UPDATED: The 10 Best New Houston Restaurants of 2012
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.
Photo by Mai Pham Which restaurant is the new standardbearer for neighborhood restaurants in Houston?
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.
Guru Burgers & Crepes: The Underdog
Photo by Troy Fields
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.
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.