Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Houston: The Dining-Out Capital of America

Today I thought I'd reprint a great, old 1998 article from USA Today on Houston as the dining-out capital of the country. You have to pay to get into their archives, so I'm putting the whole thing here. A little long for a blog post, but it's fun to read a national publication speaking so highly of Houston, even if it is also probably a factor in our recent "Fattest City" designations.

Houstonians take the cake (and the barbecue and cole slaw, too). USA TODAY's Jerry Shriver visits the dining out capital of the nation.

Restaurant-goers in this sprawling megalopolis have the bull by the horns these days, and they're barbecuing the hell out of it. Imagine a situation where the economy is robust but the entree prices are often anemic. Where portions are hefty and dining options are vast. Where the hired help comes cheap but is still hospitable. That's Houston.

The oil boom is back, but this time it's gushing from deep-fryers. Texans love their superlatives, and it turns out that Houstonians eat out more often than the residents of any other major U.S. city, according to the Zagat Survey restaurant guides. Diners here strap on the feed bag in public 4.6 times a week, just ahead of Dallas at 4.4. But here's the kicker: Zagat's surveys of 40 major markets also show that Houstonians pay the second-lowest average meal tab, $14.86, behind Kansas City, Mo.'s $14.01 (New Yorkers pay the most, $29.28). And the city is among the national leaders in restaurants per capita, with about 8,000 places for a population of 4.3 million.

If Houston were a country song, the refrain would go "Gas up the Four-runner, Mama, there's a rib shack/fish shack/chophouse/ roadhouse/spaghetti house/burger joint/brew pub/sushi bar/tapas bar/taqueria/chez whatever opening out by the Loop, and it's calling your name."

"We're spoiled down here -- we give them a lot," says Tony Vallone, a local restaurateur for 33 years, who serves 14,000 to 16,000 customers per week among his six upscale restaurants.

"This is the Wild West of the restaurant business," says Bob Wilson, who runs Dixie's Roadhouse, a garish, barnlike eatery near Interstate 610 that can be packed at 3 p.m. on a rainy Saturday. "You're not restricted by real estate . . . and this is a no-zoning town."

"Houston is so enormous -- it's a freeway city," says Teresa Byrne-Dodge, who publishes the local restaurant review guide My Table. "The commutes eat so much into our free time that we don't have time to cook." Plus, who feels like putting on an apron when the temperature outside often rivals the inside of your stove?

The result is that, even given the relatively low prices, diners still will spend $4.3 billion in area restaurants this year, according to forecasts by the Texas Restaurant Association. So where is most of this cash flowing? Toward chow that's as honest as the city is wide. If New York is the gourmet dining capital of the USA, then Houston just might be the people's dining capital.

The strongest evidence of this is Houstonians' loyalty to locally run chains. The Olive Gardens of the world find it tough to compete against the Vallone, Cordua, Goode, Pappas and Mandola families, which between them operate more than two dozen successful mainstream restaurants, most of them midpriced. "A lot of out-of-town places that try to open here . . . fall on their face, close or pull back," Byrne-Dodge says.

The people benefit as well:
* At the modest and cheery La Tapatia Taqueria, customers are served wonderful free chips and salsa, even if they just order a couple of the equally wonderful $1.05 tacos. Add a $1.95 can of Tecate beer, which arrives with five lime wedges, and you're eating royally for under $5. So what if soccer's the only thing on the tube?
* Carrabba's is one of those mainstream, midpriced Italian eateries found in every city, but here they offer valet parking at lunch.
* Beck's Prime, a chain of burger places resembling a White Castle in a worn tuxedo, has a drive-through window where you can order a hefty steak with a credit card.
* Goode Co. Texas Barbecue serves up one of America's greatest entrees, the $5.75 beef brisket, cafeteria-style in a rustic shack housing a cooler stocked with seven kinds of Texas beer and a wall-mounted buffalo head.

The downsides: millennial waits for tables in some places; noise levels that necessitate conversing in a shout; and enduring your neighbor's elbow in your enchilada. But the hungry hordes know this goes with the wide-open territory.

"Houston excels at the $15-to-$20 experience," Wilson says. "It's a work town -- people are here to work, not enjoy the mountains or whatever. It does not take itself seriously. No one's out to impress anybody."

That slightly overstates the case. Upper-crust, cutting-edge and globe-spanning dining thrives here as well, and some of it is very impressive. Robert Del Grande, a celebrated guru of New Southwestern cuisine, runs the elegant Cafe Annie. Tony's, a luxurious Italian-American emporium, has won national acclaim. So has chef Tim Keating, late of La Reserve, now of DeVille. The steakhouses, from Rotisserie Beef & Bird to Pappas Bros. (where the average wine tab has been running $100 a bottle recently) are definitive. Add in the strong Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai, Mexican, Korean, Cajun and South American currents that flow through here, and diners face a delicious dilemma.

At every level, "a ton of thought is given to eating out," Byrne-Dodge says. "People visit me and they want to hit three places in a night. It's a competitive sport to be the first in your group to try a new hot spot."Or, to quote a T-shirt from Goode Co. Texas Barbecue, "You might give some serious thought to thanking your lucky stars you're in Texas."

Everything in the article matches my own experience and what I've heard from friends who've moved elsewhere: they just can't eat out as well or as often as they did here. It's really one of the great unsung strengths of our city.


At 12:28 PM, April 03, 2012, Anonymous Brandon Danner said...

Great post, but KC barbecue always wins.


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