Cuisine culture comes to life in the Lone Star State's major citiesTexas is known for a lot of things, including its Western heritage, diverse regions and sheer size. It’s also gaining notice for its burgeoning food and beverage scene. A look around Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) provides ample evidence that the Lone Star State has arrived as a five-star foodie destination, producing innovative food, craft beers and liquors.
Roughly 63 million people a year travel through DFW—making it the ninth-busiest airport on Earth—and contribute $32 billion to the region’s economy. It’s also an unexpectedly great place to sample Texas’ culinary diversity, with more than 120 restaurants, bars and other eateries.
Reata Grill serves up cowboy and spicy Southwestern cuisine such as tenderloin tamales and chicken-fried steak. III Forks Prime Steakhouse offers fine dining Texas-style, with Texas-sized steaks and dramatic upper-level views of the terminal. Cousin’s Bar-B-Q boasts finger-lickin’ sausage and ribs, and Gas Monkey Bar & Grille serves up Tex-Mex in a hip, casual setting.
Got a hankering for something a little more ethnic? Partake of taqueria traditions with a twist at Urban Taco, find a mixture of Asian and Southern comfort food at Ling and Louie’s, and top it all off with something liquid and smooth at Wild Bleu Martini Bar.
“The world is becoming more global,” says Cynthia Vega, the airport’s media relations manager. “We’ve got a captured audience…and it’s in our interest to provide variety. We want to be customer savvy, and we want to change the way people view airports.”
DFW is just the beginning of the foodie fun—culinary playgrounds open wide in the cities of Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, Houston and San Antonio, as well as some of the smaller cities near the big five.
Dallas: Big Food in Big D
Dallas isn’t called Big D for nothing, and the city’s gastronomic expansion over the last several years could expand the nickname to Big F&B.
The city has become a producer of dozens of award-winning craft beers. Braindead Brewing Company opened in March, tapping prominent local beers brewed by each of the brewery’s three owners and more than a dozen original brews. Bishop Cider Co. opened in 2014, adding to the wave of new hard ciders with concoctions such as Cat Scratch Fever. Four Corners Brewing Co. has specialties such as honey-rye golden ale. Many local brewers offer tours, and some make arrangements for groups.
Regardless of drink pairings, Dallas residents tend to favor three types of food. For barbecue, they flock to Pecan Lodge and Lockhart Smokehouse. For chili, it’s AllGood Cafe or Stampede 66. Mi Cocina specializes in the third local favorite, chips and queso—along with frozen margaritas.
The city celebrates its culinary heritage and innovation with events such as Savor Dallas, a March festival combining trend-setting restaurants and chefs with local, national and international wines and craft beers. The Chefs for Farmers Festival takes place every October, celebrating the chefs, artisans and farmers who work cooperatively to enhance the city’s culinary culture.
“Dallas’ big ambitions stretch to its culinary scene,” says Phillip Jones, president and CEO of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We have more than 12,000 food and beverage establishments—more per capita than any other city in America. From gastronomy to farm-to-fork, from soba noodles to wild game, Dallas dining is an experience. Visitors can indulge in Tex-Mex or barbecue, upscale or unique restaurants and even curbside cuisine. And we have 14 entertainment districts, each with a flavor—and flavors—all its own.”
Hotel development is in on the game, as well. Four new restaurants are coming to the Omni Dallas Hotel, bringing its total to seven. The hotel has 1,001 guest rooms and 110,000 sq. ft. of event space, and is directly attached to the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center Dallas. Dallas’ historic Statler Hilton Hotel is set to re-open under the Hilton flag in fall 2016, after a $175 million revamp. The 59-year-old landmark, empty for more than a decade, will have 161 guest rooms, a 14,500-square-foot ballroom and four restaurants.
Dallas also boasts a venue unlike any other in the world. The 4,500-square-foot Sixth Floor Museum is located in the former Texas School Book Depository, which became famous after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The museum is dedicated to JFK’s life, death and legacy.
Fort Worth: Ridin’, Ropin’ & Foodin’
Fort Worth is Old West and proud of it. That hasn’t stopped the city from being in the vanguard of Texas’ innovative foodie scene, though.
Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. is the only artisanal bourbon distillery in North Texas. The company boasts two distinct whiskey brands. One is an artisanal blended whiskey and the other is a straight bourbon whiskey. Locally based TreyMark Distillery produces the only vodka in America made from black-eyed peas.
Rahr & Sons Brewing Company, with meeting space for 300, has won more than 50 national awards for its craft beers. In just 10 years, production has increased from 2,000 barrels annually to more than 20,000. During public tours and tastings on Wednesdays and Saturdays, you can enjoy their brews with specialties from the food trucks outside.
One of the best places to sample Fort Worth foodie culture is Clay Pigeon Food and Drink, which sports a continuously changing menu reflecting local, organic and fresh ingredients. The breads and ice creams are made here, and the produce comes straight from the patio garden.
Fort Worth’s cowboy cuisine melds the flavors of Southwestern, Creole, Southern, Mexican and traditional steakhouse cooking. To sample it, try chef Tim Love’s roasted garlic-stuffed beef tenderloin with Western plaid hash at his restaurant, Lonesome Dove Western Bistro (a second location opened in Austin in June).
The city stages the Fort Worth Food & Wine Festival in spring. The four-day event showcases the culinary talents of local chefs and wine and craft beer makers from around the country.
City officials are pushing for more hotel rooms and meeting space downtown, and plans are being drawn up to convert the 1930s-era art deco Sinclair building into a 165-room Marriott Autograph Collection hotel that will include a basement restaurant and a rooftop bar.
Fort Worth’s Western heritage endows it with some uniquely themed meeting spaces. National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame has unveiled the first two phases of a renovation this summer with the opening of the Grand Rotunda and a new Wild West Gallery with Annie Oakley’s gun. Renovations will be completed in fall 2016, and the museum will remain open throughout. The museum can host 350 reception-style or 200 seated.
Austin: Entrepreneurial Spirit in F&B
Austin is called the Live Music Capital of the World. It’s the state capital, home to the University of Texas and a high-tech leader (think Dell, Inc.). Now this try-anything city is also witnessing a booming craft beer scene.
Hops & Grain is a brewery with a rather unique combination of business lines—the company produces handcrafted ales and handmade dog treats. Its beers win awards, it practices sustainability and four-legged friends are welcome on the patio.
Austin-area breweries have brought home numerous medals from national competitions such as the Great American Beer Festival. Local medal winners include Namaste Brewing for its Bitterama; Austin Beerworks for its Black Thunder German-style beer; and Jester King Brewery for its Atrial Rubicite, a barrel-aged sour beer made with raspberries.
“The variety of styles and processes here ensures that everybody has a beer suited to their tastes,” says Bob Galligan, hospitality manager at Hops & Grain. “Most of us are happy to open our doors to visitors. Whether it’s on an outdoor patio or an indoor tap room, there’s no better place to enjoy our craft beers than at the source, surrounded by stainless steel giants or walls of oak barrels.”
Austin also has plenty of award-winning chefs. Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue won a James Beard Award in the category of Best Chef—Southwest in May. Top Chef winner Paul Qui’s latest restaurant, Qui, was named the Most Outstanding Restaurant of 2014 by GQ magazine. Jeffrey’s and Josephine House, two sister restaurants next door to each other, ranked in the 10 Best New Restaurants in America for 2013 in Bon Appetit. As a bonus, Josephine House has meeting space for 250.
Austin residents say their two biggest local specialties are barbecue and tacos. There’s great barbecue at spots such as La Barbecue and Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew (named by Texas Monthly the 50th Best Barbecue in the World). Want tacos? Bon Appetit recently said that Austin “has the most dynamic taco culture in the country.” Favorite taco joints include La Condesa and Hecho en Mexico.
Whether you like your martinis a la James Bond (shaken, not stirred) or prefer a gourmet bloody mary mix, Austin has you covered. Distilleries such as Genius Gin, White Hat Premium Texas Rum, Tequila 512 and Revolution Bloody Mary often host group tours.
Austin is also opening new meeting hotels at breakneck speed. JW Marriott Austin opened in February, with 1,012 guest rooms and 120,000 sq. ft. of versatile event space just two blocks from the Austin Convention Center. Hotel Van Zandt, with 320 guest rooms and 12,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, is set to open this fall. The Westin Austin Downtown, with 366 rooms and 14,500 sq. ft. of function space, opened this month.
Houston: A Taste of the World
This city of 2.2 million is a compelling combination of Texas swagger, Southern charm and a collection of immigrants from all over the world. More than 90 languages are spoken in Houston.
“There’s been a tremendous boom in the number and the variety of eating and drinking establishments here,” says Mike Waterman, president of Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The international population has spawned a truly global culinary culture. From Korean tacos to Japanese ramen and from Mexican barbacoa to French cassoulet, you can find all the flavors of the world right here in Houston.”
Karbach Brewing Company was three years old when it began a $15 million expansion last year. The result is a 19,000-square-foot building with a full kitchen and two event spaces. The company produces popular craft beers such as Sympathy for the Lager and Weisse Versa Wheat. Two new Houston breweries, Sigma Brewing Company and Spindle Tap Brewing, plan to open later this year.
Messina Hof has been making award-winning wines since 1977. Haak Vineyards & Winery in Galveston County is another multiple-award winner, with products ranging from dessert wines to refined whites, including the dry blanc du bois.
Because of their city’s diversity, Houstonians have a lot of favorite foods. Southern food is epitomized by the wings and waffles at The Breakfast Klub. You can enjoy Cajun food such as the campechana extra (shrimp and crab) at Goode Company Seafood. For a taste of the Far East, try the Vietnamese sandwich at Les Givral’s.
Many locals say Hugo’s makes the best margaritas in town, with its El Sueno Profundo with smoked mezcal.
The World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest takes place here every winter. The Houston Beer Fest happens in June. Big Brew Houston, in late-October, is so big that it’s held in the George R. Brown Convention Center.
In late 2016, Houston will start unveiling its exciting Convention District. George R. Brown Convention Center, with 1.8 million sq. ft. of meeting, exhibition and registration space, will be connected to a new Marriott Marquis with 1,000 guest rooms and 166,000 sq. ft. of event space, and a Hilton Americas-Houston with 1,200 guest rooms and 91,500 sq. ft. of meeting space. In addition, the city plans to fill the district with new eateries and entertainment venues.
San Antonio: Food & Drink on the River
San Antonio has a long history of being a brewer’s town. In fact, it’s been brewing beer for 160 years and was long a dominant player in the state’s brewery culture. Now it’s experiencing a resurgence, with new craft breweries popping up all over town, amounting to a 20 percent annual growth rate during the past few years.
Some of the most interesting—and best-named—breweries that dot the greater San Antonio area include Dodging Duck Brewhaus, Granary ‘Cue & Brew, Naughty Brewing Co. and Busted Sandal Brewing Company.
The restaurant scene is just as lively. Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery, which opened in April, is chef Jeff Balfour’s modern take on Texas traditional fare. Food is served with distinctive craft beers brewed on the property, and the restaurant is located at San Antonio’s renowned Pearl Brewery.
Another noteworthy newcomer is El Machito, a celebration of mesquite-grilled meats in the traditional Mexican style. A funky restaurant called Hot Joy opened last year, offering a new take on Asian fusion and adventurous wines.
Residents will tell you that a local favorite is the puffy taco, in which the tortilla is deep fried until it puffs out, creating a soft and delicate shell. As for favorite places to try one, consider Los Barrios, Teka Molina and Ray’s Drive Inn.
No city loves a party more than San Antonio, and locals celebrate their food-and-drink tradition at two big blowouts during the year. Culinaria Festival Week, in May, brings top Texas wine producers together with the hottest chefs in the city. The San Antonio Cocktail Conference takes place every January, when well-known spirits magicians and cocktail aficionados gather to mix, pour, teach, learn and sample.
“There’s something very exciting happening in San Antonio, almost magical,” says Diego Galicia, chef/owner at Restaurant Mixtli. “New restaurants and bars are opening all the time. There are some very talented—and very hungry—chefs and mixologists out there, willing to do whatever it takes to become part of the team that’s putting San Antonio on the culinary map. And I believe our foodie culture can go toe-to-toe with just about any other major city in the country.”
San Antonio has even found a way to combine meeting space with the culinary culture. This October, Hotel Emma, a 146-room boutique property, will open at the city’s 119-year-old Pearl Brewery. When it does, meeting planners will be able to set up shop there and avail themselves of adjacent venues such as the old Pearl Stable, with 5,525 sq. ft., and the Pearl Studio, which can accommodate 150.
It’s Not Just the Big Cities…
In The Woodlands, outside of Houston, they’re not exactly rubes in the F&B game. Local Pour, a longtime favorite restaurant and tavern in River Oaks, opened a location there. Locals have also made The Refuge Bar & Bistro a hot spot for several years. Here, the cocktails are king, and they’re as good as any in Texas. Cru Food & Wine Bar was the first in Texas to offer as many as 30 wines by the glass—and more than 300 wines from all over the world.
Irving, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, boasts interesting culinary options. Twin Peaks is a popular sports bar that also became the first brewery in Irving—just look for the 27-foot-tall grain silo. 54th Street Restaurant & Drafthouse offers150 items on the menu and more than 50 craft beers on tap. For a great Texas-sized steak, head over to The Ranch at Las Colinas where you can have it bone-in, flat-iron, filet, charcoal-broiled or chicken-fried. A May festival, Taste of Irving, gives local restaurants, bars and breweries a chance to show off.
Also just outside Dallas-Fort Worth, Grapevine is known for its bold and crisp wines. The city was named for the wild mustang grapes that were growing in the area when it was founded. Today, no fewer than 10 tasting rooms, most by local wineries, make up the Urban Wine Trail that is mostly centered along Main Street in downtown Grapevine. GrapeFest, the largest wine festival in the Southwest, takes place there every September.
Texas Hill Country (pictured) has become a noted wine producer as well, and now even has its own wine trail. There are 42 wineries scattered among the grassy hills of central and south Texas, with winding roads and grazing horses, many creating surprisingly good wines. In addition, the owners are often the ones who personally welcome groups into their tasting rooms.