Justin Vann has been selling wine and spirits in his native Houston for more than 11 years. He started around the age of 22, on the floor at Vic & Anthony’s Steakhouse as well as in retail and as a wine consultant for Houston-area liquor stores and restaurants. Today he’s the owner and wine buyer for Public Services Wine & Whisky in the city’s Downtown area, as well as the wine buyer for James Beard Award–winning chef Justin Yu’s Better Luck Tomorrow and Theodore Rex. Vann spends most of his days between the Public Services bar, in the old Houston Cotton Exchange Building, and at T. Rex.
While most of the nation has zeroed in on Austin as the Lone Star State’s culinary darling in recent years, Vann suggests that Houston is the state’s unsung hero when it comes to the quality and diversity of food, wine, and service. With a population of more than 2.3 million, Houston weighs in as the fourth largest city in the United States. Home to one of the country’s largest ports, as well as thriving oil, energy, health care, and aerospace industries, the so-called Space City has attracted a widely diverse populace that’s helped create its dynamic food and beverage scene.
Here, Vann shares his top picks for making the most of two days in his home city.
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Houston is home to two main airports. George Bush Intercontinental Airport is a hub for Houston’s international travelers, while William P. Hobby Airport funnels most domestic flights. For in-state travelers, commercial bus lines such as Megabus and Vonlane are considered by some to be a more efficient option for getting to Houston from Dallas or Austin.
For getting around within the city, Uber and Lyft are the best choices. “Because this is the petrochemical capital of the United States,” says Vann, “it’s built for the love of the automobile, [and] there really isn’t a reliable public transportation system.”
Where to Stay
Despite Houston’s broad geographical spread, the core areas of interest for visitors all fall inside the Loop, the area of town that’s generally circumscribed by Interstate 610. It includes the Central Business District, Downtown, Montrose, and the Heights, all areas to which Vann confines most of his social footprint.
According to Vann, each of these neighborhoods has its own feel, making Airbnb one of the more popular options for out-of-town visitors. But if you’re looking for a formal accommodation, the historic Hotel Icon in Downtown is Vann’s first suggestion. And just outside the Loop, he recommends the swanky new Post Oak Hotel at Uptown.
Where to Eat and Drink
Vann says that Houston has just about everything you could ask for food- and drinks-wise, including Sichuan cuisine at Mala Sichuan Bistro, honky-tonks like Goode Co.’s Armadillo Palace, fine dining at restaurants like Pass and Provisions, Oaxaca-inspired Mexican food at Hugo Ortega’s Xochi, and high-octane bars like Bobby Heugel’s Anvil Bar & Refuge.
Pappas Bros. Steakhouse
“In Houston,” says Vann, “steakhouses are temples of excess.” And Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, one of the city’s long-standing establishments, is in a class of its own. “This is where I first learned to appreciate dry-aged steaks,” Vann says. “But for me, their prowess is their wine team, led by Jack Mason, who recently came back after working for a while in New York. If you’re tired of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and California Cab, the classic star wines, then Pappas has really cool shit that breaks the mold of your standard steakhouse offerings.”
Vann recalls one of his most memorable food-and-wine pairings at Pappas, and it didn’t even include steak: “It was a Weingut Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Spätlese with a blue cheese wedge salad, and it was like Champagne and caviar; it was stupid how good it was.” But steakhouse dining is a rarity for Vann, who explains that the trifecta of restaurants he regularly frequents consists of Theodore Rex, where he’s the wine buyer, Coltivare, and Nancy’s Hustle.
This rustic, unpretentious Italian-inspired restaurant has garnered high praise for its Neapolitan-style pizzas, garden-fresh salads, and side dishes that feature ingredients sourced from its adjacent garden. “The cocktails at Coltivare are just as important as the food,” says Vann. For him, though, it’s the pasta, particularly the creamy, peppery cacio e pepe, that compels his regular visits: “Coltivare just has this great glutenous pot of pasta water that is the key to putting out the best version of [the dish].” Without fail, Vann doesn’t leave Coltivare without ordering a crostata for dessert. “It doesn’t matter if I’m already full and I know I’m going to hate myself afterwards,” he says. “I order one with whatever fruit is in season. I just do it.”
But Vann’s current favorite is Nancy’s Hustle. Located in the up-and-coming East Downtown district, Nancy’s is the brainchild of local bar manager Sean Jensen and restaurateur Jason Vaughan, formerly of Chicago’s Hogsalt Hospitality Group. “It’s one of the most runaway successful restaurants in Houston right now,” says Vann. “The food is simple but well executed, leveraged by the mass amount of cultured butter the kitchen keeps on hand.”
Among his favorite dishes are the gooey raclette ladled over roasted potatoes, the Nancy Cakes, an indulgent version of Southern-style cornmeal johnnycakes served with honey and green onions, and the burger, which as Vann says, better be “damn good coming from one of the burger kings of Chicago.” He adds that Nancy’s wine list is also worth checking out. “They’ve been very progressive with their menu,” he says, “pushing things like pét-nat and natural wine. I’m hearing more and more people tell me about a cool wine that they’ve encountered at Nancy’s, and if you ask me, [if they’re] getting people talking about newer styles of wine, we’re all winning.”
Vann spends most of his time in his own bar, but when he goes out for a drink he’s typically looking for a place to retreat. For him, Poison Girl is the place he can do that. This Montrose-area bar is known for its beautiful patio and eclectic decor featuring vintage erotica, whiskey memorabilia, and glamour-shot portraits of the bar staff along the wall. But mostly it’s known for its whiskey. “Poison Girl is legendary as a whiskey bar with one of the biggest selections of American whiskey in the state,” says Vann. “The move here is to get a Topo Chico and a straight whiskey from their barrel selection. If you drink a full Topo for every whiskey, you’ll be fine.”
Another of Vann’s favorite bars is Tongue-Cut Sparrow, a collaboration project of Houston bar magnate Bobby Heugel and his business partner, Peter Jahnke. Located on the second floor of Heugel’s tequila and mezcal bar, The Pastry War, the 25-seat upscale cocktail bar was designed to be reminiscent of a formal Japanese-style cocktail bar and was inspired by Huegel and Jahnke’s many travels to Japan. “They focus on the classics there,” says Vann, “but somehow, Jahnke has found a way to make them even better. I mean, when was the last time anyone ever gushed about a Rusty Nail? Never. But you will at this place. And the martinis are unbelievably focused and impressive. But the last time I was there, I was bowled over by the Silver Stallion Fizz, which is essentially a gin fizz with a scoop of housemade lemon-rosemary ice cream floating in this elegant crystal highball glass. It was absolutely perfect.”
Places to Visit
The city’s museum district is a must-visit, even on a short trip to Houston. “The art scene here is crazy,” says Vann. He also recommends visiting the Menil Collection, just outside the museum district, which features works by Cy Twombly, Dan Flavin, and other modern and contemporary artists, and the Rothko Chapel. “The Rothko Chapel is [a sacred space and] also a modern art gallery,” Vann says, “but if you only have an hour, go to the Menil. It’s the most interesting private collection of art I’ve ever seen, and it’s open to the public for free.” For a sunset light show, he adds, “the James Turrell Twilight Epiphany Skyspace installation at Rice University is really cool.”
Jessica Dupuy is a wine, spirits, and food writer based in Austin, Texas, whose credits include work in Texas Monthly, Imbibe magazine, Wine Enthusiast magazine, Sommelier Journal, and The Tasting Panel magazine and with the Guild of Sommeliers. A Certified Sommelier, Certified Specialist of Wine, and Certified Specialist of Spirits, she holds an Advanced Certificate with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. Dupuy keeps her palate sharp through travel, reading, and endless tasting.