Finding fantastic food and ambience when you least expect it is one of the joys of dining out. In Houston, with more than 8,000 restaurants from which to choose, the probability of stumbling upon a forgettable restaurant is much more likely than the probability of discovering that diamond in the rough. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of Houston’s best hidden gems — places you’d never visit unless you found it accidentally or heard about it through word of mouth — for your dining pleasure.
Set in a 100-year-old log cabin, Rainbow Lodge is a place out of time. Tucked away behind natural foliage on Ella Boulevard, with trophies of wild animals jutting from the planked wooden walls and round logs protruding lengthwise from the exposed ceiling, you’ll feel the outside world fade away as you become immersed in the rustic surroundings. During the day, views of the garden and expansive grounds make you feel as if you’re dining in the wilderness. In the evening, dim lighting and chef Mario Valdez’s French-based American cuisine provide a more romantic experience. Dishes such as the potato-crusted sea bass over crab-stuffed ravioli and the grilled North American elk chop with bleu-cheese-blue-corn grits and blueberry balsamic reduction are fantastic. Burger lovers also get a special treat: On Friday afternoons, Rainbow Lodge offers a limited supply of wild game burgers (a blend of everything from antelope and venison to boar and buffalo) that are some of the best you’ll taste in the city.
Completely hidden from view, you could drive past Tiny Boxwood’s a hundred times and not know it’s there. But like an oasis in the middle of the city, you’ll feel an immediate sense of calm from moment you set foot onto Tiny’s lush, green courtyard, which it shares with the adjacent nursery. Sunny white umbrellas beckon welcomingly on the patio, while inside, the shabby chic furniture — distressed white wood tables, a large farmhouse clock, a marble bar top — set the scene for a healthful-minded lunch or brunch of salads, sandwiches, flatbreads, the famously scrumptious gourmet cookies (the gooey chocolate chip cookies are to die for), and the impossibly large mugs of café au lait. Come dinnertime, the space is transformed into a luxurious farmhouse, with sumptuous offerings such as foie gras with blackberry pan sauce, buffalo filet with bleu cheese risotto, or the daily catch of wood-fired seafood with champagne-lemon cream sauce.
Nothing about the interior of Kris Bistro & Wine Lounge would indicate that it is anything less than a successful independent restaurant. Nothing, that is, except the fact that it is located inside the walls of the Culinary Institute LeNotre. In this respect, Kris Bistro totally embodies what every “hidden gem” should be. It provides an unexpectedly amazing experience in an unlikely location. French haute cuisine — housemade charcuterie, foie gras torchon with brandy-marinated wild cherries, pan-seared diver scallops, and steak frites — is expertly prepared by a group of talented students under the direction of the restaurant’s namesake and an instructor at the school, Kris Jakob. For wine lovers, you get the best of both worlds — fabulous food and affordable wine: Wine bottles are only marked up $10 from what they cost the restaurant, and those wanting to bring their own bottle can do so for a modest corkage fee.
Just off Memorial Drive, where it’s completely hidden from view behind a façade of tall trees, Brenner’s Steakhouse on the Bayou is one of those places you wouldn’t think to find in Houston. The main restaurant, a multilevel craftsman-style lodge (which formerly housed Rainbow Lodge), looks like a private residence you’d find in Aspen, with winding staircases weaving deep into a vast greenery of lush grounds, complete with a gazebo, waterfall and a natural flowing waterway that is the bayou. Inside, shiny polished branches make up the railing of the main staircase, which arches decoratively upward, revealing an exposed wooden ceiling. In contrast to the rustic interior, the outdoor patio and bar boasts plush couches and upbeat, trendy music, with a great happy hour for enjoying the scenery outdoors. All of this would be nothing without great quality food, and in that regard, Brenner’s delivers as well with a menu of fine steaks and American cuisine such as the super tasty appetizer of bacon-wrapped quail.
Photos Courtesy of Brenners On The Bayou and Kris Bistro