Close by is Hotel Derek, my home for the first two nights. Favored by gay travelers, this chic 312-room retreat features chicken-fried quail, prosciutto-wrapped chilis, and other “upscale Southern” fare at its Revolve Kitchen + Bar. Tasty, too, were the sweeping panoramas from my “Big Texas” penthouse suite, including Downtown’s distant skyscraper core; the adjacent Galleria, king of Houston’s shopping districts; and ROD below. Far on the horizon was NRG Park, stage for my next outing: the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.
While Houston is not a cowboy town, everybody dresses the part for the three-week Rodeo, an annual tradition since 1932 and largest event of its kind in the world. Held at the NRG Park sports and convention complex, where retractable roof NRG Stadium is host venue for the 2017 Super Bowl, “The Greatest Show on Dirt” has it all, including championship rodeo, Ben Hur-style wagon races, nightly entertainment, stock shows, and carnival rides.
Guiding the way was A.J. Mistretta, senior public relations manager for the Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau and driving force behind the bureau’s My Gay Houston platform, launched in 2010.
“In years past, people saw Houston as a business town, not a place to take a trip,” he said as we navigated the crowds. “The fourth-biggest city in the country was invisible to many, but now, our strong culinary landscape, thriving art scene, vibrant nightlife, expanding green spaces, and eclectic culture are making Houston the hot emerging spot.” He added that, “despite some stereotypes that come with being a Texas city, Houston is a very progressive, diverse, and open-minded place—one that the LGBT community is enjoying.”
We met up with a crew of gay locals and visitors sporting red “Out at the Rodeo” T-shirts, marking the grassroots organization’s inaugural appearance at the event. The gathering was a modest but proud first step in the group’s mission to create an organized LGBT presence at the Rodeo.
Houston is also Brunch City (my contribution to the lexicon). Count A.J. among the boys who brunch, as I joined him and a dozen friends the next day for a leisurely long-table affair at Gloria’s in Midtown. Over breakfast tacos and jalapeno margaritas, the group shared some favorite stops on their regular Sunday circuit.
These include nearby Holley’s Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar, a great catch for gumbo and other Gulf goodies. On the rising Washington Avenue corridor, Beaver’s is a gastro-pub (housed in a former icehouse) from celebrated lesbian chef Monica Pope.
Named after a Slavic witch, Baba Yega is a Montrose oasis from 1975. With outdoor seating front and back, including a garden with fishpond, waterfall, and fountains, it’s for people-watching, mimosas, and diverse vegan, vegetarian, and other food options.
Also in Montrose, The Pass & Provisions is where brunch-loving 2016 James Beard semi-finalists Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan deliver yummy biscuits and gravy, bread pudding French toast, and customized bloody Mary’s, mimosas, and cocktails.
Other good options include Max’s Wine Dive, which serves brunch most days, pairing bubbles and fine wines with decadent bites like the “RVP ,” three red velvet pancakes topped with lemon cream cheese frosting. For chicken and waffles with a Vietnamese twist and other treats, Les Ba’Get is the go-to for all-day breakfast.
Resuming my traverse of the city’s top establishments with Mark Sullivan produced three wonders, starting with tres magnifique Étoile Cuisine et Bar. Never mind the Uptown Park strip mall location–this farmhouse-inspired space is Houston’s Gallic go-to.
After working at seven Michelin-starred restaurants in France, Philippe Verpiand, a Master Chef of France, moved to San Diego with his wife Monica. Following a decade-plus there, they uprooted for Houston, perceiving better opportunity, and opened Étoile in 2012.
I echo Houston’s merci. Evoking my best dining memories of Paris, the Côte d’Azur, and Verpiand’s native Provence, each plate, from escargots and beef tartare to mussels in white wine and the spicy merguez “Unsandwich” to seafood risotto and apple tart tatin, was a “plat de résistance.” In May, the couple announced a new venture, Brasserie du Parc. Slated to open this fall, the authentic French brasserie will overlook Downtown’s urban Discovery Green park and feature a full-service crêperie.