Tony’s Restaurant: A Houston Classic Disappoints During Valentine’s Dinner

Before I get into the full review, let me start with my biggest gripe of the night. Last night in Houston temperatures dropped into the high teens with windchill around -1 degree Fahrenheit. The valet team, who by nature their work, have to stand outside to attend to the self-driving guests. They had a gas heater that wasn’t working. The valet staff was clearly beyond cold, extremely miserable and severely underdressed for the weather. How this wasn’t a detail considered by management is negligent at best and inhumane at worst.

My Relationship with Tony’s Restaurant:

Over the years Tony’s has been my go-to restaurant for high-end date nights. Typically we’ll stop by to enjoy a few drinks and appetizers at the bar before heading out for a proper dinner and good times after.

I’ve had everything on their appetizer menu and several of their main courses, but have always approached Tony’s with casual expectations. Tony’s has been around so long that I stopped seeing it as a destination a long time ago. Over the last few years, it’s been in my rotation of good enough restaurants for elevated experiences.

In that context, I’ve never been truly disappointed as my expectations were relatively low for this high end eatery.

Fast forward to Valentine’s dinner 2021:

This is the first time I’ve been critical of the details Tony’s had to offer and unfortunately after looking past the heritage of one of Houston’s fine dining cornerstones, I found there to be several issues worth mentioning.

Let me begin with the champagne flutes. This may not seem like a big deal for some, but the tradition of ‘cheersing’ with your Valentine’s date before a fine meal is about as sacred as a romantic tradition can be.

During Valentine’s dinner last night, we bought a bottle of NV Contadi Castaldi, Brut Rose, (Franciacorta). Nothing fancy, but just enough to hear the pop of the cork, see the bubbles and share a celebratory cheer to kick off our Valentine’s dinner.

To my shock and utter displeasure, Tony’s champagne flutes appear to be made of some odd compound of glass and plastic that when we attempted to ‘clink’ our glasses we got a resounding clunk instead.

My date and I both looked at each other thinking maybe we didn’t put enough oomph into it. We jokingly said, “that was a lame cheer, lets try again…” Upon our second and third try, we got the same strange reverberation that you’d expect from plastic flutes.

Out of curiosity, I tried clicking my knife against the compound and the lower parts clinked while the upper parts of the glass clunked. In retrospect, this was a foreshadowing of the abysmal dinner ahead.

Dinner, Prepared by Chef de Cuisine, Austin Waiter, General Manager Eric Pryor and Donna Vallone

For a dinner just shy of $500, I would have expected our meal to come out hot and made fresh. Instead, the table d’hôte menu appeared to be served off a precooked buffet line and served up lukewarm and possibly microwaved.

In the order of courses, I had the following with corresponding grades:

  • BOLOGNESE BIANCO – C-
    • Served lukewarm
    • Overly creamy, with the consistency of oatmeal and milk
  • RIBBONS & SQUARES – F
    • High blood pressure inducing salt levels, not pleasant to the taste
  • GRILLED SEA BASS – F
    • Not my first choice, I wanted the Rack of Lamb, but apparently, they were sold out for reasons I still can’t rationalize. Due to inclement weather in Houston (sleet and sub-zero wind chill), there were several cancellations so not sure how inventory ran low on a menu item.
    • Served lukewarm
  • RASPBERRY PAVLOVA – B
    • Good enough

In the same order of courses, my date had the following:

  • FETTUCCINE ALLA VODKA – B
    • If you like basil, its good because that was the dominant flavor
  • MAINE LOBSTER – B+
    • Less is always more with lobster and the chef didn’t use a heavy hand on this dish
  • TRUFFLED PRIME FILET OF BEEF – N/A
    • Admitting to user error, we ordered the filet at the wrong temperature
  • PROFITEROLE – F
    • Low on pralines
    • A tiny sliver of profiterole cake, thinner than typical sandwich bread
    • Drowned in a heavy-handed glop of Chantilly cream

Ambiance:

The newer high-end restaurants in Houston offer an ambiance that’s clearly modern and global in nature. (see review of Musaafer’s here)

Tony’s is more of a traditional high-end eatery with a minimalist, white table cloth approach, focusing on service. (see Etoile Cuisine et Bar review here)

Knowing this going into dinner, the basic appeal of Tony’s was not a shock, but where we were seated was about as awful as a location in a restaurant can get. In fact, that table should be removed altogether and here’s why.

About 2 feet away from us was the bar where Tony’s pianist was entertaining the bar diners with old time Sintara-esque classics. In the main dining hall, there was an inaudible mishmash of pop music. We were seated at the frontier of the bar and at the edge of the main dining hall. Therefore, we could hear both the pop music and the bar music simultaneously; together all we heard was excruciating noise throughout the night.

Overall Review – F:

When taking into account the uninspired food, abysmal ambiance and particularly the inhumane treatment of their valet staff, I have to give Tony’s a resounding F for their Valentine’s Day dinner offering. They leaned too heavily on their legacy to draw in diners but failed to consider the other options we have in the future.

When deciding on where to go for Valentine’s Day dinner, we considered Nobu in the Galleria but opted to support a local business. Unfortunately, a sharper venue operating on a global standard of excellence probably would have been the safer choice.

55 years ago, Tony Vallone R.I.P. launched his restaurant where he began by wearing many hats that included cooking, cleaning and serving his customers with delight. He passed away last year, leaving his namesake restaurant behind. (see write up here)

For the sake of an iconic Houston restaurant, I hope that Tony’s new management takes the demands of contemporary Houston diners into consideration. Our options have blossomed like never before as global restaurateurs have taken note of our massive market and made investments into our dining scene to meet our unrelenting demand.

This is in addition to the young local upstarts whose mid-market offerings are what put Houston on the culinary map to begin with. In typical Houston style, they offer fascinating and exquisite dining options at extraordinary prices.

Tony’s is now fighting a battle on two fronts, major players vying for the same affluent diners Tony’s has become synonymous with and mid-market players who at the time of this writing offer better food for much less.

The latter cohort of diners will one day graduate to higher end eateries and my fear is that they won’t choose Tony’s, which on a long enough timeline will spell doom for the storied restaurant that until recently was one of Houston’s fine dining cornerstones.