If you’ve spent anytime in Galveston, you’ve probably heard the phrase “born on the island” or BOI, the islander shorthand for it.
It’s a badge of honor for many and an unattainable aspiration for many more. I seek out BOIs and other Galveston residents, sometimes labeled IBC, or Islanders by Choice, for tips on dining. Houstonians who are regular visitors to the island (and, really, we should all be) are fairly familiar with the dining options along the two most touristy corridors in Galveston: the Strand historical district and the sunny Seawall.
I’m always happy to dive into a bowl of barbecued shrimp at the feisty Yaga's Cafe on the Strand or sip wine as I watch my mussels cook at the Saltwater Grill on Postoffice. I’m even a fan of going Greek at the stylish Olympia Grill at Pier 21. After enjoying a stroll along the seawall, there’s no better spot to take in the Gulf view than, well, The Spot, where the burgers and wings are done right. And, if I’m craving seafood, the super-casual Benno's on the Beach can’t be beat. Try the fried crab (when in season) or the Cajun oysters.
But what about the rest of the island? Surely, there’s more.
That’s when it helps to know the locals, the folks who can point you in the right direction.
Lana Landers of Coastal Dreams B&B spends much time directing guests to restaurants and island attractions.
“There are so many good places to eat here, it’s hard to just pick one or two. My all-time favorite is DiBella's. I like the atmosphere — friendly, casual, loud, local, homey, the location (it’s just a few blocks from where she lives) and the food, of course! Their Alfredo sauce is to die for, but then so is the marinade that they use on their steaks. It’s all good,” she says.
Annie Willow, owner of Happy Pretty You! Reiki Salon & Spa, offers a list of bests, including Mosquito Cafe (fresh food with flair), Miller's (breakfast with a great view), The Spot (for its burgers) and Olympia (for seafood).
Alice Melott, a writer and real estate broker who divides her time between Galveston and Atlanta, nearly gushes when it comes to the local restaurant offerings. Among her favorites are Rudy & Paco, Sky Bar, Luigi's and Mosquito Cafe.
“Possibly my favorite overall place is the new M&M Restaurant & Bar — and it gets neglected a bit because I think lots of people think it’s the same expensive fine-dining place it was before the storm,” she shared in an email. “In fact, the former chef from Rudy & Paco leads the kitchen, so it’s really, really great food (fish and steaks you can’t compete with), creative and classic (and generous) drinks, an upscale tavernlike atmosphere. And with the new ownership has come competitive pricing. I often plan parties there when we’re going dutch because I know my friends and I, from all along the financial spectrum, can each find something on the menu to enjoy.”
After some unscientific polling, here are five restaurants — in no particular order — that I heard mentioned most often. These are simply where the locals like to eat.
DiBella's Italian Restaurant
Sitting in DiBella’s during a recent lunch, I watched a good ol’ boy customer work the room like a Washington lobbyist. Having finished lunch ahead of his companions, he slowly stood up, hitched his pants and surveyed the room. Then with a quiet confidence, he circled the dining room, stopping at approximately every other table to shake hands, pat a back or lean in with a few whispered words. He saved his most demonstrative greeting — the two-handed shake — for an older gentleman sitting at the bar. While they spoke, the younger man tilted his head slightly (and using only his eyes) signaled a waitress that the gentleman’s check was on him. She answered with just the lift of a brow.
How many scenes such as this play out each day at DiBella’s, I wondered. The unassuming Italian restaurant proudly labels itself “where the locals eat.”
And eat they do: generous portions of pasta swimming in vibrantly colored red sauce, fragrant pan-fried rib-eyes and garlicky shrimp scampi.
Like the island itself, DiBella’s is a survivor. Damaged by Hurricane Ike in September 2008, the restaurant was closed for three months of rehab. Then, just weeks after reopening, it was ravaged by a fire.
The restaurant opened again in June 2009 — with its familiar collection of family and celebrity photos on the walls and the Rat Pack crooning from the speakers — and earlier this year it was awarded the first-ever Phoenix Award, recognizing its perseverance and place in the community, from the Galveston Chamber of Commerce.
Galvestonians would rather you not find Mosquito Cafe. It’s already loved nearly to death at lunchtime and on Sunday when breakfast is served all day.
Just smile and show some patience as you wait to order at the counter. Besides, the wait will offer you the opportunity to study the big menu as well as the blackboards of specials.
The dining room is airy and inviting and there is a pleasant patio for days when the weather allows.
So what to order? Salads are super fresh; top with grilled salmon and you’ve got a sensationally sinless lunch. The Warm Goat Cheese Salad with its sun-dried tomatoes, pine nut, figs and house-made vinaigrette is always a favorite. The best nonseafood sandwich on the all of the island is the Turkey Divinity. It’s a baguette filled with roasted turkey, melted brie, peppery bacon, grilled apples, fresh greens and a garlicky mayo. For dinner, watch for specials such as grilled shrimp and cheesy grits and apricot-glazed brisket.
And if that all sounds good, just wait to you see the desserts. The local fave is the Lemonade Dream Cake. I’m a fan of the red velvet.
The best part is that owners Steve and Patricia Rennick and their family recently opened a bakery right across the street. PattyCakes Bakery’s hours are roughly the same as the cafe, so you can grab some of those awesome pastries or a loaf of freshly baked bread.
Judge Roy Bean’s Coffee Saloon
Can you hug a restaurant? That’s what I want to do every time I drop by Judge Roy Bean’s, which opened in January.
It’s such a happy place: the hipster staff, the ’70s-era furniture (hey, is that my grandma’s avocado loveseat?), the heartfelt yet quirky selection of wines and the craft beers on tap.
And the coffee? Well, JRB turns to roastmaster Sean Marshall of Houston-based Fusion Beans.
Along with the usual pastries and sweet treats, owner Alison Rabinovitz likes experimenting in the kitchen. And while the menu changes daily, look for savory dishes such as pulled pork sandwiches, monte cristos and chicken pot pie. On a recent visit, whimsical artwork by Rabinovitz’s partner, Dawn Prater, hung on the walls.
The personality of the place can be summed up in a recent Facebook post by Rabinovitz: “When someone says ‘I don’t like coffee,’ I just hear ‘I hate babies, Johnny Cash and feelings like love and happiness.’ ”
The weekly calendar is designed to keep the party going. Open-mic nights for comedy and poetry, coffee and wine tastings and children’s karaoke on Sunday afternoons.
Dining at the counter at this cozy downtown cafe, I was entranced by the show unfolding before me. The orange-red wall held two deep, rectangular, black-framed windows revealing a stark white kitchen with splashes of shiny stainless steel. In the one of the windows, white bowls that held an eruption of fresh greens were being fussed over by a whiskered young cook who looked every bit the artist in the his black chef’s coat and floppy toque. When the plates were just right, he tapped a bell. And when the server disappeared with the food, he again began working on the blank canvas that was the window. Eatcetera is the gallery and its food the art.
It’s a tiny cafe and on a busy day, the servers must slide and pirouette around the tightly spaced tables. If you arrive during a slow period, you can better appreciate the understated elegance of the spare room, the global music playing softly in the background and the winsome pop art (on a recent visit, huge silhouettes of George and Jane Jetson hung on the walls) displayed about the room.
The fare is light and flexitarian-friendly and plated with a European sense of style. Consider a sandwich with grilled asparagus, slow-roasted onions and blue cheese cream or a perfectly pressed, Cuban-style panino with ham, Italian salami and Swiss cheese.
Desserts, too, are compelling: crème brûlée cheesecake and an ice cream-topped berry tart with raspberries and fresh black and red currants.
M&M Restaurant & BarM&M is a restaurant in transition. Embraced for his history, its handsome dining room and its perfectly plated, upscale cuisine, M&M is now being loved for changes that have made it more approachable and affordable.
The building dates to 1844, meaning it survived the 1900 storm. It was a grocery store for many years; the locally crafted cherry wood bar was added in 1933. It took on six feet of water during Ike in 2008 and reopened in 2010.
With its dark woods, banquettes and white tablecloths, the dining room looks a bit formal, but the staff is friendly and ready to put you at ease.
There’s live entertainment on the weekends, as well as brunch on Sundays. Island breezes make the patio a perfect spot to forget your cares with a Bloody Mary or glass of wine.
The menu is an interesting mix of steaks, sandwiches, salads and finger fare. A griddled crab cake is served with a mango salsa, a generous cup of lobster bisque is crowned with lump crab meat. On every visit, I’ve noted a friendly and well-informed staff.