I was out with a couple of food writer friends a couple of weeks ago at a fancy-pants Italian restaurant when first one and then the other began to rhapsodize about the Houston's in Washington, D.C.'s tony Georgetown neighborhood. "That restaurant is really good," said one. "You're right," the other, a respected restaurant critic, replied. "Houston's is a really good restaurant."
"If it's so good," I asked, "why haven't you ever reviewed or even written about it?"
My friend hesitated before stammering, "I would have if a new Houston's would open up." A punt of an answer if I ever heard one.
I quickly changed the subject. Let's face it. Chain restaurants in big cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco get a bad rap because, well, they're links in a chain. That's not to say that more often than not, the food at chain restaurants leaves something to be desired. But the category as a whole doesn't get a fair shake from critics. I first wrote about this in July, when Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant critic Craig Laban surprised me by reviewing the new Legal Seafoods location in Philly. The fact is that slightly fancy sit-down chain restaurants are almost never written about because they are chains. Critics want to write about people, not corporate concepts. Is this fair? Is this right?
When I was consulting for the Discovery Networks a few years ago, I would frequently eat at the Houston's in Bethesda, Maryland. It was then that I realized that the food at Houston's was mighty tasty, carefully cooked, and made with good ingredients.
I remember coming back to New York from these trips and telling my food critic and writer friends about the great pork chop, the phenomenal burger, and the killer spinach and artichoke dip at Houston's. They would all shrug their shoulders as if to say "so what."
Fast forward to this past week. I took two of my fellow Serious Eaters to a Houston's here at 27th Street and Park Avenue. We went for lunch at 2 p.m. because, even though many people thought Houston's would not succeed in New York, a city where personal, individual restaurants rule the gustatory roost, Houston's is crazy popular, and if you go to eat lunch there at 12:45, you will wait in line.
We ordered the spinach and artichoke dip, a cheeseburger, a Famous French Dip Au Jus, the seared tuna steak, the barbecue ribs, and a warm five-nut sundae from our exceedingly solicitous and knowledgeable waiter.
The spinach and artichoke dip was addictive. If a friend would serve you something this tangy and creamy and green at a dinner party, you would be thrilled.
The cheeseburger was awesome, cooked as ordered (medium-rare), served with melted cheddar cheese, lettuce, and onion on a toasted egg bun. The fries that came with the burger were cut a little thinly for my taste, but they were properly cooked and salted.
The French dip sandwich would have been really good if the French roll wasn't so cottony soft and tasteless. It came with a terrific couscous made with almonds and raisins.
The barbecued pork ribs were really tasty. They were not smoked, but they were meltingly tender with a saucy, caramelized exterior. The accompanying coleslaw was a creamy, slightly tangy delight. It may be the best coleslaw I've had in a while.
The seared tuna steak was a real disappointment. It was clumps of sliced rare ahi tuna that should have remained unsliced until we cut into it.
The five-nut brownie was warm, made with good chocolate, a shot of espresso, a scoop of Sedutto vanilla ice cream, warm caramel sauce, and came in a totally superfluous pool of Champagne custard.
All in all, a solid one-star meal carefully conceived and executed. Honest food made by people who care. Unfortunately, it's one you'll never read about in places like New York or Los Angeles magazines or in the San Francisco Chronicle.
The food in a Houston's is cooked by a person and not a machine. At the Houston's I went to there's even a line on the printed menu that says who the chef is.
So what's your favorite slightly fancy, sit-down chain restaurant? To qualify, the chain has to be in at least two states, cost more than $25 a person for a meal, and have more than ten branches. Steakhouses don't count.