By Andrew Collins
Originally published on Advocate.com September 15 2009 9:00 AM ET
Houston’s abundance of fortune 500 headquarters (only New York City has more of them) draws corporate hot shots and industrious conventioneers to this larger-than-life metropolis that covers an area nearly the size of L.A. and Chicago combined. But beyond the city’s gleaming office towers lies a landscape of astoundingly fine restaurants and shops, and a robust arts- and science-driven museum scene that’s among the world’s most esteemed.
When it comes to letting the good times roll, Houstonians are as spirited and friendly as their Cajun Louisiana neighbors to the east, and this attitude is especially apparent in Montrose, one of the nation’s largest gay-identified neighborhoods. Beyond this enclave of see-and-be-seen restaurants and saucy nightspots you’ll find plenty of temptation to sneak away from whatever business obligations may have lured you to Houston, from the cultural riches of the Museum District to the tony boutiques of Uptown and the Galleria development.
Houston’s hippest digs are inside the swanky and sexy Hotel Icon (220 Main St.; 713-224-4266), a fashionable neoclassical tower that garners as much attention for the bold design of its 135 posh rooms and suites as for its critically acclaimed amenities. Let the ace massage team at Balance Day Spa knead your laptop-knotted muscles into jelly before you convene with cohorts at Voice Restaurant and Lounge to savor creatively prepared seafood and steak. Around the corner the intimate Alden-Houston Hotel (1117 Prairie St.; 877-348-8800) has just 97 elegantly minimalist units -- all with granite bathrooms and capacious tubs for two. The Alden’s stylish *17 Restaurant, with its sexy crimson-and-cream color scheme and locavore-intensive menu, earns kudos among foodies and scenesters.
In the Museum District, not far from Montrose, the chic Hotel Zaza (5701 Main St.; 888-880-3244) includes 315 rooms with marble and stone accents and step-out balconies overlooking the neighborhood’s leafy parks. Splurge on one of the poolside bungalows, perfect for sun-worshippers. Traditionalists eschew the aforementioned havens of hipness in favor of the classically luxurious Houstonian Hotel, Club, and Spa (111 N. Post Oak Lane; 713-680-2626), a superrefined haunt of old-money Texans surrounded by 18 acres of piney woodlands. The service is exceptional and discreet, and the beautifully outfitted Houstonian exercise club and Trellis Spa keep fitness buffs buff.
Convention Exit Strategy
It should come as no surprise that one of the nation’s leading hubs of commerce should be impressively endowed culturally, but first-time visitors are still often taken aback by the world-class caliber of Houston’s museums and performance spaces. You’ll find some of the best of these in the Museum District. Here the poignant Holocaust Museum (5401 Caroline St.; 713-942-8000) aims to educate visitors about the perils of prejudice against minorities, including gay people. The Museum of Fine Arts (1001 Bissonnet St.; 713-639-7300) is another stalwart -- it’s one of the world’s largest art collections, with 60,000 works from every corner of the globe. But it’s one of the MFA’s satellite facilities, the tranquil Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens (1 Westcott St.; 713-639-7750) that especially deserves a visit. This rambling 1920s mansion contains 28 rooms whose painstakingly assembled contents reflect every era of American decorative arts from the early 17th through late 19th centuries. Outside you can amble about the acres of manicured lawns and gardens.
A short drive from the buzzing gay nightclubs and cafés of Montrose you’ll find one of Houston’s hidden gems, the Menil Collection (1515 Sul Ross St.; 713-525-9400), a striking postmodern structure set along an otherwise genteel, tree-shaded street of vintage cottages. Inside you can tour a phenomenal trove of postwar art, including seminal works by Warhol, Picasso, Magritte, and countless other modernist luminaries. It’s a short walk from here to the celebrated Rothko Chapel (3900 Yupon; 713-524-9839), an austere 1971 sanctuary hung with 14 enormous paintings created by Mark Rothko specifically for this space.
Literally within the shadows of the hulking George R. Brown Convention Center you’ll find the sensational Grove Restaurant (1611 Lamar St.; 713-337-7321) anchoring the city’s leafy new urban park, Discovery Green. Movers and shakers convene inside this sleek glass-walled restaurant to dine on braised-lamb tamales and wood-grilled salmon. On an unassuming street in up-and-coming Midtown, fabulously talented chef Monica Pope leads the kitchen at T’afia (3701 Travis St.; 713-524-6922). Her “passionately local” menu draws on the Lone Star State’s freshest ingredients, from pistachio-crusted trout to blackberry-peach cobbler.
For stellar regional Mexican fare, head to gay-friendly Hugo’s (1600 Westheimer Rd.; 713-524-7744), which specializes in ceviches and authentic mole sauces. Always packed with scene-making Montrose locals, Empire Café (1732 Westheimer Rd.; 713-528-5282) fits the bill for filling, creative fare throughout the day, from gingerbread waffles to bounteous salads and pastas -- in warm weather, grab a seat on one of the two breezy patios. Wherever you eat your main course, save room for dessert at the sole Houston outpost of the Austin-based cult favorite ice cream parlor Amy’s (3816 Farnham St.; 713-526-2697). The innovative flavors, which rotate regularly, include Mexican vanilla as well as a bourbon-chocolate-walnut that will definitely make your head spin.