Recently I have seen a surge in pro-Houston press thanks to a conscious and determined effort by city leaders to make improvements to the quality of life in Houston, but the overall reputation of the city remains generally unpopular and under-appreciated. As a resident of the city, I am lucky to experience the city’s overlooked but exceptional qualities, including the culture of art and the amazing international cuisine. At the same time, I recognize that it is a sprawling city that requires a car (though bike culture is improving), can be a concrete jungle in areas (though parks are also increasing as well), and that economic expansion generally rules development over conservation.
As the city has undergone a revitalization to improve the many negative labels placed on it, such as fattest city in America, one of country’s angriest cities, not to mention having one of the worst commutes, things are improving and Downtown Houston is a prime example of this change.
While these names do not do the overall metropolis any favors, historically one of the least enticing areas of the city has been the heart of the bayou city. In the past decade, Downtown Houston has undergone a transformation that started with the major park project Discovery Green and has continued with Market Square Park. These green spaces have enhanced what was once a work-hard-and-leave area into a desirable area to not only live but also to visit.
Furthermore, thanks to an organized effort by Downtown businesses the area has worked to entice high-end chefs and established bar owners into the area, taking an area that was once no-mans land on the weekends into an emerging hot spot for some of the best up-and-coming foodie destinations in the city.
And in a city known for tearing down historical buildings to make way for large developments, Downtown Houston is a haven for some of the most historical buildings that have stood the test of time. The central city still has challenges ahead as residential numbers have not met the expectation and many businesses have failed in the area, but it is clear that things are improving. In my opinion Downtown Houston is a unique destination for an overnight stay, foodie crawl, or late-night cocktail.
The next time that you are in Houston, here are twelve spots to experience the Downtown Houston renaissance:
The Pastry War
Named after the Mexican-French war, this cozy bar carries a hand-picked collection of mescals and tequilas. Expect classic Mexican cocktails and longnecks to wet your whistle. This is probably our favorite destination for drinks in the area as the cocktail caliber is high.
Goro and Gun
Goro & Gun is the Historic District’s newest darling, serving up handmade ramen dishes as well as hearty delights like pork belly, short ribs and fried chicken. Once a popular food truck, the owners snagged a prime location within walking distance to The Pastry War and OKRA for their brick and mortar.
The Original OKRA Charity Saloon
A laid-back bar in the historic district where you play shuffleboard, sip on local brews and classic cocktails for a great cause, the Charity Saloon will donate 100% of the bar’s proceeds to a different Houston-based organization or social cause each month. This is the love child of several foodie leaders in town and it shows in the beverages and bar snacks. Don’t forget to submit your ticket for a charity vote at the end of the night.
Hotel Icon is an experience in opulence. With its historic façade and classic-contemporary custom designed European decor, furnishings and original artwork, this newly restored 1911 bank building provides individually tailored services and accommodations for both the corporate and leisure traveler. The 135-room Hotel ICON offers travelers an intriguing option worthy of destination status. My husband and I have been lucky enough to have a stay-cation here, experienced an amazing meal here, and my sister prepared for her wedding day here. It is one of the best hotels in the city.
A longtime favorite among downtown restaurants, Chef-owner Irma Galvan serves traditional, home-cooked Mexican cuisine for breakfast and lunch on weekdays. Decorated floor to ceiling with knickknacks, this is one of the most delightful dining environments imaginable. They have experimented with dinner hours, but check the website or call before you go. And don’t expect a real menu, though they have a few dishes written down. This is the type of place where you tell the waiter what you are in the mood for and he will make suggestions based on your preferences. Trust them, we have never been led astray, but it does make it tough to predict the bill.
Market Square Park
The new park is a true neighborhood space, anchored by a central lawn where more than one City Hall once stood. A crescent-shaped dog run on the park’s west side gives the canine contingent an attractive and active place to let loose. A beautifully lit fence and walkway arc through the park and provides insight to the history of the area. And if you’re hungry, check out Houston classic Niko Niko’s, where you’ll find delightfully shady, outdoor seating, a plaza for performances and classic Greek and American favorites. Also be sure to check out the event schedule as they host wonderfully intimate community events here.
Discovery Green Park
Downtown’s premier green space, Discovery Green encompasses 12 acres and is surrounded by the George R. Brown Convention Center, hotels and downtown sports arenas. “Downtown’s new backyard”, this dynamic park includes 2 restaurants, kids play area, artificial lake, 2 dog runs, amphitheater, event lawn and more. Similar to Market Square Park, they have a strong event schedule, but expect large crowds at times and secure your spot on the lawn early at this hot spot.
Phoenicia Specialty Foods
This downtown market is a one-stop yummy shop, carrying all the staple gourmet foods, along with household basics for downtown employees and residents. With two artisan bread-baking lines, the state-of-the-art facility features Phoenicia’s signature pita bread conveyors as it delivers piping fresh pita and rustic-style pizza to patrons. Offering quality produce, fresh meats and seafood, boutique wines and beers, premium meats and cheeses, a signature coffee and gelato bar, floral and housewares sections, a comfortable dining area and a designated cooking demonstration kitchen, Phoenicia Specialty Foods Downtown is a one-of-a-kind destination for Houstonians and visitors alike.
The oldest bar in Houston, this little wine and beer getaway is a downtown treasure. Boasting an extensive wine collection and romantic atmosphere, this quaint bar offers an unforgettable experience to visitors. At night the long-burning candles set the mood for a spooky atmosphere where the paintings on the walls seem to have eyes that follow your every move. It is one of our favorite stops in the area, and we often bring out-of-town guests to get a taste of Houston history here.
Hearsay Gastro Lounge
Housed in 77002’s second-oldest building, this may be the prettiest space in downtown. Located in a beautifully refurnished historic building, this upscale restaurant and lounge serves up delicious appetizers, salads, and entrees. They also feature an extensive wine list, numerous beers on draft and in bottle and premium liquors with a focus on scotch whiskey. Open late night, Hearsay is a great place for a late night cocktail and bites.
City Hall Farmers Market
The public can enjoy a variety of locally prepared ready-to-eat or packaged to-go foods, pick up farm-fresh weekly groceries and at the same time support sustainable food, all amidst Houston’s dramatic downtown urban setting. The City Hall Farmers Market will feature more than 30 vendors (located along both sides of City Hall’s reflection pool), including local fresh produce grown by local farmers, cheeses, breads, roasted coffees, and a variety of prepared meals, as well as food trucks.
Julia Ideson Library
The Julia Ideson Library is an ornate Spanish Renaissance Revival-style structure in Downtown Houston that opened in 1926 as the city’s central library, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The restored library re-opened to the public on December 5, 2011. Although no longer the central library, the Julia Ideson Library remains a rich literary and historic resource center with plenty of special programs open to the public. In addition to being the permanent home of the Houston Metropolitan Research Center and staff members of the Houston Public Library and Houston Public Library Foundation, Houstonians and visitors alike will enjoy the new Exhibit Hall that will host rotating shows of items from the HMRC’s collection and visiting exhibits, and the magnificent Children’s Reading Room.