Gripping the metal railing in my left hand, I carefully shuffled along the rim of the underground reservoir. It was nearly pitch black except for thin neon lights that gently ﬂickered on the cement poles in the middle of the cavernous structure, reﬂecting off the still water below. Sounds of rolling thunder echoed throughout the room, with the occasional ﬂash of lightning. It was the new installation Rain by Venezuelan artist Magdalena Fernández at the Cistern, an unused reservoir from the 1920s in Houston.
This was one of many surprises during a short visit hosted by Visit Houston to experience Avenida Houston, the city’s newly reconﬁgured convention district. Before landing at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, the two things that came to mind when I heard “Houston” were NASA and Beyoncé. Little did I know, my ﬁrst night I’d eat authentic queso topped with a “trio of insects” (actually delicious) and sip mezcal cocktails at Xochi, a chic new Mexican restaurant helmed by ﬁve-time James Beard–nominated chef Hugo Ortega.
Biggest and Best
By my second day in the city, it made sense that people refer to Houston as the “culinary and cultural capital of the South.” There are more than 10,000 restaurants showcasing all different kinds of ﬂavors from around the world, and we sampled just about all of them. We started out that day with breakfast burritos at Phoenicia Specialty Foods, a high-end market that sells items from more than 50 countries. It also serves as a home-goods store and moonlights as a karaoke bar. The MKT Bar in the back is available for special events, and upstairs, among rows of arrowroot powder and “luxury lemon curd,” there’s a space for private group activities accommodating up to 40 people.
From Phoenicia, we walked across the street to the newly renovated, 468-room Four Seasons Hotel Houston, which offers more than 16,500 square feet of meeting space. The property’s lobby underwent a multimillion-dollar revamp, and now General Manager Tom Segesta calls it “Houston’s living room” — nicely complementing nearby Buffalo Bayou Park, aka “Houston’s playground.” Long leather couches and coffee tables line the lobby, and natural light streams in through skylights three ﬂoors above. It’s right next to the hotel bar — the “longest marble bar in Texas,” Segesta told us.
This is important to Houston, where everything is the “biggest,” the “best.” It’s a city that prides itself on breaking records and setting standards. It’s on its way to being the third-largest city in the United States, and is the most racially and culturally diverse city in Texas.
After sipping bourbon sweet tea while playing a round of virtual-reality golf in the Four Seasons’ Topgolf room, we headed over to the Hilton Americas-Houston. Meeting planners were consulted during the construction of the hotel, and it shows. Two skybridges connect the property to the George R. Brown (GRB) Convention Center, and there are elevators designated just for the 27 meeting rooms in the hotel. The Hilton has two ballrooms — 26,000 square feet and 40,000 square feet. As we made our way to the convention center, we passed the Starbucks in the Hilton lobby. Yes, it’s the “largest Starbucks in Texas.”
GRB offers more than 2 million square feet of meeting space. Because Houston has one of the busiest seaports in the United States, the building originally was designed to look like a large ship, complete with porthole windows and large smokestacks. Work by local artists lines the walls, from elaborate murals to video installations. Outside GRB is Avenida Houston — the “front yard of downtown Houston,” with chairs and tables in a plaza that makes a great place for conference attendees to get away between sessions. The entire Avenida Houston campus includes GRB, Discovery Green Park, Hilton Americas-Houston, and the Marriott Marquis Houston, as well as several new restaurants along Avenida de las Americas, which runs through the area.
Finally, we toured our host hotel, the Marriott Marquis, which opened in December 2016, just in time for Super Bowl LI. We visited the luxury suite where New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft stayed the night his team narrowly beat the Atlanta Falcons, which features a private balcony overlooking the giant Texas-shaped lazy river on the hotel’s sixth ﬂoor. The Marriott Marquis offers 37 breakout rooms and 100,000 square feet of meeting space, including two ballrooms. On the ﬁrst ﬂoor, there’s a two-story sports bar called Biggio’s, named after legendary Houston Astros second baseman Craig Biggio, with two ﬂoor-to-ceiling TV screens, dozens more smaller screens, and plenty of space for private groups.
After the Marriott Marquis, we decided to check out the Cistern’s Rain exhibition. On our way back, we stopped in at Launch, a popup shop featuring local designers’ work, such as homemade soaps and hand-crafted grooming tools from the husband-and-wife duo Monica Charles, and solar-powered backpacks by Moo-Chila. Launch’s curator, Sydney Dao, had already closed up shop for the day, but without skipping a beat, she unlocked her doors and gave us a tour, explaining each and every item, the history behind it, and the designer’s story. Houston’s Southern hospitality was once again on full display. We felt at home, and that was the point.
To understand just how quickly Houston is evolving, it helps to know that all of the restaurants we went to during our trip had opened in the past four months. Downtown has been transformed from an industrial business district to a vibrant culinary and cultural hub that’s attracting more and more young residents. Leah Shah, the public-relations manager for Visit Houston, lived in Austin for 10 years before returning home to Houston. “You wouldn’t even recognize it,” she said.
We spent the night eating fresh burrata and butternut-squash pasta at the new ﬁne-Italian restaurant Potente, proving yet again that Houston is more than just really good barbecue. Afterward, we had a nightcap at OKRA (Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs) Charity Saloon, where proﬁts are donated to one of four local charities selected by OKRA members. You get a ticket for each drink you buy, and add it to the box for the charity of your choice; to date, the bar has donated more than $880,000.
Adding my ticket to a cause like the University of Houston’s Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship was the perfect way to end the trip. It felt good to give back to the city that had welcomed me so graciously.