Rice is situated near the heart of Houston, which boasts some of the best and most diverse eating options in the country. Not only that, the nation's fourth largest city is also among the most inexpensive metros surveyed by Zagat.
Though contemporary Houston has been built around the automobile, thankfully for Rice students, the western edge of the campus is about a block from the Rice Village, a collection of retail and specialty shops, bars, and a number of restaurants in wide array of ethnicities.
Chinese, Cuban, French, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Thai, Turkish and Vietnamese eateries are represented, and often more than one of each, plus there are several cafés including a dedicated crêperie. The Village, as it is commonly known, caters mostly to the surrounding well-heeled residential neighborhoods and the staff of the sprawling, nearby Medical Center, including its restaurants. This translates to a level of quality higher than is typically found around a university campus, but some values still exist. This is Houston, after all.
There is a light rail stop just east of Rice allowing for easy access to the dining and nightlife options of Midtown and downtown. And, when some has a car—half of the upperclassmen do—you have entrée to the scores of appealing restaurants a few-minute drive away on Kirby and in Montrose.
It might be hard to believe, but The Ginger Man was the first modern beer bar in the country way back in the mid-1980s. It's true. Set in a wood-framed house, its well-weathered and comfortable demeanor might hint at that, but, most importantly, it remains a terrific spot to down a pint from among the seventy or so choices on tap. Rice students have never been that big of a presence here, though always part of the mix among the diverse crowd. The G-Man has long been a place to enjoy a well-made beer and banter inspired or slurred, or both, during the course of a relaxed visit.
Best Lunch Buffet
There are three worthwhile contenders in the Village, but Thai Spice edges out Bombay Brasserie and Shiva, two Indian options, with its expansive all-you-can-eat lunch buffet for $9.95. Curry, pot stickers, tofu dishes, soup, satays, and even the not-at-all-Thai sushi are just part of the offerings here that will leave you well-satiated.
When you have the money to splurge for something a little nicer and more lively on Saturday or Sunday morning, there is brunch at benjy's. With a menu with something for everyone from their nut-crusted French toast, tempura-battered shrimp and grits, steak and eggs, and more than a few omelets, sandwiches and salads, most with big flavors and prices that run from about $12 to $18. The mimosas are not bottomless, but feature either blood oranges or white peaches and the atmosphere here can be conducive to consumption.
The chief attraction for many at Ruggles Cafe Bakery is the wide range of rich baked dessert items. This long-popular spot also serves a number of tasty savory options including excellent Angus beef burgers, especially the Bleu Cheese Bacon Burger.
In case you want to get off campus for coffee, you have a few options in the Village. Croissant Brioche has been around the longest. They might not be terribly friendly here—too often the stereotypical French indifference is on display—but they serve a good cup of a coffee and even better pastries to accompany them. Plus, this tidy spot has an active vibe, and usually a seat and space.
Clustered among several other storefronts on University Boulevard, The Chocolate Bar is dedicated to chocolate in its various incarnations: cakes, candies, drinks and, certainly not least, ice cream. They serve nearly two dozen delicious and usually decadent flavors, most featuring chocolate. The ever-changing array might feature the likes of Double Shot Espresso, Brownie Supreme, Orange Sunrise, Nutter Butter or Let's Go Oreo.
Rolling into the late night hunger void near campus is the Oh My Gogi! food truck. It sets up shop along "Bar Row" in front of Brian O'Niell's on Morningside from 9 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. Korean tacos featuring beef short rib, chicken or spicy pork, as well as kimchi quesadillas, and fries topped with meat and melted cheese are the bold and spicy options to satisfy your post-bar hunger pangs.
For years there were a couple of pizza joints in the Village. Now the only option is the individual-sized 10-inch pizzas at D'Amico's. Those are tasty, but for the familiar, American-sized grease-laden pies, you need to head south of campus to the tiny storefront Two Guys Pizzeria. It might not be on anyone's 'best of' lists, but it's usually friendly and convenient. Star Pizza, a short drive from campus, has long been a Rice favorite, and they deliver, too.
Brown Bag Deli and Local Foods are two other sandwich shops in the Village that you should also get to know, but Kahn's Deli and its forebear have been a part of Village life since the late 1940s. From a narrow storefront shop, it still serves the expectedly fatty and caloric made-to-order sandwiches in the Jewish-American tradition. Among the forty or so they now serve, a good reason to visit is one of the several varieties of Reubens. Each features top-notch bread that's been toasted, house-made Russian dressing, sauerkraut, and a choice among several types of meats in addition to the usual corned beef.
It's nice to have a sushi spot so close to campus when you can afford to indulge, especially as creditable a one as Kubo's. One of the few around that are actually Japanese-owned, they offer a wide-ranging menu here, but the fairly sleek restaurant is most acclaimed for the sushi and sashimi including a wide variety of rolls from traditional to those suited to local and American tastes.
When Someone Has a Car
There are countless tempting options, but a unique and value-oriented one on weekend mornings, though not too early, is Fung's Kitchen. Head straight down the Southwest Freeway and the Bellaire exit to the city's best dim sum where you can dine with several hundred others. You order from carts that roll through the packed tables topped with lazy Susans and often multi-generational families. The number of dishes available is match by the quality and value. You dine for a couple of hours for a comparative song. Be sure to get there before noon or you will have to wait.
When the Parents Are in Town
Excellent restaurants abound just a few miles from campus. Haven might be the best choice. It's a top restaurant that is not at all stuffy or pretentious. Their menu is readily accessible, but priced well beyond the student budget. The food is consistently top-notch, proudly showcasing local and regional ingredients in what it describes as "modern Texas cuisine" that has Vietnamese, Southern, Mexican, Cajun, Czech, German, and even Polish influences.
Where to Impress a Date
Though there are a handful of options in the Village for this (benjy's and Café Rabelais, too) Prego is usually the best choice because you can actually hear each other talk here. Quaint and civilized, but not stuffy, even if the fellow patrons will have a couple of decades on you, this Italian has been a favorite of discerning diners for years. The food here is flavorful and the menu should not be too difficult to decipher, either.
About the author: Mike Riccetti is a Houston-based food writer and Zagat editor. He writes frequently about restaurants, food and drink, and occasionally less important topics. Some of his previous stuff is posted at MikeRiccetti.com.