Home-Grown Fine Dining
Texas restaurants are some of the hottest in the country, and also some of the most down-to-earth. Literally.
Texas is not fancy; there’s a lot of wealth in this state, and a great deal of high-end cultural achievement, but even at the most rarefied levels of Texas society, a straightforward and down-to-earth attitude usually prevails. We celebrate stories of wealthy and powerful people with simple tastes—LBJ and his Fresca, George H. W. Bush and his pork rinds. We like our CEOs to wear boots. An aversion to pretentiousness is part of the Texan character. We frown on the highfalutin.
And yet for the past few years, Texas has been home to one of the hottest fine-dining, white-tablecloth restaurant scenes in the country. From kitchens in Houston, Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio, chefs are turning out excellent, world-class cuisine—and critics have taken notice. Lists of the country’s best restaurants now regularly include Texas addresses, and fewer and fewer reviews of the food by East Coast dining critics are built around lame jokes about cowboys and barbecue. The world seems to finally get that, in addition to brisket and tacos, we know our way around duck confit.
Of course, one of the defining characteristics of the Texas fine-dining scene—which is the subject of this month’s cover story, “Where to Eat (and Drink, Cook, Shop, Snack, Feast, and Forage) Now”—is that it draws inspiration from the unpretentious Texas spirit. Even as our chefs have won more and more acclaim, they’ve maintained a kind of renegade quality. A meal at Qui, in Austin, one of this year’s best new restaurants, begins with the waiter bringing you a homemade cracker and shooting some whipped cheese onto it. At Underbelly, in Houston (“Where to Eat Now” Class of 2013), Chris Shepherd openly draws from and touts his city’s phenomenal ethnic restaurants and has been known to mash up the high and the low with reckless and tasty abandon. And thanks to the popularity of local meats and vegetables, the dining rooms of many of these restaurants are literally down-to-earth: they’re as closely linked to small-town agricultural operators as the proverbial small-town cafes of yore. In fact, these restaurants even help support the rural way of life. (Shepherd, for instance, recently told me that he buys all his pork from one pig farmer in Katy, whose children’s college educations will likely be paid for, indirectly, by Underbelly.)
A similar point could be made about our wineries, or our butchers and meat shops, or even, in a roundabout way, our bars, many of which pride themselves on using Texas-made spirits. As the Texas food scene has grown, it’s become more interconnected and sustaining and, well, Texan. Which is why we think it merits a cover story that not only lists the state’s best new restaurants (which will be released next week, though subscribers may receive it as early as this weekend) but also takes stock of our wines, craft beers, bars, butchers, noodle houses, and a whole lot more. The increasing sophistication and worldliness of all this mirrors the increasing worldliness of Texas itself. We may eschew pomposity, but we like quality, we like trailblazers, and we like food.