It’s chaos on the tabletop! And in the dining room. And on the menu . . . Remember when we used to have traditional courses (small appetizers, ample entrées, humongous desserts)? Not anymore. They started disappearing years ago as share plates, piled up almost on top of one another, took their place. Inexplicably, though, serving utensils also vanished; you practically have to beg for them. And forget about getting your own dessert plate. Servers plunk down everything—cake, pie, even crème brûlée—in the middle of the table and hand you a spoon as if it were a five-year-old’s birthday party. No wonder customer attire is more casual than ever. If you’d like to wear your ball cap backward while you sip your 1989 Latour and eat your Mishima Reserve Wagyu, hey, you do you.
And does it seem as if happy hour is starting earlier, like three o’clock in the afternoon? And bottomless-mimosa brunches begin on Friday? It’s not your imagination: beer, wine, and booze are being pushed as never before in an effort to keep menu prices down (a little).
What’s behind all this? Restaurants need your seats in their seats because the cost of everything—meat, produce, rent, wages—is up thanks to
pandemic-induced inflation and supply disruptions.
That said, this relaxed approach to dining works well with the trend toward creative, mix-and-match cooking, which has been gaining ground for years. Our 2023 ranked list of the best new places to eat in Texas includes two Mexican restaurants, an Israeli venue, a seafood spot, a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant, two primarily Southern dining establishments (one with strong African influences), a steakhouse, a place that is mostly French (though it does have a burger and cheesecake), and one that is kinda sorta French. Cross-cultural cooking used to be dismissed as “confusion cuisine.” Now it’s business as usual.
Here are the rules—all two of them—for the twenty-second edition of Where to Eat Now. To be eligible, a restaurant (1) must have opened between December 1, 2021, and December 1, 2022, and (2) must be the first location in Texas (preference is given to homegrown venues). If a restaurant flew in under the radar, I’ll acknowledge it next year.
Now, get out there and eat! We want these spots to be alive and kicking for years to come.
1. Navy Blue
“Can he do it again?” I wondered when chef Aaron Bludorn announced his new seafood restaurant last spring. His first place, the French-inspired Modern American venue Bludorn, had been an immediate hit in the fraught fall of 2020, at the height of the pandemic. Not that I was surprised at his success. For five years he was the executive chef at Michelin-starred Café Boulud, in New York City. Family ties also helped. His wife is Houstonian Victoria Pappas, whom he met when she was working in operations for the Boulud restaurant group. (She’s part of a highly successful, deep-pocketed local restaurant dynasty whose brands—Pappadeaux, Pappasito’s, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse—you might have heard of.) But even though the signs were promising, it was hard to imagine that this kitchen could be the equal of Bludorn’s.
One hour into my visit last November, I had my answer: Navy Blue is the best restaurant to open in Texas in the past year. The rather industrial room in Rice Village feels open but not empty; an expanse of cream-colored walls is set off by dark blue banquettes and wire sculptures that hang from the exposed rafters like modernist birdcages. The contemporary space inspires a sense of occasion without being formal.
The menu is the creation of Bludorn and a former colleague he recruited from Boulud, Jerrod Zifchak. After perusing the offerings (and selecting a wine from a 150-bottle list), my friends and I started with a bowl of scandalously rich mussel bisque shot through with fennel and saffron and capped with a cloudlike puff-pastry toque. A superlative seafood risotto came brimming with lobster and cuttlefish and accented with tarragon. Dover sole was beautifully moist, prepared meunière-style in a deeply browned butter sauce. (The restaurant’s manager, Cherif Mbodji, deboned the flatfish table-side with moves so swift they seemed like magic.) Our dedicated carnivore was extremely happy with his dry-aged strip sirloin nestled in a pool of bordelaise sauce and adorned with a pat of bone marrow–enriched butter.
At the end of our meal, we tried two of the six desserts, our favorite being a classy version of all-American carrot cake that was sleek, not at all chunky, and capped with both candied ginger and teardrops of cream cheese frosting. By the time we finished, I had a new question for chef Aaron: What’s on tap for 2024?
Opened November 18, 2022
2445 Times Blvd
L Tue–Sat. D 7 days.
2. Diner Bar
It can be tricky to unravel the strands that make up Mashama Bailey’s culinary style. African American and other Southern threads come naturally from a childhood spent in part around Savannah, Georgia. But she has also trained in France, worked in New York, and traveled extensively. These influences are deliciously intertwined at this low-key space in Austin’s new Thompson hotel, where Bailey cooks when she’s not presiding over her renowned Savannah restaurant, the Grey (chef de cuisine Kristine Kittrell runs the Austin show on a day-to-day basis). At this bastion of unpredictability, a seared lobe of duck liver arrives on Texas heirloom grits topped with a dab of sweet strawberry mostarda. More traditional, an assortment of shellfish comes atop Carolina Gold rice in a light, vegetable-focused pot liquor. But it’s the experiments that dazzle, like savory-sweet roasted young carrots and dates with an Ethiopian spice mix on a bed of barley and farro. No wonder Bailey won the 2022 James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef.
Opened April 11, 2022
500 San Jacinto Blvd
B & D 7 days.
Sash Kurgan and Yotam Dolev are determined to expand Texans’ notions of Israeli food. At Hamsa, in Houston’s centrally located Rice Village, the co-chefs start with mainstream dishes, like a sensational hummus made from tiny, tasty chickpeas. Then they venture further afield with dishes like basboosa, a rustic cake of farina flour layered with malabi (a rosewater-tinged pudding). Eaters who like heat will enjoy the Spicy Experience, a trio of condiments that includes harissa, raw green chiles, and schug, a cilantro-rich hot sauce popular in the Middle East. Pizza lovers can assess the paper-thin rectangular flatbread called lahmajun, which comes delectably blistered and topped with ground lamb and tahini. The most fun may be the Wholeshebang, a roundup of ten salatim (spreads and salads) that can be sampled on hunks of fabulous puffy pita. The room is contemporary, its clean-lined furniture balanced by traditional touches, such as stacks of glazed terra-cotta tagines.
Opened May 5, 2022
5555 Morningside Dr
L & D Tue–Sun.
4. Restaurant Claudine
Flowers on the tables, subdued jazz on the sound system: everything about this converted house signals gracious dining. But the French-tinged Southern menu is far from antiquated at Restaurant Claudine, located in a rapidly developing area just east of the Pearl District. In the hands of chef de cuisine Cassie Ramsey, cornbread comes off beguilingly sweet, the kissing cousin of polenta cake. Her confit of duck leg and thigh is accessorized by color-coordinated sides: a pumpkin puree and a bundle of glazed carrots sprinkled with chopped pecans. Ruby red trout perches atop a field pea succotash bathed in turmeric-and-tarragon cream. One of the best dishes is chunky, tender boneless short ribs served with a puree of turnips and potatoes. An exquisite dessert is the très français mille-feuille, layers of crisp, super-thin French pastry sandwiching a vanilla diplomat cream.
Opened October 12, 2022
517 E. Grayson
L & D Tue–Sat. B Sun.
5. Revolver Taco Lounge Gastro Cantina
At the new drinks-focused addition to his taco empire, chef Regino Rojas puts an imaginative, often multinational spin on casual Mexican fare. While sipping your Martini Margarita at the long bar, you can watch tortillas being pressed and your order being assembled. (One of the cooks may well be Rojas’s mentor, his mother.) During the short wait, peruse decorative objects Rojas has brought from Mexico, including hand-painted pottery plates and engravings of tipsy Day of the Dead skeletons. Some dishes were created at other outposts of the Revolver family, like his carne asada and trout tacos, as well as his signature octopus tacos with jalapeño-garlic salsa. Others are more recent experiments, such as cabrito wontons in a russet-colored birria deeply flavored with guajillo chiles, tomatoes, and ginger. Rojas is also skilled at upgrading mundane items. Instead of routine corn in a paper cup, for example, his elote is sweet roasted kernels topped with crumbly white cheeses, crema, and truffle butter in a flower-garnished bowl.
Revolver Taco Lounge Gastro Cantina
Opened June 11, 2022
L Mon–Sat. D Mon–Thur. B Sun.
6. Pacha Nikkei
In a casual space he designed himself, Masaru Fukuda draws on his Japanese heritage and Peruvian boyhood to create dishes that are edible works of art. The chef’s grilled boneless short ribs get a seductive glaze of soy, honey, and ají panca (a fruity-tasting South American chile). He gives octopus, also grilled, a complex treatment involving a green swath of huacatay sauce (made from basil-like Peruvian black mint) and purple dabs of Botija olive aioli. Even a Peruvian mainstay such as causa limeña gets a distinctive makeover: the former graphic artist uses ají amarillo to tint the traditional mashed potatoes bright yellow, adds a vibrant avocado puree and a soft-boiled quail egg to the combo, and subs a chunky chicken salad for the usual tuna.
Opened August 12, 2022
10001 Westheimer Rd
L Tue–Sun. D Tue–Sat.
7. Don Artemio
The practical thing would have been to open a Tex-Mex joint. But Adrián Burciaga and Juan Ramón Cárdenas weren’t feeling practical. The friends and business partners thought Fort Worth was ready for seriously interior Mexican fare. So Cárdenas, the founder of the original Don Artemio, in the northeastern Mexican city of Saltillo, created a menu and persuaded his son Rodrigo Cárdenas to be executive chef. The genial Burciaga (a former manager of the restaurant at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth) stepped up to manage the lofty, beautifully designed space. Now diners are devouring tacos of deep-fried nopalitos tossed with morsels of bacon and following that with fork-tender confited cabrito stuffed into plump chiles. And they’re finishing with the restaurant’s novel deconstructed tres leches cake.
Opened March 21, 2022
3268 W. 7th
L Mon–Fri. D 7 days. B Sat & Sun.
8. Au Troisième
The menu does a bit of globe-trotting at this delightful, multifaceted French bistro (whose owners are contemplating a name change to the easier-to-pronounce AT Bistro). The wallpaper is adorned with stylized rain forest critters, a design detail that perhaps reflects that owners Bobby Pollette and Jeff Acol (also the chef) are from Hawaii. You can stick with a Gallic dish, such as a classic wine-sautéed salmon Provençal (crispy skinned on top and lavished with capers and pan juices). Or you can go Italian with a tomatoey pork ragù on cavatelli pasta (lovely scoops of lemon ricotta are what really make the dish). There are unusual treats, like excellent Southern biscuits with tart, lightly fermented butter and a delightful haupia pie, a Hawaiian specialty made here with layers of mashed purple sweet potato, coconut flan, and whipped cream.
Opened June 16, 2022
8305 Westchester Dr
L & D Tue–Sat. B Sun.
9. Maie Day
Yes, there is serious red meat from Texas ranch 44 Farms. Naturally there’s a classic Caesar salad and loaded Kennebec fries. But the most exciting dishes are those with a novel twist at this classy-casual steak and seafood house on Austin’s tourist-centric South Congress Avenue. The Ham Plate appetizer allows you to compare three distinctive country hams (recently featuring producers from Tennessee and North Carolina); buttery cornbread muffins come alongside. A raw bar item named What the Fluke offers flounder crudo sided by pickled blueberries and fresh seasonal fruit. The far-from-predictable cheesecake is a lightly brûléed ricotta variant accompanied by lime-mint granita. Chef Michael Fojtasek made his reputation when he opened the charming Southern dining room Olamaie, in 2014. That same sensibility has now created what might be the most unexpected steakhouse in town.
Opened May 1, 2022
1603 S. Congress Ave
L Fri–Sun. D Tue–Sun.
10. Cullum’s Attaboy
“We use these huge, brown, pasture-raised eggs,” says Chris Cullum, the proud chef-owner of unconventional Cullum’s Attaboy. The eggs often end up scrambled and as fabulous truffle-adorned French omelets, as well as in assorted sandwiches (egg and bacon on brioche, to name one), at his informal restaurant in an old house just a mile north of the Pearl District. Aside from his egg obsession, the life mission of the restaurateur seems to be persuading Texans to eat more French food. Thus, if you’re in the mood for a very fine flounder meunière, search no more. Ditto a bavette steak with a rich demi-glace-style sauce. Double ditto caviar. Triple ditto chocolate mousse. But Cullum also takes care of all-American appetites with a high-quality if basic cheeseburger (no lettuce or tomatoes) and delights fast-food-history buffs with a rendition of Spudnuts (darling potato-flour doughnut holes that evoke those sold by a long-ago national chain). It’s a highly personal operation at Cullum’s. And a delicious one too.
Opened June 3, 2022
111 Kings Court
B & L Wed–Sun.
The cozy bungalow that housed Eastside Cafe has been transformed into airy, beautifully designed Este, where fans of chef Fermín Nuñez enjoy pork carnitas in a nutty pipián verde tricked out with pickled onions and pumpkin seeds.
Brass Ram, the ninth restaurant of chef and nostalgia addict Nick Badovinus, calls up memories of sumptuous midcentury red meat emporiums with excellent prime rib, Yorkshire pudding, and spears of griddled asparagus in hollandaise.
Amid low lights and leather banquettes, Caterina’s, the latest from Tim Love, evokes old-school New York Italian destinations with specialties like crunchy-crusted veal chops Parmesan and red-sauced rigatoni alla vodka. At 96 years old, homey Paris Coffee Shop was overdue for the respectful makeover it got last year from its new owner, local restaurateur Lou Lambert. The menu is updated too, with a grain bowl now happily coexisting with a chicken-fried steak.
Sitting at a table on Flora’s expansive patio makes owner Grant Cooper’s favorite Mexican dishes—such as mushrooms al ajillo, with a hint of smoke from cobanero chiles—taste even better. At barbecue guru Greg Gatlin’s casual cafe, Gatlin’s Fins & Feathers, most guests fill up on the fantastic crisp-crusted fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits (the latter served with bacon jam), but the wise leave room for stellar bread pudding.
Allora, which would look right at home on the Amalfi Coast, draws repeat visits for seafood and items like potato gnocchi in a punchy puttanesca. (Disclosure: Texas Monthly editor in chief Dan Goodgame is an investor in the restaurant.) At Ladino’s beguiling venue, chef Berty Richter takes chances with interpretations of less-often-seen Mediterranean dishes such as shishbarak: beef-and-lamb dumplings in a pool of yogurt splashed with red chile oil.
This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Where to Eat Now.” Subscribe today.