I see how it is – float an idea to the Houston Press’ food critic, and all of a sudden it’s
I’m really looking forward to reading [this blog] on a regular basis after a discussion with new blogger Eric Sandler yesterday about “the useful restaurant” that doesn’t get accolades for its food but is nevertheless comfortable, serviceable and, well, useful.
Now I guess it’s put up or shut up. Thanks Katharine.
I’m sure there are people out there who constantly chase new dining experiences. Hell, I can even think of one or two. While I’m open to checking out some new hot spot, the reality is that I mostly cycle between about ten favorite restaurants. They don’t necessarily serve the best food in Houston, but they all meet my needs in various ways. They are, in a word, useful.
What makes a restaurant useful? There are a few qualities that all of my favorites have in common. Let me examine them one at a time.
First of all, a useful restaurant is one that’s close to home. It doesn’t have to be close enough to walk to, although that helps, but it should be reasonably close by. A restaurant that’s close allows me to make a last-minute decision to dine there. I like that flexibility. It also means a decreased likelihood for traffic tie ups and the associated potential aggravation of driving a long distance.
In addition to proximity, a useful restaurant should also be welcoming, or, to recall my D&D days, at least neutral in its alignment. I’m not asking anyone to remember my name or my favorite order, just pretend that you’re happy I’m there and have an opinion about whether that day’s special is particularly worthy. Also, since I’m a Target polo and jeans kind of guy, a useful restaurant is casual. If I have to go for khakis or a button-down, you’re instantly relegated to special occasion only status.
Finally, there’s the food. A useful restaurant needs to have food that rates as pretty good. It doesn’t have to be great. It certainly can’t be bad. At least, it can’t be all bad. In fact, most of my usual haunts have one or two dishes that I order again and again. They’re usually true comfort classics like spaghetti and meatballs or beef with broccoli. Not the sort of stuff one would drive across town for. While such pedestrian dishes might not earn me foodie cred points, I think it’s tasty. Also, not to be too obvious, but a generous portion that leaves me with leftovers for lunch the next day helps, too. Finally, it should be reasonably priced. Ideally, I want dinner for two to cost no more than $30.
Perhaps my favorite useful restaurant is Paulie’s. At the risk of offending the staff, I wouldn’t say Paulie’s is among Houston’s best restaurants, and I think that’s a general consensus among my friends. I can’t, for example, ever recall seeing someone celebrate a birthday or other special occasion there. However, it meets all of my needs in a restaurant just about perfectly. It’s close enough to home that I could walk there if I expanded my definition of “walking distance.” It’s casual, counter-service style makes it perfect for a quick bite or dinner alone.
Then there’s the food. One look at the menu shows they aren’t redefining Houston’s understanding of Italian food. Still, there are plenty of thoughtful touches. Whether it’s the chunky gazpacho or homemade sorbet, Paulie’s food is always better than it has to be. Although my usual order is spaghetti and meatballs, I treasure my rare Saturday night visits. That’s when they serve a special of spaghetti vongole. Considering my usual experience with that dish is a mess of finely chopped clams of unknown provenance, seeing the actual animals in the shell constitutes going above and beyond in my book.
If you’re live in or near Montrose and are bored with your usual restaurant choices, check out Paulie’s. Stick to the basic stuff on the menu. Save room for dessert. I think you’ll enjoy it. I’d tell you to tell them I sent you, but they probably wouldn’t know who you’re talking about. That’s ok. It’s still useful.