The largest city in the Lone Star State imbues its flourishing fine-arts institutions, adventurous restaurants, lush parks and friendly bars and cafés with the same independent Texas spirit that first put it on the map
Author ADAM K. RAYMOND
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JILL HUNTER
TEN DAYS INTO THE 20th CENTURY, a drilling derrick just outside Houston struck oil at a depth of 1,000 feet, spewing Texas tea high into the air and almost instantly transforming the city, the state and ultimately the country. Over the next 100 years, Houston would grow into a global hub of business and energy while earning a reputation as a metropolis full of boisterous oilmen and their spectacularly coiffed wives. To this day, some see the city only as a home to men in 10-gallon hats and $10,000 suits (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but those who’ve watched closely know it’s morphed into something much, much more.
Today’s Houston is culturally diverse, surprisingly green and one of the country’s most vigorous supporters of the arts. As any local will tell you, the fourth largest U.S. city has enough innovative menus to rival the three that rank ahead of it. And still, vestiges of the early days remain. Houston is a seamless melding of spurs and sophistication — and after experiencing both, you’ll realize you haven’t truly messed with Texas until you’ve made your mark on Houston.
DAY ONE | With the sun creeping through the curtains at Hotel ZaZa (1), a swanky retreat that attracts pretty people with pricey tastes to its bar and design-savvy travelers to its suites, you manage to rise from the paralyzing comfort of your bed and step out onto your balcony. Gazing past the parks, museums and neighborhoods below, your eyes meet Houston’s skyline. You pull on your boots and start exploring.
But first, breakfast. You take a cab to Brasil (2), a café in the lively Montrose district that’s known for its contemporary diner menu and strong coffee. Faced with the daunting choice of egg dishes, quiches and something called a breakfast salad, you eavesdrop on a local as she orders. Eggs El Salvador? You’ll have that too. When the bean-filled pupusa with chorizo, poached eggs and both red and green salsa arrives, you dig into the delicious mountain of food and resolve to eavesdrop on Houstonians’ orders more often.
Hopped up on salsa, you make the five-minute walk to the Menil Collection (3), a warehouse-like art museum spread across a full city block. Opened in 1987, the Renzo Piano-designed building celebrates what appears to be Houston’s other favorite kind of oil — in paintings by the likes of Picasso, Ernst, Matisse and Magritte — although it turns out the two are intertwined here. Founder Dominique de Menil was the heir to a fortune amassed by her father and her uncle, who together patented a device that’s been called a divining rod for petroleum exploration.
You stroll a block to the Rothko Chapel (4), an art-filled sanctuary founded by the de Menils. The walls of the octagonal room are covered with 14 paintings that stand as the final work of Russian-born painter Mark Rothko, who conceived the chapel as a sort of pilgrimage site. Staring into the dark void of the paintings, which are illuminated only by the sunlight from above, you are suddenly overtaken by a profound sense of peace — along with the realization that while you’ve been feeding your soul, you’ve forgotten to feed your stomach.
After a quick stop at your hotel to freshen up, you head for an early dinner at Feast (5), a place that wastes no part of the animal as it dishes up things like pickled lamb’s tongue and beef heart tartare. You play it somewhat safe with the crispy roasted pork belly, which you attack as though it had insulted your ancestors. The skin is peanut brittle-crunchy; beneath is meat with the texture of butter.
You follow up this indulgent meal with a visit to Anvil (6), a low-lit bar where skinny kids in skinny jeans drink alongside men old enough to be their fathers. You consider an oatmeal stout from the beer board but opt for an elaborate cocktail instead. Sipping your Pliny’s Tonic, made with gin, lime, cucumber, mint and a dash of habanero tincture, you know you’ll sleep well tonight.