Downtown Houston has been experiencing a major revitalization over the last three years, making it one of the coolest destinations in the city for restaurants and nightlife. From fabulous dining and festive happy hours with a view to lunch in a lush greenspace and bars a-plenty offering carefully crafted cocktails, here are Forbes Travel Guide’s current picks for the best downtown distractions.
Nestled in the heart of Houston’s 12-acre Discovery Green park, The Grove is the perfect place to visit when you want to feel at one with nature. By day, the floor-to-ceiling windows provide 360-degree views of surrounding verdant landscape while lunching on Southwestern-style fare from owner and James Beard Award-winning chef Robert Del Grande. By night, The Grove is transformed into a chic restaurant for the see-and-be-seen crowd to nibble on delicious creations such as the wild mushroom and homemade chorizo quesadilla with queso Oaxaca. This summer, visit Wednesday nights 5:30 to 8:00 p.m. to enjoy Sundown at the Grove, a summer craft beer and gourmet pairing series set to amazing views of the Houston skyline and tunes spun by DJ Sun.
Quattro at the Four Seasons
Fresh from a stint at Four Seasons Hotel Firenze in Florence, Italy, there’s no question about the authenticity of executive chef Maurizio Ferrarese’s Italian cuisine at Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Quattro at the Four-Star Four Seasons Hotel Houston. Creamy risottos, in-house pastas and Italian specialties such as vitello e tonno tonnato (chilled veal smothered in cream sauce) are done with panache and beautiful presentation. The attractive bar and more casual Vinoteca set the stage for evening Italian aperitivo (cocktail hour), where you can nosh on small bites and choose from 25 wine selections by the glass or 150 bottles from more than 10 countries. Sunday brunch, an all-you-can-manage smorgasbord of Italian items (Bolognese lasagna, cheese tortellini) and traditional brunch fare (Belgian waffles, chicken sausage), is also magnificent.
For an evening out with Latin flair, look no further than Batanga, a place where Latin-inspired tapas and cocktails are accompanied by live samba, Cuban and salsa music on Wednesday through Saturday evenings. Batanga is perfect for sultry intimate dinners or a fun night out with friends, especially when you pick six, eight or 10 tapas to share. Good bets are the crispy pig ears or one of chef Rishi Singh’s daily specials, like his oxtail mole with house-made crème fraîche. For drinks, the Finn’s Revenge, a play on the Brazilian lemonade, is a must. So too is the summer special known as the Three Hour Tour (a coconut cocktail made with Myer’s dark rum punch). The last Sunday of each month, Batanga’s popular Pigs & Paella celebration draws crowds with a whole-roasted, crispy-skinned pig and a 36-inch paella pan on the patio.
A must-hit bar in downtown, Moving Sidewalk has the distinction of being one of the most progressive and cutting-edge watering holes in the city. Proprietor Alex Gregg spends several hours a week making crystal clear blocks of hand-cut ice, an ingredient he finds essential for the perfect Old Fashioned or Negroni. The cubes are also employed in crafting house cocktails such as the Utah Gimme Two, a highball consisting of pink peppercorn-infused Jersey Lightning topped with a house-made strawberry and basil soda. These sodas, tinctures and infusions add serious street cred to a bar that’s also known for its nitro-muddled mules. Made with a choice of vodka, gin or bourbon, smoking liquid nitrogen elicits oohs and aahs as it quickly cools down muddled mint to produce a brighter, cleaner libation.
Line & Lariat
Located inside the historic Hotel Icon, Line & Lariat requires that you walk through the hotel lobby before arriving at its doors. While the name serves as a nod to local Gulf Coast bounties and nearby Texas ranchers, the space itself functioned as a bank lobby in a former life, so you get impossibly high ceilings framed by arched windows and Grecian columns set against beautifully warm cream, yellow and orange tones. The menu, overseen by new executive chef Laura Trigo, shows local spirit with items like the Texas venison stew and the blue pig burger, a sandwich topped with blue cheese, caramelized onion and thick applewood smoked pork belly.
Okra Charity Saloon
One of the first of its kind in the country, Okra Charity Bar is exactly what the name sounds like — a bar whose profits are donated to a good cause. The innovative concept, helmed by a collective of local bar and restaurant professionals, gives patrons a token for every drink they buy. Folks can then use the token to vote on one of four featured charities each month. The winning charity receives a donation from the following month’s proceeds. But guests also win here. Expect high quality food and drink (Philly Fish House Punch and Blackstrap Daiquiri), with wines and beer overseen by local experts Justin Vann and Kevin Floyd, respectively. Bar bites from Paulie’s Paul Petronella come in the form of paninis, French fries and the wildly popular milk and cookies.
Prohibition Supperclub & Bar
Opulent and glamorous, the design of Prohibition Supperclub recalls the bygone era of the Roaring 20s with a glittering chandelier and dark wood paneling. From the kitchen, chef Ben McPherson turns out Gulf Coast-inspired cuisine that is meant to be nostalgic and decadent. He invites patrons to indulge in everything from champagne and oysters, to whole lobster marinated in Vietnamese-Cajun spices and A5 Wagyu topped with seared foie gras. The bar menu is equally compelling with stand-out Prohibition-era cocktails like the Fred Astaire (Old Forester bourbon, Reposado tequila, sherry, Cointreau and coffee bitters).
Step into the recently debuted JW Marriott Houston Downtown, and you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into an art space rather than a hotel lobby. Once you pass that area, veer to the right and you’ll find the attractive new 806 Lounge and the adjacent restaurant Main Kitchen. The kitchen is helmed by native Houstonian Erin Smith, who draws upon local Texas resources for a menu filled with comforting food choices — a butcher’s cut steak topped with charred ramps and smashed fingerling potatoes; charcuterie boards made of house-cured meats; and miso-glazed salmon. Main Kitchen also offers a kid’s menu and a lounge roster of light bites that wash down well with their creative cocktails.
Henke & Pillot
Debuting earlier this year, Henke & Pillot — named after the owner who occupied the building in the 1800s — is Houston’s newest and most alluring cocktail lounge. General manager John Caravello says, “We offer an elevated lounge experience.” Though the space essentially turns into a club after 10 p.m. on weekends, during the week, the strikingly decorated, stylish interior invites you to nurse on expertly created drinks such as the H & P Refresh (Xante pear brandy, muddled cucumber and vodka) while grazing on dishes like roasted bone marrow vindaloo or spicy Szechuan wings.
El Big Bad
This restaurant’s symbol is the big bad wolf while its interior is dominated by a 52-foot, five-panel mural depicting the Aztec’s mythological origin of tequila. Such is the world that you step into when you enter El Big Bad, Houston’s most intimidating gastro-cantina. At this veritable temple of tequila infusions, you will not only find nine specialty margaritas and a menu of bar classics, but also a kitchen that delivers downright delicious interior Mexican dishes from chef Jonathan Jones. Every day between 3 to 7 p.m. patrons can also partake in happy hour specials while sitting on the wraparound upper deck overlooking downtown.