Yesterday two friends tossed a term out to me called “Vibe Dining” to describe the current Houston food scene including (but not limited to) many of the new Black owned restaurants. I immediately latched on to it because it was the perfect way to describe what I was seeing across Houston. Beautiful new restaurants popping up with carefully curated vibes that draw large crowds plus are Instagram friendly, yet they leave a bit to be desired for a foodie like me. Here are a few of my thoughts on the vibe dining trend.
How Did We Get Here
Now listen, I am in my mid-thirties now, but when I started this blog I was a twenty something who loved going out. When I think about brunch and Sunday Funday from that era, it seems different. As if they were two distinct things that happened on a Sunday. I recall dining at some of Houston’s best restaurants for “brunch,” places like Max’s Wine Dive come to mind and then hopping to places like Fox Hollow, the old 5015, midtown sports bars and bars on Washington. If I ate at the second stops it was simply because I needed something to soak up the carafes of mimosas or because the Boudin Man showed up. I did not go there with the intention on eating and that was okay with me.
At some point though, these two distinct things were merged. Businesses aimed to give you a little bit of everything in one space. So we started to see what would be traditionally bars in another life elevate their food offerings in the hopes of being food destinations as well. Next we saw them expand the looks of these spaces as platforms like Instagram and TikTok became more popular.
And this my friends is how I think vibe dining started. These places are branded as restaurants, sometimes even high end, yet a visit there will have you feeling more as though you visited a fun bar rather than a fancy dining experience. Let’s break that down more.
What IS Vibe Dining
Here are a few characteristics, that I’ve noticed over the last few years…
The restaurants are generally beautiful. They have some high end design that makes it appealing and social media friendly. When it comes across your timeline you instinctually say “where is that” or “I’d like to see that in person.” They are also in popular locations around the city which only adds to the attraction.
Food and Drinks
The food plays into popular trends within the Black community and social media. They are guaranteed to have one or more of the following if not all on their menu salmon, oxtails, shrimp & grits and lamb chops. They may include instagrammable dishes as well, which as we know focus more on look than taste. Generally the food is not horrible, but it often is not what makes you want to visit the restaurant. You are drawn to the crowd or the resident dj. Not the food.
In my experience, drinks is the one area where vibe dining spots shine. They are often creative and/or craft cocktails which are appropriate for the price point.
For me, when I see three or four dollar signs on google or yelp for a restaurant, I am okay with that, BUT my expectations have just increased. At this price point, I expect a level of service that requires some training. Serving from the left, all the food arriving at the same time, several forks on the table and even a waiter who comes to clean crumbs off the table. This is why people like high end dining because the service is a step above, to the point that the servers can almost be annoying.
Vibe dining is often described as high end dining based on the price point and some of the aesthetics. They will charge more for the experience. However, the experience particularly in terms of service does not rise to the level of high end dining. I receive unsolicited reviews of the vibe dining spots in Houston almost weekly. Service is the biggest issue. Long wait times, half the menu unavailable, rude servers, additional fees on their bill. All of these things are annoying anywhere, but it will make you feel a way if you just spent the equivalent of your light bill on the meal.
Years ago a follower asked me for a recommendation for a brunch spot with really good food and hookah. I quickly told her that this place didn’t exist because great culinary experiences do not include smoke. Perhaps this is an outdated viewpoint, but it feels low bar to me in a fine dining establishment. In a club/bar, I will deal, but while I dine on $40 lamb chops I am going to have a problem with it! The places I’ve seen described as vibe dining always seem to have a hookah offering as random as it may appear.
If you are about my age you may remember this fancy sushi restaurant called Fish & Knife down on Westheimer. It was a beautiful restaurant that at night time flipped into a club which drew a big crowd. Evenings were packed, dinner time was empty and it quickly folded. The people who came for the night time club scene never ate there and those who came for the sushi restaurant were turned off by the club.
I think vibe dining figured out what Fish & Knife failed to see and what other traditional brunch spots never capitalized on. Rather than having two distinct uses for the space, they are teetering in both at the same time. Things like the music (type and volume) curates a certain vibe and can easily transition a chill brunch into a club scene. When you are vibe dining, you are expected to experience “fancy dining” while also enjoying a club/bar. So basically it is appropriate for the table next to you to be twerking over your steak during dinner.
Is Vibe Dining Bad??
Please be clear, I am not saying that vibe dining is bad at all. It has its place in the dining landscape for sure, but with anything too much of a good thing can be a problem. These spaces leave out the foodie who is seeking a great culinary experience because despite how it is marketed, the culinary experience (unique menu, service, pricing) is not the first priority in vibe dining. It caters to those who want more nightlife and throws in food in the mix too.
My preference would be for these restaurants to be framed as bars or clubs with elevated bar food because we all must admit these offerings are way better than the wings and fries we had in my early 20s. More than anything I hope that more restauranteurs aspire to create spaces worthy of James Beard level accolades, where the biggest draw is the food and everything else is just extra. We’ve got a lot of new vibe dining spots and I just hope to see more variety in our food scene over the next few years.