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Houston's Oldest Restaurants

I'm borrowing this topic from the Austin board because I found it interesting. This year, I've made an effort to visit Houston's oldest restaurants to see for myself what gives them such longevity. So I've been to Triple A (1942), Barbecue Inn (1946), Gaido's in Galveston (1911), and this week hit Doyle's for Italian food (1954). I've also been to Dot Coffee Shop (1960's), Swinging Door BBQ (1973), Brennan's (1967), Churrasco's (Bissonet store opened 1980's). Help me out, what have I missed?

Triple A Restaurant
2526 Airline Dr, Houston, TX 77009

Barbecue Inn
116 W Crosstimbers St, Houston, TX 77018

Swinging Door
3714 Fm 359 Rd, Richmond, TX 77406

Dot Coffee Shop
7006 Avenue I, Houston, TX 77011

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  1. James Coney Island has been here since the late eighteenth century. Ninfa's on Navigation, opened in 1973. I started going in 1974 and quit going about two years ago. They proudly tout themselves as being the "original," but there's nothing original about it. We had carnitas, and while we were told that we could have them the old way, the chef added nutmeg or something to screw them up. Yes, they now have a chef, I guess it's progress for some, but I prefer the original.

    Others that I've been going to a while but not sure of how old some are:

    Frenchy's on Scott

    El Jardin Harrisburg,1975

    Big Humphreys, formerly Park Place, now Pearland

    Monument Inn, 1974, moved down the street to the old Lynchburg Crossing on the ship channel

    Antonio's Flying Pizza on Hillcroft, 1971, still my favorite pizza

    Goode Co. on Kirby late 70's, back when it was good

    Flying Saucer Pies near BBQ Inn, always worth a stop afterward

    Merida Mexican on Navigation, nachos with chorizo. Yes!

    1 Reply
    1. re: James Cristinian

      I just looked up Merida, 1972. They pre-date Ninfa's by a year. I hope they outlast them. I had a fly in the wall situation there once while sitting alone next to a group of Hispanic East End power brokers. They were going around the table debating support or lack of for Orlando Sanchez for mayor. Turned out he was a bit too conservative for the folks gathered. I also just remembered the wife and me sitting next to George Lopez at Ninfa's back when it was good. We left him alone, but afterward the waiters posed for pictures and autographed menus, while a young firefighter brought an HFD shirt from the firestation across the street.

    2. Don Carlos, Christy's, Pappy's, Bonnie's, Tookie's

      Don Carlo's Restaurant
      8385 Broadway St, Houston, TX 77061

      Tookie's Restaurant
      1202 Bayport Blvd, Seabrook, TX 77586

      1. I just dug through my menu box and came up with these:

        Mason Jar, 1973

        Pappy's next to Mason Jar 80's, in the erstwhile Ruby Red's Steakbuger building

        Kim Son downtown, 80's?

        Red Snapper Inn Surfside, 80's. We go after, or before, a trip to Galveston and avoid the hated Gulf Freeway. Fresh seafood po boys with home fries. I get the fish and ask for extra shrimp and oysters on the side.

        El Gallo Gessner, their menu says over 30 years

        Carrabba's on Kirby. Anyone know how long they've been there?

        Mario's Seawall Galveston, 1967. After wade fishing on Bolivar for hours I order a pizza to go while on the hated ferry, and usually have enough eaten by the time I hit the Causeway for the trip home on the hated Gulf Freeway, (see above.)

        Hong Kong Chef Bellaire, been there forever. Shrimp Kew, egg rolls and won ton soup plus extra to go of all to enjoy for days.

        3 Replies
        1. re: James Cristinian

          I was going to put Hong Kong Chef but only started eating there about 5 years ago so didn't know how long it had been there. Love that place!!

          Hong Kong Chef
          5112 Bissonnet St, Bellaire, TX 77401

          1. re: texasredtop

            I've been going since the late 70's and I don't think the place has changed at all. In fact, even back then it looked like it had been open forever.

          2. re: James Cristinian

            Carrabbas should be 85. I ate there the second day. Location was a ahem " news" stand before.

          3. A few more and I'll shut up:

            Old school TexMex: Loma Linda on Telephone. A b4ueat reviewer said almost 50 years.

            Casa Dominguez, 70's? Moved from Bissonnett to Bellaire.

            Los Tios, 1970

            Bay Area:

            T Bone Toms 1974

            Joe Lee's, 70's?

            1. If you are looking for some of Houston's oldest eats (not always in it's original location) you have to also look at:

              James Coney Island actually was in the early '20's
              Prince's Hamburgers early '30's
              Christie's (orig was in Galveston but has been in Houston since the late '30's.
              Cleburne Cafeteria sometime in the early '40's
              Molina's early '40's

              Just to name a few

              Cleburne Cafeteria
              3606 Bissonnet St, Houston, TX 77005

              6 Replies
              1. re: rondl

                I'm not so much interested in the franchised concepts, like JCI, Princes and Molinas. I did get to Christie's but not Clebune. @James, I didn't know Mario's Seawall was that old, it's a favorite of ours. Also did Mason Jar and Pappy's this year. I'm doing better than I realized!

                Mason Jar
                9005 Katy Fwy, Houston, TX 77024

                1. re: Lambowner

                  Holy mackerel Lambsy. I just double checked my Mario's menu, and the 61st street location has been there since 1967, not the Seawall one. At one time they were owned by different people, now I'm not so sure. The Smecas owned the one on 61st, but last time I was in the Seawall location I think I saw the name Smeca there. I'm so confused. Anyway, the 61st street location does a great buffet, good pizza with a great variety of mains and sides, not your standard buffet fare. I usualy don't like buffets, but this one is really good.

                  1. re: James Cristinian

                    A waiter at the seawall location told us the 61st street location is owned by the father of the seawall owner. Haven't yet been to the 61st street location. It's shrimp-fest weekend in Galveston, may try to get there tomorrow.

                  2. re: Lambowner

                    Molinas is entirely family owned, 2 locations, no franchises.
                    All JCI stores are company owned; same with Princes, there are no franchisees.

                    1. re: dexmat

                      From MY TABLE's SIDE DISH newsletter I received today:

                      "Houston’s oldest family-owned and -operated Tex-Mex restaurant, Molina’s Cantina, just opened its new location at 3801 Bellaire Blvd. at Braes Heights Shopping Center. This location replaces Molina’s long-time West University eatery that was at Buffalo Speedway and Bissonnet. It was closed four years ago when the site was cleared for the Buffalo H*E*B. "

                      What a coinkydink.

                      1. re: dexmat

                        I stand corrected! Thanks! And Doobs, a friend was at the opening of the Braes Hights location recently, and he dined along with George and Babs Bush that night. EVERYONE loves Tex-Mex!

                  3. Ninfa's on Navigation (1973); Sonny's Place in Galveston (1944 and with probably the best food, overall, on the island).

                    3601 Kirby Dr, Houston, TX 77098

                    Sonny's Place
                    1206 19th St, Galveston, TX 77550

                    1. We just did Dot two weeks ago. I'll post a review on Doob's I love Houston thread.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: James Cristinian

                        Please do, I've only been for breakfast, but it was good!

                      2. Don't forget to try Dinner Bell Cafeteria on Lawndale. It has been around since the 60s.

                        Dinner Bell Cafeteria
                        6525 Lawndale St, Houston, TX 77023

                        1 Reply
                        1. Today I went to Cleburne's Cafeteria (1941) for lunch, but didn't eat. I stood in line for what seemed like a long time considering the line wasn't all that long, but the average age is very very high and the number of folks with mobility aids is also. So I passed the time looking at the pictures of the baptisms of seemingly every Cleburne out there (photo 1). Finally I got to the salads and a number of them looked really good, but I settled for deviled eggs ($1.85) in anticipation of the mains. As usual in cafeterias, I just blurt out whatever I am thinking and ordered chicken fried chicken. It's the pressure of being "NEXT!" that gets to me. So they throw a piece of chicken on the plate and I said "are you sure that's CFC?" "YES! Potatoes, rice or beans?", they demanded urgently. "Uh, potatoes?" The cooked veg looked good, especially the spinach which I love at Luby's so I waited until the veg person noticed me and ordered that. Grabbed a glass of pre-poured tea in a small glass and slid on down to the cashier.

                          "$14.58!" I whipped out my debit card and she just stared at it. "Cash or checks!' Took out my wallet and produced a lone $5.00 bill. :( "Check!" she said. "I don't carry checks." (who takes checks anymore?). Long pause. Line backing up. People staring. "Give me that card! I'll take it to the back. Go sit down. I'll find you to return it. Next time, bring cash!" Wow, schooled.

                          I found a small table in the corner and seasoned the spinach with pepper juice (picture 2). The CFC didn't look like a CFC, it looked like a sauteed and/or baked, unhammered chicken breast, and it was. Too tough to cut, I managed to give it the ole college try and was able to scissor off a few small pieces from the edges with a serrated knife while enjoying the original recording of "Moon River." I dipped it in ketchup as well as the bland white gravy, but no dice: it was not edible. Man's primal jaw strength is no match for this chicken. By then, the potatoes had formed a single hard ball and the spinach had a strange taste that was so not Luby's. I ate the eggs, sipped some tea and skeedaddled, stopping for a sandwich on the way back from whence I started.

                          If I had to do it again, I'd maybe try their navy bean soup which they apparently always have, and more of the salads at the beginning of the line. The popular dish today was something called "French Spaghetti" which looked like spaghetti noodles mixed with crumbled hamburger and topped with cheese. And everyone got about 3/4 lb. of the stuff, an entire dinner plate piled wide and high. The portions here are enormous. A "piece" of cake is like 1/4 of a cake. I knew this because some of my friends who are sharing their golden years tell me they go here every Sunday after church and order one main dish between them, and then take the leftovers home for the next meal and sometimes Monday's lunch too. I see what they mean.

                          And she found me to return my card despite the packed dining room.

                          1. Someone above mentioned Molina's. I had lunch there today and their menu says "Since 1941".

                            (That's 70 years to you and me.)

                            3 Replies
                              1. re: Lambowner

                                My deepest apologies if I've caused offense.

                                1. re: DoobieWah

                                  Sorry, didn't meant for that to be so abrupt. :X Shut my mouth.

                            1. From this months My Table Magazine-Houston Classic;

                              Niko Nikos -1977
                              Orig Ninfa's-1973
                              Quisie's Table-1973
                              Brenner"s Steakhouse 1936
                              Pico's (love there mole)-1984
                              Backstreet Cafe-1983

                              Pico's Restaurant
                              5941 Bellaire Blvd, Houston, TX 77081

                              Niko Niko's
                              2520 Montrose Blvd, Houston, TX 77006

                              4 Replies
                                1. re: bornie

                                  Haven't received My Table in the mail yet. Is this the cover story? Yea! We think alike.

                                  1. re: bornie

                                    I visited Niko Niko's this week and being a Bibas fan, I had never been before. Best gyro and fries I think I've ever had. Lots of lamb/beef meat, lots of tzatziki and the fries, oh, so good. Hand cut, double fried and served finger burning hot. And a great patio with misters for warm weather. At lunch, they handed me a beeper after I ordered and told me it would be 25 minutes, but it went off just about 3 minutes later. I noticed some waiting a long tome. The line to order consistently reached the entrance to the restaurant, or about 15 people.

                                    Niko Niko's
                                    2520 Montrose Blvd, Houston, TX 77006

                                    1. re: bornie

                                      I went to Brenner's a few times back in the day. Now that it has been taken over by Tilman Fertitta and his Landry's conglomerate, I won't darken the door.

                                    2. The Pappas family opened The Brisket House (now Pappas BBQ) in 1976, Pappas Seafood House in 1980, and Pappasito's not long after. Not a huge fan, but they know how to make money.

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: James Cristinian

                                        I remember that first Pappasito's I believe it was on Richmond. What a zoo it was. The wait was always two hours and the margaritas flowed long before you could order, resulting in raucous times...

                                        1. re: Lambowner

                                          Yes indeed Richmond, exactly as I remembered it. We usually went around 2 pm to avoid the crowds.

                                      2. How about Vargo's?? I remember being taken there in the 60s and was so impressed by the grounds. Have no idea what it's like now, but the setting was so pretty.......

                                        Vargo's Restaurant
                                        2401 Fondren Rd, Houston, TX 77063

                                        4 Replies
                                        1. re: Ms Ghost

                                          I haven't been there since prom night sometime around 30 years ago! I should go, they have peacock's I think still on the premises. As I recall, it was family style service. Thanks for the suggestion.

                                          1. re: Lambowner

                                            Vargo's is an interesting case.

                                            We went there a few times back in the day, (the 80's), but it never really clicked with us. For one thing, it was full of old people, (you know 30+).

                                            I haven't been back since although I pass right by it several times a week.

                                            I actually asked my buddy a couple of years ago if he ever went there or even knew anyone who did. He said "No".

                                            And yet, it's still there so someone is eating their food. I will be watching to see what you think.

                                            As for the peacocks, my aunt and uncle use to live in he subdivision to the north. They had a big open yard surrounded by trees and the peacocks loved the privacy of their backyard. But they are LOUD!

                                            Vargo's Restaurant
                                            2401 Fondren Rd, Houston, TX 77063

                                            1. re: DoobieWah

                                              Yes, went to a wedding there in the late 80's & you could barely hear the vows since the peacocks were stirred up & screaming. Ate there a few other times and I'd say the food was okay, but it was more a place that people (at least those I knew) went for the ambiance & service.

                                              1. re: DaTulip

                                                The website suggests it is mostly used for functions now. They only take parties of 20+ at lunch, at least for this month.

                                        2. La Plaza on Long Point and Bingle has been around since 1964. I went today with my wife and best friend, and I must admit, I am not a fan. I had pancakes and overcooked bacon, served ten minutes after the pancakes. I'm not usually a service whiner, but it was really bad, with other problems. I've been three times, had enchiladas, fair, milanesa, fair, and the pancakes and bacon. I like the .47 cent pancakes from PanKits better than this stuff. The wife and friend liked their egg concotions, but I am not an egg fan. Then there is the Robb Walsh review in the Houston Press a few years ago. Walsh acted like it was a religious experience, even my friend, who is a regular asked, " Are we in the same Restaurant?" He also touted the homemade flour tortillas, which are in plain view in their package next to the cook. I know he has a big following, just count me out.


                                          1. I moved to Galveston in 1969, shortly after meeting (in the Philippines) and marrying a Galvestonian. Lived there for about a year. I remember having a great many tasty meals at the Original Mexican Cafe and being told that it was over 50 years old, then. It's still there. That's got to be deserving of a spot on your "oldest restaurants" list.

                                            Original Mexican Cafe
                                            1401 Market St, Galveston, TX 77550

                                            1. Well, I think I hit most of your suggestions during 2011! Happy New Year! Many thanks! I need a new "project" for 2012!

                                              2 Replies
                                              1. re: Lambowner

                                                I've been wanting to do a cookbook since I retired. I hope this year I will get to it. It will be my favorite recipes and I hope to get some down on paper that I have just put together the dish for decades and don't know the specific amounts of ingredients. I have my folders set up, a template so they will all look the same and even a few recipes in the folders. But I can't seem to get it going full steam. I'm going to put them in a three ring binder, in protected sheets and copy them off for friends. I've been asked by a few people to do this even before they knew I was thinking of it.

                                                1. re: texasredtop

                                                  Great idea. My mother did that for gifts one Christmas and included recipes from other family members and friends with pictures of them next to the recipes. I pull it out often, even when in the mood for the oddly named, "Golden Gate Lasagna" which includes ingredients that might make the average foodie shriek in horror. But hey, it was the 60's. Peace, man.