A few years ago, the last person urging others to go to Houston would've been me. When I was growing up there in the '80s, the city seemed both too futuristic and too backward, full of space-age skyscrapers but stubbornly provincial—and too infatuated with football. And how, I wondered, could America's fourth-largest city not have better restaurants? I've visited every year since, but I've never seen as many exciting changes as I did on my most recent trip.

Downtown, the new boutique Sam Houston Hotel has a lobby with chic cowhide-backed seats and a restaurant called 17 (1117 Prairie St.; 832-200-8888), which gets my vote as the city's best-looking dining room, with its red brocade walls and a gorgeous baubled chandelier. I loved the modern American menu from chef Jeff Armstrong, especially the steamed littlenecks with chorizo and the seared yellowtail tuna with sweet-and-sour shiitake mushrooms. A few blocks away, at the new '50s-mod Artista (800 Bagby St; 713-278-4782), Michael Cordua (an F&W Best New Chef 1994) serves delicious leek soup with Stilton and bacon tempura along with his signature steak: a juicy, chimichurri-basted churrasco.

At the Midtown offshoot of the New Orleans institution Brennan's (3300 Smith St.; 713-522-9711), newly promoted head chef Randy Evans cures his own meats (pork-belly pancetta, lamb-rosemary sausage) and excels at preparing Brennan's classics like turtle soup. Nearby, on the formerly down-at-the-heels Lower Westheimer strip, chef Edelberto Goncalves serves terrific modern French-American dishes like veal medallions with a black-boudin brioche at the elegant Rouge (812 Westheimer Rd.; 713-520-7955). And four-year-old Da Marco (1520 Westheimer Rd.; 713-807-8857) is still outstanding; Marco Wiles's Northern Italian menu features lamb loin with cherry sauce and baked sea bass with grapefruit and greens. Da Marco is rumored to have turned away the Rolling Stones on a crowded night during one of their recent gigs in the city because their entourage was too big.

On my next trip, I'll try F&W Best New Chef 1996 Monica Pope's new t'afia (3701 Travis St.; 713-524-6922). And I'll ride the light-rail system, which was launched to transport crowds to this year's Super Bowl in a brave attempt to make the city less car-dependent. Although Houston wasn't playing in the big game—and although I'm still not a football fan—I couldn't help rooting for the home team.