Numerous factors account for the urbanization that has transformed Texas over the past forty years. But perhaps the most important is an amendment passed by the state legislature in 1970 that paved the way for restaurants in Texas to sell liquor by the drink. It seems odd, but before then, alcohol was not such a kingpin in the world of upscale dining (today, many restaurants with bars count on making a third of their revenue from the sale of cocktails, beer, and wine). By underwriting the cost of fancy chefs, lavish ingredients, and designer interiors, liquor by the drink bankrolled the fine-dining explosion that continues to this day. On the following pages, you’ll find a list of the best new restaurants of 2012 in each of our major cities, along with examples of where people were eating out four decades ago. (To be considered for our best new restaurants list, a place must have opened between November 1, 2011, and November 1, 2012. Second locations are not eligible.) What a difference one law has made.
The country club set repaired to Green Pastures, a gracious historic home, for milk punch and prime rib at Sunday brunch. At the Barn, steaks and giant blocks of Swiss cheese cheered many a dad on his birthday. The Old Pecan Street International Café introduced crepes and quiche to folks who weren’t entirely sure how to pronounce the words. There was also the Capital Oyster Company, a New Orleans–style seafood spot where people table-hopped till the wee hours. And that was about it. Forty years later, Austin supports a thriving culinary scene, exemplified by last year’s best new restaurants.
Elizabeth Street Café
The best seat in the house is the table in the front corner, especially in the morning, when sunlight is pouring through tall windows onto aqua-blue banquettes. Snag that spot for a breakfast bánh mì; one version comes layered with fried eggs, crispy pork belly, avocado, and mint. A lunchtime tête-à-tête with your smartphone at the bar calls for the house special, bún bò huê, a pile of soupy noodles zapped with lemongrass. In the evening, check out the bánh cuôn, squishy crepe-like noodles filled with savory pork and wood ear mushrooms. Owner-chefs Tommy Moorman and Larry McGuire, of Lamberts and Perla’s, understand Americans’ tastes, but the final effect is charmingly exotic. 1501 S. First (512-291-2881). B, L & D 7 days. elizabethstreetcafe.com
When people are scraping their plates for every last bite of candied pork belly and collard greens with soy-balsamic syrup, it hardly matters that some folks think the craze for pig parts is passé. Chefs Harold Marmulstein and Richard Velazquez blew into Austin from Sarasota and Atlanta, respectively, early in 2012, bringing with them the Deep South’s salty, crackly, piggy flavor profile. The two tricked out a modest space on Austin’s East Side and forged a menu that focused on Dixie, with frequent liberties taken. Their oyster boudin fritters, for instance, come with a dollop of pink chipotle rémoulade. Their frilly brussels sprouts leaves are tossed with golden raisins and pecorino. We Texans love us some barbecue, Tex-Mex, and steaks, but Southern traditions speak to our souls too. 1917 Manor Rd (512-391-2337). D 7 days. saltysow.com
In Dallas in 1973, a three-course dinner at a nice restaurant would set you back $5 to $8 a person—$10 if you went crazy. Wine was another $5 to $12 a bottle. Where would you go? Arthur’s and Jamil’s were the default steak destinations. The Old Warsaw, Ewald’s, Patry’s, and Mr. Peppe had a lock on the French-continental end of the spectrum, while Taxco and Ojeda’s could be counted on for Mexican food. What difference have four decades made? Back then, classic recipes were set in stone. Today—as our selection of the past year’s top new restaurants shows—rules are out the window and may the best chef win.
The year’s best restaurant art may well be the color-shifting video oak tree at, of course, Oak. Its trembling leaves turn from azure to magenta as you scan a menu that throws everyday expectations to the wind. For a mod surf and turf, try chef Jason Maddy’s braised octopus and crispy pork jowl with dabs of cilantro purée and a pert aji panca vinaigrette. For a contemporary boeuf bourguignonne, check out the tender wagyu cheek in a deep-flavored red-wine braise, cozied up to carrots, cipollini, and pudgy quark spaetzle. At the end of the evening, you may find yourself reluctant to leave, so comfy are the Nutella-hued leather couches, so serene the spacious dining room. Don’t fret; you will be back. 1628 Oak Lawn Ave (214-712-9700). D Mon–Sat.
It must be the Year of the Octopus. Get the critter in the form of a carpaccio appetizer kicked up by a garlicky Meyer lemon vinaigrette, or go all out with an entrée of smoky char-grilled octopus with marble potatoes that have been wickedly roasted in duck fat. Modest, sometimes cacophonous, always interesting, Driftwood has become Dallas’s seafood destination of choice in gentrifying Oak Cliff. You can order a land animal like milk-poached chicken or a duo of rabbit, but why would you when chef Omar Flores’s Naked Cowboy Oysters in Rio Red grapefruit mignonette beckon so brazenly? 642 W. Davis (214-942-2530). D Tue–Sat.
“French but not too French” is the way co-owner Brooks Anderson and chef-owner Nathan Tate describe their hit bistro. It occupies a sunny ninety-year-old building in Oak Cliff, where gilt-framed mirrors hang on the walls (French) but the waiters wear plaid shirts (not too French). The menu, too, goes its idiosyncratic way. Knowing his audience, Tate puts hot sauce in the casino butter that melts over smoky grilled oysters, and he cooks tender Berkshire pork cheeks in a root beer braise. Most shockingly, he ditches bouillabaisse’s hallowed Mediterranean fish broth for one based on lobster stock. Dallasites are lapping it up, mais oui. 408 N. Bishop Ave (214-942-1828). D Tue–Sun. B Sun.
Fort Worth has always self-identified as both an oil town and a Western one. By 1973 that duality had spawned two parallel but very different dining trends. Cattle barons, oil millionaires, and other would-be swells congregated in clubby dining rooms (that is, when they weren’t at their actual clubs). Of those restaurants, the best known was the Carriage House, dishing out trout amandine, veal milanese, and thick, juicy steaks. Catering more to the average joe were eating places that rose out of the working-class side of Texas’s cattle culture, with its strong vaquero element: Angelo’s barbecue joint, Cattlemen’s steakhouse, and Joe T. Garcia’s Mexican food emporium (all three of which are still open, by the way). Our choice for the best new restaurant to have opened in Fort Worth this past year draws on both parts of the historic divide.
Size matters. At the Woodshed—chef-owner Tim Love’s modern spin on Texas’s barbecue and Mexican traditions—a whole bone-in beef shank known as the Shin is the menu’s crowning glory. Weighing in at a minimum of three and a half pounds and borne ceremoniously to the table on a cutting board, the monster feeds a small army. After recovering from shock and awe, recipients grab the accompanying house-made tortillas, spicy ricotta, Mexican limes, and more and turn the hickory-smoked beef into bulging tacos. Unquestionably, meat is the raison d’être at this casual spot, with its roll-up garage doors and open-air courtyard, but the accommodating menu also offers oak-smoked redfish in parchment, baby artichokes doused with lemon and Parmesan, “fancy mushrooms,” and a fantastic white-fish-and-cream-cheese dip. You don’t have to be a carnivore to love Texas. 3201 Riverfront Dr (817-877-4545). B, L & D 7 days.
Back in 1973, the best dining in El Paso was in Juárez. You could walk across the international bridge and down curio row, a.k.a. Avenida Juárez, without a care in the world. A night on the town started with a margarita at the Kentucky Club. Then it was on to Julio’s Café Corona for salpicón, a dynamite cold meat salad, or to classy Casa del Sol for first-rate seafood. On the American side, folks headed to Jaxon’s for pub grub or trekked nearly forty miles for a top sirloin at Cattleman’s, in Fabens. After 2000, drug-trafficking violence along the border eventually made Juárez off-limits. Today, contemporary El Paso restaurants like Red Mountain Bistro, one of our favorite new places of the year, combine a variety of trends into one package.
Red Mountain Bistro
At Red Mountain, old wooden beams from a once grand El Paso building have been repurposed into a bar, and the charming patio includes part of a giant sign from a now-defunct newspaper. A creative seasonal menu matches the rustic-hip decor. A side sauce of chipotle-spiked crème fraîche mellows out deftly skewered nibbles of “Still Smoking Salmon,” while fresh figs with balsamic-mascarpone cream on toast points make a sweet-tart preamble to tender grilled rack of lamb sided by Swiss chard and currants. Lobster—arriving live daily—is beautifully poached, and Sunday brunch always includes Red Mountain’s famous brisket machaca blended with asadero cheese, scrambled eggs, and spicy, but not blistering, peppers. 631 N. Resler (915-585-6940). L & D Mon–Sat. B & D Sun.
Forty years ago, a fine meal out in Houston meant steaks, seafood, or—zut alors!—French and European cuisine. When folks wanted to put on the ritz, they went to Maxim’s (French-Belgian) and Tony’s (French-Italian and still going strong). Except for cornball theme joints like Sonny Look’s popular Sir-Loin House, nice restaurants resembled proper dining rooms. For everyday eating, though, you went to a homegrown gem like the Hobbit Hole (which still exists, as the Hobbit Cafe). Embracing the health-food movement, the Hobbit Hole specialized in hearty soups and crusty, sprout-laden sandwiches. You can even say it anticipated the locavore movement that informs our choices for the best new restaurants to have opened in Houston this past year (eligibility rules are on page 103).
There are no secrets when you’re sitting a few feet from a kitchen where someone is arranging nasturtium blossoms on a plate with tweezers. Not all of the thirty seats in this tall, gauzy-curtained room are quite that close to the action, but everyone can see husband-and-wife chef-owners Justin Yu and Karen Man hard at work. Some of their creations are wild, like cucumber-spiked beef tartare under a crystal-clear aspic lid. Some are sublimely simple, like a lush persimmon, squash, and almond soup. And as for Man’s sweet frozen Greek yogurt with bracing grapefruit curd and mint meringue, just shut up and eat. 1302 Nance (832-830-8592). D Thur–Mon.
Glance around at your fellow diners in tiny, welcoming, humble Roost. Fully three fourths of them will be chowing down on the fabulous roasted cauliflower and pine nuts in miso dressing, with its crown of surreally waving bonito flakes. The creativity of 27-year-old chef-owner Kevin Naderi doesn’t stop there; it continues throughout his eclectic international menu, where you’ll find the likes of a gorgeous filet of Patagonia salmon dappled with truffled goat cheese and a fig-and-ricotta risotto heady with red wine. Little space, big talent. 1972 Fairview (713-523-7667). D Mon–Sat.
“The eyes eat first,” the saying goes. If that includes gazing around a lofty room outfitted with sleek blond furniture, sculptural lights, and a striking two-toned floor, you might be full before you even open the avant-garde menu. What turns chef Ryan Hildebrand on is culinary magic, like tiny balloons of mango purée in transparent skins or an earthy mushroom mousse formed into clever cylinders. But many things are simple, and simply delicious. The colorful charcuterie platter alone is worthy of a pedestal. 2815 S. Shepherd (713-527-9090). L Mon–Fri. D 7 days.
Chris Shepherd is the Mario Batali of Houston—a big, brawny, passionate advocate for this city of more than two million hungry people. He embraces the region’s farmers and ranchers (sometimes literally, in his mighty bear hug); he champions its seafood, especially the underappreciated bycatch. But most of all, he lauds its ethnic cuisines and homespun traditions, on display in the sprawling modern farmhouse that is Underbelly. One bite of his tilefish on masala-seasoned baby okra or Mama Shepherd’s zucchini bread and you too will believe. 1100 Westheimer Rd (713-528-9800). L Mon–Fri. D Mon–Sat.
The most surprising thing about San Antonio’s dining scene circa 1973 is not that it was dominated by Mexican food but that it wasn’t. Yes, enchilada palaces like Karam’s and Casa Rio ruled the roost, but the city boasted competing Italian restaurants (Naples and Paesanos), the all-American Earl Abel’s (famous then, as now, for fried chicken and apple pie), a stellar Chinese emporium (King Wah’s), and La Louisiane (which was swathed in burgundy velvet drapes and specialized in French classics like trout amandine and crepes Suzette). Today, the best new restaurant in the city packs multiple cuisines onto one wide-ranging menu.
You’ll think “bliss” after a single bite of the lobster risotto. To make one of the year’s most sumptuous dishes, chef-owner Mark Bliss folds together creamy carnaroli rice, chanterelles, aromatic green leaflets of Mexican mint marigold, and gorgeous chunks of fresh lobster. When he left San Antonio three and a half years ago, the locally renowned chef seemed tapped out. The leave restored him. Now he’s ensconced in his own place, where gleaming stainless- steel shingles set off rustic brick walls. His menu mirrors that contrast. Vegans grow faint over a gorgeous array of roasted beets, Calabrian peppers, and much more in a bright oregano vinaigrette, while meat lovers tear into rosy duck breast napped with a black pepper–orange gastrique. The most compelling theme may be no theme at all. 26 S. Presa (210-225-2547). D Tue–Sat.