The diverse industrial focus of Houston has inspired people from numerous countries and cultures to settle here. With so many cultures represented, its no great surprise that the citys dining opportunities reflect their influences. If you're homesick, theres a good chance you'll be able to find a restaurant that specializes in your native cuisine. If you're simply adventurous and like to sample the flavors of the world, you'll have a lot of chances to do so while you're here. In fact, you?d have to live here a very long time to exhaust the possibilities.

Whether you're traveling for business or leisure, or you?ve decided to call Houston home, the odds are good that you'll want to experience at least one meal that consists of traditional Texas cuisine. So what kind of food really seems to say 'Texas? to most visitors? Actually there are two-barbecue and Tex-Mex. Barbecue doesn't really require a definition, but if you don't know what Tex-Mex is, it consists primarily of dishes that most Americans think of as Mexican. Many people don't realize that favorites like burritos, fajitas, and nachos (plus many other popular dishes) are actually based on Texas modifications to traditional Mexican food. Lets just say you won't find a burrito in a Mexican pueblo unless its at a tourist hotel.

When it comes to Tex-Mex, the citys restaurants offer a variety of atmospheres to suit every mood. Restaurants like Chuys (pronounced Chewies) are overflowing with pińatas and other fiesta-style décor and serve up delicious traditional Tex-Mex. If you prefer to dine with a more sophisticated atmosphere and presentation, visit Blue Agave. This restaurant opted for a rustic Southwestern look instead of the standard Mexican motif, and the margaritas, made with top-quality blue agave tequila, just might be the smoothest in the city. You can enjoy the best of both types at a place called Pappasitos. The décor is eclectic Mexican, complete with roaming Mariachis, but the menu offers some sophisticated twists in addition to traditional Tex-Mex.

Ottos Barbecue & Hamburgers has been around for over 50 years and has earned former President George Bushs seal of approval. Hows that for an endorsement? Not to be outdone, Goode Company Barbeque is famous across the city for the sweet-spicy-smoky barbecue sauce they slather on a variety of meats. If you want to sink your teeth into the best baby-back ribs in town, head over to Williams SmokeHouse. The setting is casual and the prices are great, but thats pretty much the standard for all of the citys barbecue joints. You'll be comfortable in jeans at any of them.

Steaks are considered to be a strong runner-up as a Texas tradition. Some of the finest steakhouses in the state are located in Houston. Mortons of Chicago is yet another former President Bush-approved restaurant. Its classy and elegant in all possible ways. Capital Grille is equally elegant, but in a much bolder way. Casual diners might prefer Taste of Texas, which offers the more traditional "rustic cowboy" atmosphere to go along with that excellent cut of beef.

Beyond the realm of traditional Texan, the possibilities are equally impressive. The close proximity to the Gulf of Mexico has inspired an avid love of seafood. This love, in turn, has inspired the birth of a large number of seafood restaurants across the city. The downtown area boasts the expertise of Massas Seafood Grill, while the Galleria area lays claim to McCormick & Schmicks. The Kemah Boardwalk, located on Galveston Bay in the Clear Lake area, boasts an assortment that includes the Aquarium and Bay Brewery-two dominant local favorites.

Louisianas love of Cajun and Creole cooking has also made its way into Houston over the years. You'll find a lot of restaurants with Cajun/Creole items on the menu, and a growing number of them have begun to focus solely on this type of cuisine. Brennans and Copelands of New Orleans are both examples of New Orleans originals that have made a mark on the spicy side of the Houston dining scene. Editors Note-Cajun/Creole flavors exhibit strong Caribbean influences. In fact, because of the similarities between the two, you'll find the full listing of Cajun/Creole restaurants in the Caribbean category.

Not to be outdone by the Big Apple, Houston also has its share of restaurants that specialize in contemporary, cutting-edge cuisine. Anthonys is owned and operated by heralded restaurateur Tony Vallone. The elegance and sophistication of the décor and European/American menu are hard to beat. Baroque offers the best in French dining with a romantic, elegant theme. Georges Masraff is a Michelin two-star chef in France and the former Executive Chef of New Yorks Tavern on the Green. His long-awaited Houston masterpiece, Masraffs, showcases his impressive talents. Boulevard Bistrot and Bistro Provence head up the citys list of elegant and impressive bistros.

If you're a casual diner who enjoys sampling the latest in contemporary cuisine, you certainly won't have to go hungry. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from that offer the same quality without quite as much ritz and glitz. At Bistro Cuisine you'll order at the counter and enjoy delicious French creations at a price you simply won't believe. You'll be comfortable dressing up or down for your meal at Marks American Cuisine, but don't let the name fool you. There are a lot of interesting global twists on the menu. Besides being casual, Ruggles Bistro Latino goes the extra mile and ventures into the realm of outright fun.

Beyond the contemporary offerings that tend to blend the flavors of numerous countries, you'll also find restaurants that specialize in specific foreign cuisines. A variety of Asian food types are popular in Houston. For Chinese, you can opt for elegance at Hunan, or grab a casual bite at East Ocean. If you like Japanese sushi in an upscale atmosphere, try the Sake Lounge. If casual Japanese barbecue appeals, you'll have a better time at Benihana. For spicy Thai and a view of some interesting murals, visit Nit Noi. Another interesting mural, this one of Saigon, can be found at Miss Saigon Café.

Rudi Lechners pays tribute to German and Austrian cuisine, while the Swiss Inn brings you the flavors of Switzerland. Traditional Greek cuisine is the focus at Nikos Nikos, and a mixture of Mediterranean influences can be sampled at Riviera Grill. The flavors of Russia (even if it isn't called that anymore) are available at Stoli Grill, and kosher selections are amply covered at Khans Deli.

Thanks in part to Houstons influence in the oil and energy fields, the city has a sizeable number of Middle Eastern residents and quite a few restaurants that specialize in the food from those countries. Al-Basha is a relatively new Lebanese restaurant that is already making an impression on the dining scene. Besides the food, the belly dancers are a big attraction. Istanbul Grill & Deli has the distinction of being Houstons only Turkish restaurant, but you'll find Turkish flavors making occasional appearances in other restaurants throughout the city. If you care more about good food than elegant surroundings, try Yildizlar in the Montrose area. Its not much to look at, but the food will certainly satisfy.

Italian dining is a popular choice all over the U.S. and Houston is certainly no exception. Italian restaurants are numerous, but with the excellent choices offered, you'll never consider the type to be overdone. You'll have the option of dining lavishly, and if you choose to do so, theres no better place to splurge than Aldos. The owner and chef, Aldo Elsharif, will personally cater to your whims in an atmosphere filled with luxury. Carrabbas offers romantic dining in a setting thats more mid-range casual, or you can enjoy the best of completely casual dining at Corellis Italian Café. It was voted one of Houstons top two restaurants in 1999.

Pizzerias are essentially Italian, of course, but the concept has been Americanized to a large extent. Fun-loving diners are drawn to the boisterous atmosphere of New York Pizzeria, while out-of-the-ordinary options, like BBQ pizza, attract a full house at California Pizza Kitchen. Star Pizza also offers a fun time to casual diners in a typical pizza parlor setting.

In addition to the tasty Tex-Mex offerings, the city also boasts a number of restaurants that specialize in traditional Mexican. Irmas has been a famous Houston mainstay for years. She'll come out of the kitchen and treat you like one of the family at her homey establishment. Otilias and Picos are a little less famous, but they also offer home-style, authentic Mexican dishes that will make your mouth more ways than one. You can also sample some South American spice at Sabroso Grill, or nibble on some tasty tapas at Solero or Mi Luna. (Tapas is a term for smaller, snack-size portions. The general concept is for several people to order several tapas and share.)

Houston is also kind to health-conscious diners. If your concept of healthy food revolves primarily around low-fat grilled meats, you'll find that a very large number of restaurants will accommodate you. If you're a bit more serious and prefer total vegetarian dining, A Moveable Feast is one of the many dining choices available. In addition to straight vegetarian selections, a large number of Houston restaurants offer vegetarian options on the menu, and a great many others will do what they can to assist you beyond the menu. The sky is generally the limit and restaurants in town are very good about catering to the special needs of diners when possible.

In general, Houston is a casual city and you'll be able to dress casually at most of the restaurants you visit. You might say that the city has a lot of class, but not a lot of pretension. You'll have some excellent choices if you're in the mood to "dress for dinner", but those types are more the exception than the norm. If you're really interested in rolling up your sleeves and hob-nobbing on a down-home basis with the locals, you'll want to visit one of the citys very casual diners or cafés. Some of them are quaint, while others are full-blown dives?but don't be fooled by appearances. Some of those dives serve up some mighty tasty food. Spanish Flower, which also happens to be one of the citys 24-hour dining spots, is a prime example.

Certain areas of the city have a concentration of specific restaurant types in a small area, but you'll still find a good sprinkling of most types spread across the city. No matter where you stay when you visit, you'll find popular dining spots within walking distance, or you can hit the road for a broader selection. Either way, its a city that offers dining choices that will leave you more than satisfied?and keep you coming back for more.

A. Conner