Published: August 2010
By Mario R. Mercado
Once known as the land of big oil fortunes, Houston has emerged as the Gulf Coast’s cultural capital, with a world-class art scene—and a slew of hotels, restaurants, and shops to match.
The Hotel Icon (220 Main St.; 800/970-4266; www.hotelicon.com; doubles from $235), housed in a landmark 1911 bank downtown, is an intimately scaled grand hotel, and ideally located next to a light rail stop. Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant Bank (dinner for two $120), in the hotel’s lobby, is a destination in itself. Decked out in nautical blues, greens, and whites, the affordable Hotel Indigo Houston (5160 Hidalgo St.; 866/246-3446 or 713/621-8988; www.hotelindigo.com; doubles from $144) opened in June. What you save on your hotel bill, you can spend at the nearby Galleria complex (see Shop on next page). Also in the area: Hotel Derek (2525 W. Loop S.; 866/292-7100; www.hotelderek.com; doubles from $280), where the vibe is stylish and attractive, and the service gracious and Texasfriendly. Up next: the whimsical Hotel ZaZa opens its doors in January next to the Museum of Fine Arts.
Everyone—Bill Clinton, beautiful twenty-somethings, and Houston Grand Opera singers—beats a path to Hugo’s (1602 Westheimer Rd.; 713/524-7744; dinner for two $80) for authentic Mexican (not Tex-Mex) dishes such as duck in red mole sauce and braised beef in green tomatillo salsa. French-born Philippe Schmit prepares updated French classics (magrets de canard with spinach flan) at Bistro Moderne (2525 W. Loop S.; 713/297-4383; dinner for two $120), inside the Hotel Derek. The year-old Gravitas (807 Taft St.; 713/522-0995; dinner for two $85), set in an airy former warehouse, is known for rich dishes, including the don’t-miss venison chili with gruyère and crème fraîche, and an extensive wine list. Now in its 26th year, Cafe Annie (1728 Post Oak Blvd.; 713/840-1111; dinner for two $130) is a stalwart of Southwestern cuisine, drawing crowds for its subtle combinations of bold flavors.
Big fortunes beget big stores, and the dizzying Galleria (5085 Westheimer Rd.; 713/622-0663)—chockablock with Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany & Co., and over 370 other shops—is a prime example. On a much smaller scale is the women’s collection at Mix (2707 Colquitt St.; 713/522-0606), which includes clothes from Balenciaga, Alberta Ferretti, and Alexander McQueen, Bruno Frisoni shoes, and Jade Jagger’s gem-heavy jewelry for Garrard. A block away, the Moody Gallery (2815 Colquitt St.; 713/ 526-9911) has been a mainstay for emerging and established Texas artists for more than 31 years. In the Montrose neighborhood, Houston’s original bohemian enclave, the new Peel Gallery Shop (4411 Montrose Blvd.; 713/520-8122) carries the work of artists, artisans, and designers from the city and well beyond its limits. Look for Scrapile tables and trays, which Brooklyn-based designers Carlos Salgado and Bart Bettencourt craft from discarded wood, and an exclusive collection of silk scarves and wraps—along with pearl-and-silk jewelry—by Chinese designer Han Feng.
In a light-filled Renzo Piano building, the renowned Menil Collection (1515 Sul Ross; 713/525-9400; www.menil.org; free admission) houses John and Dominique de Menil’s wide-ranging collection of 20th-century and ancient art, with satellite galleries devoted to Cy Twombly and Dan Flavin, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum, and the famous Rothko Chapel. The Museum of Fine Arts (1001 Bissonnet St.; 713/639-7300; www.mfah.org), conveniently set along the light rail line, has one of the nation’s great encyclopedic collections. On view until January: the crowd-pleasing "Best in Show: The Dog in Art from the Renaissance to Today" and a provocative sculpture installation by British artist Damien Hirst. The Houston Grand Opera (510 Preston St.; 713/228-6737; www.houstongrandopera.org) is known for commissioning new works and innovative productions. Anthony Freud, the company’s general director, marks his debut season with a December production of Humperdinck’s classic Hansel and Gretel, staged and extravagantly designed by puppeteer Basil Twist.
How to get there Continental Airlines, based in Houston, has more than 780 flights daily to and from the city.
Getting around Metrorail, Houston’s convenient light rail line, runs from downtown to Reliant Park, where the Texans football team plays, with stops in the museum district and Hermann Park.
Best times to visit Houston has mild winters, with average high temperatures of 65 degrees. For a true Texas experience, go between February and March for the Houston Rodeo, the world’s largest.
Insider Tip Locals flock to the Longhorn Cafe (509 Louisiana St.; 713/225-1015; lunch for two $15) for its Texas specialty: chicken-fried steak with cream gravy