Uchi provides a unique experience for those who wish to try something different.  Whether you enjoy their sushi (or not), appreciate the fact that they added something interesting to Houston while welcoming new jobs and paying lots of taxes (which Houston really needs, ha ha).  But coming on here and refuting Katharine's opinion is unproductive and irritating to many people.  Additionally, there's no sense in refuting personal tastes.

J.A.Justice
J.A.Justice

@vydakinfo Aren't you the same twat who got all uppity about sushi a few months ago?  Given the tizzy you worked yourself into last time OVER SUSHI, I'm honestly surprised you haven't been institutionalized.

All he wanted was a sushi...just one sushi! but Katharine wouldn't give it to him! 

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

@vydakinfo I don't care what Uchi calls itself. And I don't think it's Japanese food, nor do I think that most others consider it that. All I care about is that the service is amazing and the food is delicious. We need to stop getting hung up on labels...

vydakinfo
vydakinfo

GuruBurgers is awesome. Drive past is on my way home all the time.  Love it.

Jalapeno
Jalapeno

@kshilcutt @Jalapeno  Your writing over the past year is so far and above any other food writers in this land that I have seen, so no self-flagellation necessary. You get a bye for this post, and well deserved. Most writers who are tasked with posting as many articles as you post weekly probably get weak in the knees much earlier in the year. Thanks for all your insight.

montelucca
montelucca

@kshilcutt @Ghirardello Agree. Cove is comfy, unpretentious, friendly and a nice addition to Haven. I like having access to Randy's local cooking and JP's cold bar and international twists. Not to mention a great drinks program shared by both restaurants.

vydakinfo
vydakinfo

??  You don't think it's Japanese food while calling it Japanese farmhouse cuisine...while rating it #2 in terms of sushi for all of Houston.  While, at the same time, crediting Kaneyama (as part of the top 10) for the waitresses wearing authentic kimonos. If you think that is a kimono, stick to rating hamburgers.

CarlRosa
CarlRosa

Oh please leave me out of this topic.  LOL

J.A.Justice
J.A.Justice

@vydakinfo I wonder if there is some Japanese version of you.  Some pedantic boring little woman who works for  an American company in Japan who runs around telling any Japanese person who will listen that their ultra expensive "American Steakhouses" aren't American at all!  Sake on a Steakhouse menu?  "You fools!" she screams.  

The owner behind the place is clearly asian and he has put chicken satay on the appetizer menu!  That would never happen in the legendary Omaha, of that much she is certain. She is sure the great 'Phil' in acounting would look upon this "steakhouse" with great shame.

vydakinfo
vydakinfo

TY.  Actually I am a wo-man.  LOL  But I appreciate it anyway!  *wink*  Godspeed to U2!

vydakinfo
vydakinfo

Thank you.  I am without transportation for the entire week so I will have to look into it in the new year.

Ghirardello
Ghirardello

@vydakinfo next to Lakewood mega-church between Buffalo Speedway and Weslayan on feeder rd of 59

Ghirardello
Ghirardello

@vydakinfo Try the new Michiru, 'lil buddy. The main sushi man trained in Japan for like 15 years, then NYC under some impressive masters. Might even meet Carl Rosa there and you could argue about things endlessly

vydakinfo
vydakinfo

Honestly, I am not an expert but work for a Japanese firm based near Stafford.  Approximately 130 of my co-workers are Japanese; stationed here for about 2 years before returning to Japan.  I've learned everything from them.  So I have 130+ mentors when it comes to great Japanese cuisine.  From what I have learned, there are about 30 true experts in Houston when it comes to Japanese cuisine and I'm trying to learn from them now.

auboni.cordolino
auboni.cordolino

@vydakinfo Exactly! You should do something about it! Take it to the streets and educate. I honestly have no clue what makes up authentic Japanese food but I would love learning about it. Just sayin' :)

vydakinfo
vydakinfo

auboni, that is correct.  Of course she has a right to her own perspective as I do mine.

auboni.cordolino
auboni.cordolino

@vydakinfo  who cares. Unnecessary statement trying to be politically correct over the way it was worded isn't going to change anything. Was this blog called the Top 10 authentic Japanese food in Htown? No.  Everybody has a right to write from their own perspective. At least respect that.

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

@vydakinfo Uhhhhhggggggghhh, I am already tired of this argument. It's been a long holiday season so far. Okay: Uchi calls itself "Japanese farmhouse cuisine," so that's how we'll refer to it. In my own opinion, of course it's not traditional Japanese cuisine - although I'm pretty sure Uchi doesn't consider itself a traditional sushi restaurant anyway. But it does serve excellent - IF NON-TRADITIONAL - sushi and Japanese-inspired cuisine. There's no point in being pedantic or close-minded about something which is constantly evolving. The food you eat/find in Japan now has been strongly influenced by other countries by this point. What's "traditional" anymore? This is such an open-ended discussion and could be so fun and invigorating, but I have a feeling that's not where this particular thread is headed. So I'm done for today.

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