Culture / Restaurants

Hidden Houston Area Gem Named the No. 1 Restaurant in America

Sorry Celebrity Chefs — You’ve Been Snubbed


It is the restaurant upset of all restaurant upsets, the food equivalent of Butler winning the NCAA basketball championship. A humble little deli in the shadow of Houston has been named the No. 1 restaurant in America.

And somewhere Chris Shepherd, Justin Yu and Bryan Caswell are quietly weeping into their expensive menus.

For the people have spoken — and gone with the simple and good. At least, the people who write reviews on Yelp, the often controversial but widely popular restaurant ratings service.  Tony’s Italian Delicatessen came out on top, emerging as No. 1 on Yelp’s new Top 100 Places to Eat in 2017 rankings.

The underdog deli in Montgomery got there by racking up a perfect five-star rating on 214 user-submitted Yelp reviews. Anyone familiar with how fickle Yelp reviews can be understands that this is no small feat. It turns out that ties to Brooklyn and the charm of a seemingly unlikely cop turned restaurant owner is a hard combination to resist.

Tony’s Italian Delicatessen was first opened by Tony Nicoletta, a Brooklyn transplant with reverence for a proper Italian sandwich. Nicoletta sold the deli to the husband-and-wife team of Hootie and Mary Trant a few years ago — and the Trants built on Nicoletta’s fresh meats foundation and added plenty of relaxed, welcoming charm and Hootie Trant’s housemade sauces.

If you believe the reviews, it’s the best combination of a New York deli and Texas hospitality imaginable.

Hootie and Mary moved out of Houston for a different type of life — and they ended up with the No. 1 restaurant in America. If that’s not an America success story, nothing is. Trant, who sports a distinctive long beard that would give James Harden a run for his money, served in the Marines and worked as a police officer in Houston and Conroe. He makes his own bacon and beef jerky for Tony’s Italian Delicatessen.

This is family business in every sense of the word. There is nothing ultra fancy about this place. It’s not one of the celebrity chef showpieces that routinely top restaurant rankings. Houston Chronicle food critic Alison Cook has never deemed it worthy of a review.

No matter. That hasn’t come close to stopping the Trants from making an impact. And now they have the No. 1-rated restaurant in America.

Who would have ever thought?

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