These Leaders Want to Tell You About Houston’s Restaurant Renaissance
There’s a restaurant renaissance coming to Houston. Talk to a Houstonian for more than a few minutes and you’ll hear how the country’s fourth largest city is a hospitality boomtown. From the James Beard Award-winning bar program at Julep, to the waves of Vietnamese, West African, New American, and African American restaurants drawing crowds to every corner of the sprawling city, those in the know are proclaiming that Houston is a world-class culinary destination.
While so much of the hospitality industry around the country is still figuring out what a post-Covid recovery looks like, in Houston they’re building the future. On a recent visit, I spent time with some of the chefs and restaurateurs constructing that future to ask them what makes Houston so special, how they envisioned the city’s next act, and what they are doing to be a part of it. Beyond birthing new concepts to be The Hot New Thing, many are aiming to create new business models that engage with communities often ignored, with the hope to teach and empower new generations of cooks.
Here’s what they think the future of Houston looks like:
Marcus Davis, The Breakfast Klub:
“Houston is the culinary capital of the country. We’re the hottest food scene from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Don’t argue with me, argue with somebody else. Hands down, it’s the culinary capital of the country.
Where do I see us going from here? Well, we’re already at the top, so there’s nowhere to go than beyond the top – piercing the veil. I hope to see Houston recognized not just as a culinary scene in the nation, but internationally recognized when we’re talking about culinary cities across the globe. I see Houston’s name being mentioned as a culinary destination [for travelers] from Europe, from Asia, from Antarctica! I’m hopeful that we will be recognized for the depth and breadth of talent that’s in this city, the flavors that come out of this city.”
Houston is the culinary capital of the country.— Marcus Davis, The Breakfast Klub
“What do I hope to contribute to this? The same thing that we’ve contributed for the last two decades: My goal is to continue to inspire entrepreneurs, to inspire those that want to be in this business, that are in this business. Over the two decades that we’ve been in this business we’ve watched people who watched us who are now in business and are successful in business and we want to continue to be in that space of inspiring and leading the charge. We’ve been ambassadors to the city of Houston since we opened our doors and we want to continue to do so. And we are hopeful that we can continue to allow people to watch us do what we do and inspire them to do what they have in their hearts and their desires to do.”
Christine Ha, The Blind Goat:
“The Houston dining scene has come a long way since 10, 20, 30 years ago. I’ve lived in Houston most of my life, so I’ve seen how the city has changed. As it is now the most diverse city in America, the food definitely reflects that. You can find everything from Vietnamese to Korean to Brazilian to Ethiopian here in Houston, and the styles range from very casual to formal. I hope Houston continues to grow and offer continued diversity in its cuisine so that there is something for everyone.
The way I hope to contribute to the dining landscape here is to continue doing what I love to do, which is to tell my personal story of how I am a L.A.-born child of Vietnamese parents who was raised in Houston on a plate, on my menus, and through the foods I create. I want to keep pushing myself — and Houston diners — to try new things and, most importantly, enjoy the experience.”
Chris Williams, Lucille’s:
“Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen the diversity in Houston’s dining scene become a lot louder, and people across the world are taking notice of something this city has always been equipped with — cultures from all over making the food that’s true to them. I’m hoping that narrative just gets louder and louder.
Outside of that, my goal is to continue to push a culinary model that is rooted in and benefits the communities around us. I’m hoping that what our hospitality group is striving to do can serve as the model for others. I want other people in our industry to be inspired to vertically integrate their operations and further their community-driven practices.”
Cherif Mbodji, Bludorn and Navy Blue:
“Houston is the most underrated food city in America, in my opinion, and has been for a long time. With the large influx of people who moved across states since Covid, cities like Houston are seeing a boom that will certainly benefit their dining scenes.
[I hope] to invest in the training and development of the next generation of talent both through school programs such as C-Cap and mentorship program between our restaurants. [And to] keep developing exciting food concepts that will hopefully not only help retain the local talent in our city, but continue to attract more talent from across the country.”
Dawn Burrell, the upcoming Late August:
“I think the Houston restaurant scene is becoming more diverse than ever. There has been an upswing in elevated or full service culturally focused cuisine.
I hope Houston becomes a destination for travelers that seek unique and high-quality dining experiences. I think this will happen when the Michelin guide includes Houston in their grading system.
I’m looking to offer imaginative, slightly whimsical dishes unlike anything in the city, knowing that while doing this, the philanthropic efforts in place will be simultaneously helping those in need.”
Greg Gatlin, Gatlin BBQ:
“I hope that we can find some balance and be able to give customers a great dining experience, excellent service, and really, really strong food that creates a strong hospitality industry. There are some things we need to focus on as a whole, including training of staff and creating a strong labor workforce.
I hope to be an example for others of someone who is actively trying to make the industry stronger in the ways I mentioned before. No one has a magic wand that they can wave and solve all of the issues the industry faces, but we need to dig in with our counterparts and create something really impactful for the industry itself.”
Ope Amosu, ChòpnBlọk:
“To quote Cardi, ‘It’s up and it’s stuck!’ Houston is in the early stages of getting its props and the scene deserves to remain recognized. Like ChòpnBlọk, Houston’s food is bold, diverse, meaningful, flavorful and plentiful. Our restaurant doubles down on this narrative.
Our purpose [at ChòpnBlọk] is to share the beauty of West African culture, through foods that reshape society’s daily routine. To actualize this mission, it’s critical for ChòpnBlọk to be easily accessible for communities to engage. I’m excited for the new locations we are currently finalizing in Houston. They’re really going to open the map for us.”
Alba Huerta, Julep:
“What makes the Houston dining scene so exciting is that it’s ever-evolving and has something to offer everyone. The food scene is formed by the amalgamation of flavor diversity and people diversity. We grow and learn from each other, and a new experience is born. I hope to always contribute to it by being in tune with the food and drink evolution that’s happening anywhere creative people exist. Whether that’s in my city or elsewhere, but always for my city.”
Keisha Griggs, Kuji Kitchen:
“I think those of us from here — and not so far from here — will continue to crave the familiar. Houston is a melting pot of soul (food), meaning because we have such a vast array of cultures, each one of these cultures has its own interpretation of food from the soul. So while there is room for everyone coming into the city, those places that create a sense of home will continue to thrive.
How I hope to contribute is to continue to carve out my own interpretations of soul food, vegetarian food, Caribbean food, vegetable-forward, and locally sourced concepts that not only feed my community, but teaches them as well — all while creating earth-friendly concepts that gives back to my purveyors and food sources and the land.”
Aaron Bludorn, Bludorn and Navy Blue:
“I think that Houston is becoming one of the most exciting food cities in the country. I see it headed to new levels, with new chefs coming to town as well as chefs coming up here. I see it like soccer in the United States — you have to build up the youth programs in order to succeed at a professional level. I think that we need to build a strong foundation of developing talent here in order to continue to see it grow.
I hope that Houston maintains its trajectory with more diverse restaurants being added to landscape all of the time. I look forward to a dynamic where young cooks are able to gain experience from a wide array of restaurants and hopefully not leaving, but staying in Houston and pay it forward. I hope to have restaurants that contribute to the next generation of chefs, give them a training ground to spring board to hopefully go on their own one day.”
Michelle Wallace, B’tween Sandwich Co:
“Houston is such a beautifully diverse city. It has the ability to show you the world through its food scene … and I love that. I think that we will continue to see the diversity in the cuisine but with a focus on comfort food. Houstonians tapped back into really enjoying comfort food during the quarantine period a few years ago. I hope to continue to see chefs having fun and getting creative with cultural comfort food inspirations.
My pop-up restaurant has a focus on sandwiches. Sandwiches by nature, are comfort food. I intend on creating dishes and flavors that takes you back to your childhood or give you a brand new experience. The city of Houston offers tons of inspiration for me to achieve just that.”
Clay Williams is a Brooklyn-based photographer whose work takes him across the country and beyond, documenting stories of food, culture, and community. Follow him at @ultraclay.