In Houston, you don't need to set foot outside the Loop

Houston is the only city I know that has three skylines, a street called Buffalo Speedway, and a populace (fifth largest in the US) that considers a building older than 10 years historic.

In many ways, too, Houston is more southeastern than southwestern, more Louisiana than Texas. Galveston and the gulf are only 50 or 60 miles away, meaning the local cuisine runs as much to shucked oysters as chicken-fried steak. Instead of cactus and cottonwoods, there are magnolias and mossdraped live oaks.

Of course Houston booms as only a space-age Texas city can, and it sprawls from here to Waco. Its three skylines define downtown, the Medical Center, and the Galleria, a gleaming and enclosed shopping center. Downtown and the Galleria have most of the tall new hotels, but I stayed in a quiet, neighborhoodly district called Montrose at the Warwick Hotel, whose 1926 origin all but makes it the Parthenon of Houston.

Montrose has little of the boom town about it. Though it's only minutes from downtown, the streets are quiet and oak-lined, and art, not oil, is the big business. Within walking distance (though people don't much use their feet in traffic-heavy Houston) is the fine (and free) Museaum of Fine Arts; the Contemporary Arts Museum; the Rothko Chapel, a delightful little hideaway hung with Mark Rothko canvasses; and a lengthening parade of galleries along Bissonnet Street.

All of this art, the rambling green Hermann Park, the handsome Rice campus, and indeed just about everything of note I found are located in what Houstonians call "Inside the Loop." This is to set the Loop apart from the new and slick suburbs to the northwest and southwest. Of course the distinction is more than geographic. Hard-line Loop residents consider it heresy to work, live, dine, or play outside the Loop, the way Greenwich Villagers claim they get a queasy feeling traveling above 14th Street. On a rare journey outside the Loop to a vaunted restaurant, Ma Maison, I encountered ordinary food and service at extraordinary prices. "Serves you right for not staying in the Loop," a Montrose friend scolded me.

Safely inside the Loop I fared much better at Elmer Gantry's a red-brick former church in Montrose that has been converted to a chicken-fried steak house. The choir loft is a small dining area, though I ate downstairs where the pews once were. Chicken-fried steak, if you've never enjoyed that Texas staple, is a well-pounded slab of beef rolled in buttermilk, egg, salt and pepper, dipped in flour, and fried in oil. With it comes fries, salas with buttermilk dressing, and a cornbread stick. For three of us the check was under $20.

Not far from the Warwick and Rice University, in a drab brick building that began as a food market 'way back around 1940, is an Inside the Loop fixture called Ouisie's Table. It's named for the owner, Elouise Hetherly, who in her lumberjack shirt and jeans looks more a horse trainer than the proprietor of a comfortable little cafe that specializes in seafood.

You will encounter a pleasant mix at the long, wood picnic-type tables: businessmen, well-heeled ladies possibly on tour from outside the Loop, artists from the gallery-rich Montrose area, solo diners of all ages. There were exotic rugs on the wall for sale, soon to be replaced by the works of a local watercolorist. "Houston," Ouisie Hetherly told me, "is just beginning to mature as a food town, finally getting away from big, cold fancy dining rooms. I just wish more people would open some small, good restaurants so I'd have other places to eat."

This did not begin as a Loop restaurant guide, but you have to know about Capt. Benny's Half Shell, an always-jammed little seafood diner on Main Street not far from the Astrodome and the Houston Oilers practice field. It was Coach Bum Phillips's favorite dining spot before his highly unpopular dismissal and exit across the gulf to New Orleans. It's doubtful Bum will find better oysters ($2.95 a half-dozen), boiled shrimp, gumbo, or catfish even in New Orleans. Capt. Benny's, with only seven or eight stools and a stand-up counter, is the shape of a shrimp boat, and a new Benny's has just opened on the west side, modeled after an oyster boat.

From my ninth-floor room in the Warwick I could see a perfect row of trees up Main Street, festooned then with yellow hostage ribbons. This may be aprocryphal, but the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau says it has on tape Bob Hope's line to Phil Donahue that his favorite view in the world was of that same line of trees seen from atop the Warwick. I could also see the green tile roof of the Museum of Fine Arts across the street, where I spent a happy, peaceful morning among some fine Renaissance works and an Impressionist wing that includes Renoir, Degas, Monet, Vlaminck, Modigliani, and Leger. Later in the year a sculpture garden will be opened, anchored by four valuable bronze studies of the human back, by Matisse.

"We're the largest art museum in the Southwest -- in size and collection both ," a Museum of Finer Arts official told me without sounding boastfully Texan. "We're lucky enough to have a $24 million endowment."

Twenty-four million is, I suppose, not so stunning a figure in a city where enormous space and oil deals are struck daily in glassy office towers and where people talk about money as if it's an indigenous product, like cars in Detroit or wool in New Zealand. Endowments, whatever their source, mean free museums, which is also the case at the Contemporary Arts Museum across from the Fine Arts. Nor is there an admission charge a few miles away at Bayou Bend, a 1920s plantation-style mansion with probably the best American folk art collection west of Henry Ford's Greenfield Village. There are azaleas and camellias on the well-sculpted grounds. You may think you're in Louisiana, but you're definitely Inside the Loop.

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