9 Shaded and Socially Distanced Houston Restaurant Patios to Enjoy Now
After staying in all spring due to the threat of COVID-19, I was tempted to head out to favorite restaurants as Houston began to reopen. However, concerns about how well the recommended safety precautions would be followed by both the businesses and other patrons tempered my enthusiasm. After considering transmission rates in outside spaces versus the city’s comfortable climate-controlled interiors, dining al fresco seemed like the best choice. A plus: with the reduced traffic, the air in Houston hasn’t been this fresh in years.
Unique restaurants that make Houston’s dining scene exciting are always my preference, but as temperatures soar and COVID-19 infection rates climb, my priorities now also include good outdoor shade and increased safety protocols. Based on my recent visits where I had opportunities to observe new protective practices, the following are some of the most desirable and well-managed tables for outdoor dining this summer.
a’Bouzy, 2300 Westheimer: This restaurant’s exceptionally fair wine pricing along with owner Shawn Virene’s ability to source distinctive Champagnes has made it a favorite place to enjoy both ladies lunches and date nights in the past. However, its popularity and crowds made it concerning to visit upon reopening. I ventured in on a recent rainy Wednesday to take advantage of the covered patio at lunchtime. I learned that the restaurant is now choosing to seat at a lower than 50% capacity both inside and out. Patio tables marked with empty bottles are not available, which allows for good social distancing between guests. All recommended safety measures such as mask use, disposable menus, and thorough sanitizing of tables after guests leave are being met. A very noticeable change was the lack of traditional fanfare from servers when opening a wine bottle. Normally, they shout “a’Bouzy!”, but that’s been discontinued to alleviate concerns of excessive contact between employees and patrons. Outside, guests can keep cool with a chilled bottle of bubbles paired with an array of starters such as deviled eggs and prosciutto with figs or go for the always-filling fried chicken sandwich with duck fat fries.
Regrettably, I do recommending skipping the valet parking because my car was returned by a valet improperly wearing a mask on his chin. While the valet stand is still situated at the drive-in entrance, guests are not required to make use of this service. Alert the attendant that you prefer to self-park and proceed on back.
Bistro Menil, 1513 West Alabama: During more normal times, chef Greg Martin’s fresh fare at this European-inspired bistro makes it an obvious place to dine or enjoy a drink when visiting The Menil Collection museum. Even now, though the Menil is closed, the enclosed side patio and umbrella-topped tables underneath large shade trees make Bistro Menil a good choice for an early lunch or brunch outdoors. Salads, pizza, burgers and a range of entrées ensure a satisfying meal for all tastes. Top picks for keeping cool outside include pairing a refreshing bottle of rosé with the Goat Cheese Provençal appetizer and the jumbo lump crab salad. Other benefits include fewer people around due to the museum being closed and the signs reminding visitors to socially distance in the green spaces. In addition to frequent surface cleaning, orders are taken from single-use paper menus and tables are all spaced at least six feet apart.
Field & Tides, 705 East 11th: This Heights restaurant has enjoyed a steady to-go business throughout the shutdown. Upon reopening, the owners were quick to add more shaded area to the expansive exterior. New, large umbrellas cover a row of tables between the parking lot and entrance, offering ample sun protection during both lunch and brunch hours, while tables along the front patio enjoy more evening shade. Chef Travis Lenig’s varied menu has stay-cool items such as tuna poke, the daily ceviche and the Tomato Crab Stack, all waiting to be paired with frozen cocktails, which change weekly. Guests with bigger appetites can also order heartier Southern. The restaurant follows all recommended safety steps like having all employees wearing masks and gloves, sanitizing menus and tables between guests and distancing tables six feet apart.
Hugo’s, 1600 Westheimer: This highly acclaimed Mexican eatery on Westheimer from restaurateur Tracy Vaught and chef Hugo Ortega opens at 10 am for weekend brunch. The patio is well-shaded and the socially distanced tables each have a well-placed fan blowing down rather than through the area. While the popular Sunday brunch buffet is no longer an option for health reasons, guests will still find a good selection of both breakfast and lunch dishes on the menu, an array of desserts, along with a fun cocktail list and great prices on refreshing bottles of bubbles and rosé. Can’t-miss brunch entrées are the huevos rancheros and the Huarache de Puerco. Order the chips and guacamole and the Hugo’s Rita to complete the experience. The menus are disposable and crumpled in front of guests when ordering is completed. Hand sanitizer is well-placed for guests and staff to use: at the entrance, by the bathrooms, and at the wait stations. Servers wear gloves and one was witnessed excusing himself to go change before refilling water after clearing dirty dishes from another table. That is the kind of awareness that is very pleasing to cautious diners. Excellent experiences were also to be found at the company’s sister restaurants, Backstreet Cafe and Caracol.
Kậu Ba, 2502 Dunlavy: This covered patio in Montrose offers both refuge for an outdoor lunch on a drizzly day and protection from the sun’s heat. The open sides ensure a constant influx of fresh air. Chef Nicky Tran’s Vietnamese-Cajun fusion has been featured on two episodes of Somebody Feed Phil, a Netflix binge-worthy series for foodies where the host catches up with her in both Saigon and New Orleans. Her Houston patio is very casual with Instagram-friendly wall art, and her menu is unique and flavorful. Guests can enjoy creatively prepared cocktails and unusual yet tasty items such as Vietnamese Pizza and Wagyu Banh Cuon with truffles, as well as more familiar offerings like crudo, Tamarind Shrimp, Duck Salad and fried rice. Affordable lunch box combos are available from 11-3:30 pm while the dinner menu is available all day long. Kậu Ba checks guests’ and employees’ temperatures upon entry, uses single-use paper menus, keeps hand sanitizer strategically located, and sanitizes the well-spaced outdoor picnic tables between sittings.
Maison Pucha, 1001 Studewood: Weekend brunch at this Heights-area establishment starts at 10 am. Arriving when it opens is recommended, as not all of the patio tables have equal shade by day. In the evening, most tables are shaded, with the premium picks located along the front of the restaurant. A masked bull statue greets guests; a friendly reminder to wear masks when going inside. Stay cool outside with the Watermelon Salad, freshly shucked oysters, ceviche and gazpacho. The restaurant offers both savory and sweet pastries for brunch and both are worth the calories. Unlike the food menus, the wine list is not single-use but the server stated that it is cleaned when guests request it. Hand sanitizer is available at the host stand.
One Fifth Houston, 1658 Westheimer: Originally without outdoor seating, chef/owner Chris Shepherd and staff solved the problem at this upscale restaurant by installing a new tent in the parking lot. Though guests must enter the building to speak with the host and pass through to get seated, they will find hand sanitizer and disposable paper masks at the door. Glass dividers separate inside tables, tempting diners to stay. This establishment is going above and beyond with touch-free scannable QR code menus, hand sanitizer provided at the table, bathrooms and shared surfaces sanitized at least every 30 minutes with napkins and silverware provided in heat-sealed bags. They also have the highest level of valet service that I have observed thus far, with steering wheels, key fobs, and door handles (both inside and out) thoroughly cleaned by the masked and gloved valet, though you can choose to self park. Due to the exceptionally cautious protocol, outside diners may find the tent almost empty on weeknights as diners opt for inside tables.
While One Fifth is known for changing cuisines every year, (this year was supposed to be the beginning of a concept called “Lightning Round”), for now the popular Mediterranean menu has returned. While Shepherd is known for his meaty dishes, vegetarians can also find a lot to enjoy on this menu. Top picks for a light summer meal include hummus and the Muhamara Red Pepper Dip with freshly made pita, cold pearl couscous, Fattoush Watermelon Salad and the Kibbeh Nayyeh, a tartare-style dish made from beets. The restaurant also boasts an excellent wine list — with eclectic options ranging from very affordable to splurge-worthy — alongside an array of beer, cider and refreshing cocktails
Roma, 2347 University: The large covered deck at Roma’s entrance provides ample shade for an al fresco dinner. The menu features authentic versions of Southern Italian staples, such as spaghetti carbonara and mozzarella in carrozza (a decadent breaded and fried cheese sandwich), along with multiple seafood options such as octopus salad, fried calamari and shrimp, and whole fish carved tableside. Meat eaters will find chicken, lamb and veal entrées, and all are easily paired with the Italian wine list. Employees are masked and gloved, disinfection and cleaning (which was already fastidious before) is increased and employees are now trained on protecting both customers and themselves. Owner Shanon Scott also states on the website, “We will ensure our staff does not feel pressured to work while ill due to financial reasons.”
Savoir, 1344 Yale: The patio at this casual-yet-chic restaurant in The Heights is the perfect place to enjoy a weekday lunch or weekend brunch. The sunlight coming through the surrounding trees creates a dappled dining setting while knee-height fans ensure a low and steady breeze. The pastries are not to be missed at brunch and the menu offers something for everyone with light options like the soft scramble with Prosciutto and Parmesan on a slice of grilled brioche to more hearty choices like the Brie Burger or Brisket Hash. The restaurant opens at 1 p.m. on Tuesday through Friday and features a Happy Hour menu with nice prices on wines by the glass — ideal for pairing with salads, pastas, pizzas and more. Safety measures include employees wearing gloves for food and beverage service along with frequent hand-washing and glove-changing requirements, less-frequent table checks while guests are eating to ensure better social distancing and disposable menus. Bathrooms are cleaned hourly and patio tables are more than six feet apart. The inside beckons guests as well. Savoir has chosen to serve at a third of capacity rather than increasing to the fifty percent allowed in order to ensure better spacing between tables.
Tips for the best al fresco dining experiences: dress in lightweight and comfortable clothing to make staying cool a breeze. Make reservations in advance and request shaded tables at that time. Choose days and/or times that are traditionally less busy to make social-distancing easier. For example, consider going to lunch Monday through Wednesday, make Tuesday evening the new Saturday night and remember that Saturday brunch is usually less busy than Sunday.
Keep in mind that restaurant employees may be nervous about guests in these turbulent times as well, so be appreciative and polite, wear your mask when not eating or drinking and tip accordingly. These are difficult times for everyone. In addition, for diners who would prefer eating at home, many of these restaurants also offer takeout and delivery.