Intro to Upper Kirby and River Oaks
Please swipe your American Express in the CD-ROM drive before reading this article. But really, we’re about to get fancy.
Nestled between the sparkling Galleria area to the west and hipster paradise Montrose to the east, I’d like to be the first to welcome you to the neighborhood mashup that is Upper Kirby and River Oaks. We’re pairing these two locales together due to the fact that they are essentially first cousins… if neighborhoods could have extended families. Storied River Oaks is located just north of Upper Kirby, kind of like how the average credit score of the two would stack.
This is how it breaks down: Upper Kirby is definitely well-off, cultured, but still down to earth, and mostly modest. On the other hand, River Oaks is straight up cash money, can’t-spend-it-fast-enough, “I’ll take two of everything” WEALTHY. If Upper Kirby is building a diversified portfolio for long-term financial independence, River Oaks did that generations ago and is sipping a lemonade made from the fruit that was overnighted from Amalfi.
As different as they may be, there is definitely more that brings them together than separates. By day, both are bustling areas integral to central Houston; though, by night that scene changes to a relative pin-drop silence. These two also provide a collection of the most sought-after conveniences inside Loop 610.
So, let’s just say it’s ‘same same, but different.’
As it relates to income, residents of River Oaks easily rank in not just the top 1% of Houston, but of the US. With the average RO house price just over $1M, you can imagine their monthly expenses. Upper Kirby is more in the top 5-7% range, with home prices averaging around 30% less than that of River Oaks.
The three zip codes that comprise these two neighborhoods are very much geared towards being family-friendly. Some of the top public schools inside the loop, restaurants that cater to a variety of palates, and specialty shops focused on all ages.
More specifically, some of your future neighbors include Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, the Houston Texans McNair family, American and Saudi oil magnates, the city’s top attorneys, and major political figures.
All of this to say, your most cost-effective way of calling this area home would be to browse the apartment offerings, which are actually quite varied and can be called a good value.
Oh yeah, one more nugget of fun: Jeff Bezos went to River Oaks Elementary. #BillionaireBoysClub
Upper Kirby and River Oaks are easily a couple of the safest parts of town. Thanks in part to a private security company (courtesy of River Oaks HOA) that patrols the area 24/7, in addition to the Houston Police Department and Harris County Sheriff.
There are many well-connected residents here and you can imagine the kind of favors they call in to their friends that hold positions of power. For example, the aforementioned Houston Rockets owner has donated over $3M to the HPD. So, if he here’s a rustling in his bushes, you better believe there will be an office or two responding real quick. Hey, that’s a crazy benefit of living somewhat close to him, right?
Oh yeah, and don’t worry about pandhandlers here. For some reason, in my three years of living near-ish, I can’t recall a single instance of someone asking for money while I’m at a stop. Also, the burglary rate is 80% lower than the national average. But, please lock your cars and hide your valuables. This is Houston afterall.
Being active outdoors in this area is actually very comfortable, which is a hard thing to say for much of inner-loop Houston.
The River Oaks part of the neighborhood (north) is home to six-foot-wide, well-maintained sidewalks with convenient pedestrian crossings scattered throughout intersections and mid-road. Definitely great for stress-free biking and walking.
Upper Kirby is a tad bit different, with normal sidewalks that are OK at best. You can probably ride your bike or take a walk along the main roads, but you’ll just need to be a bit more aware. I guess you get what you pay for.
One similarity as it relates to physical activity is that Critical Mass rides through both areas once a week. If you remember from the Montrose Neighborhood Guide, Critical Mass is a weekly bicycle meetup with 200-300 participants, two-wheeling their way through much of inner-loop west in the evening.
If that’s not your scene, there are many spin studios and boutique gyms in the area. Get it, girl.
Upper Kirby/River Oaks in Three Words: Opulent, Low-Key, Influential
River Oaks is one of five of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Houston, joined by Tanglewood, Piney Point (Memorial City area), West University, and Boulevard Oaks. The thing is, most of those don’t have any apartment dwelling options.
That leads us directly to the beauty of Upper Kirby – it’s just adjacent to RO and has a solid amount of apartment options.
If we’re comparing Upper Kirby/River Oaks to neighboring Galleria area, it boils down to one simple statement… classy money vs. loud money.
With successful and educated folks from many different industries, living in this area may be that motivation you need to finally step your side hustle game up a notch (or two.)
Here you’ll easily find METRO bus stops at every corner, which are perfect grounds for overhearing gossip from the housekeepers on the phone that tend to the real housewives of River Oaks daily. It’s one of my favorite past times actually. My spanish has become so much better because of it.
No METRO Rail access in/close to Upper Kirby or River Oaks.
As you may have read in our other neighborhood guides, Houston’s roads are sh*t. Tons of potholes and sinking right lanes are commonplace along the city’s main artery Westheimer Road. but not in Upper Kirby and River Oaks. This area is home to probably the most well maintained stretch of Westheimer and also offers easy access to I-59 and West Loop 610.
Also, Greenway Plaza is located along the southwest border of this area. Greenway Plaza is one of the larger office building districts in Houston and is essentially eight square blocks of a mini-downtown.
Looking for rideshare? Easy peasy. Uber and Lyft drivers post up in this area to scoop up the affluent types for a long drive to the private hangar at IAH and a (hopefully) generous tip.
Free Things To Do
Similar to The Galleria area, this part of Houston is not very budget friendly. Though, you’re in luck – I’m pretty cost-conscious and since we’re friends now, I’ll let you in on some of my favorite $0 activities in the area.
- Exploring River Oaks by foot
With mansions nearing 30,000 square feet of interior space and $100,000 front doors that have had entire articles written about them (not kidding) you’re in for such a treat if you’re exploring River Oaks by foot. My favorite street to walk down has to be Willowick, with it’s canopy-like trees and winding road. Also, take a breather at River Oaks park with it’s playground, several tennis courts and wide open spaces for the pups in your life. Maybe you’ll get lucky and make friends with someone who’ll invite you to their French Riviera-themed mansion party.
- Window Shopping at ROD
River Oaks District – if you’re into luxury goods, fashion, and fine luxury automobiles, this is your new happy place. Even if you can’t blow the budget on a Ferragamo belt, the sights are certainly one-of-a-kind. ROD is basically Houston’s version of a scaled down Rodeo Drive, with flagship retail locations for major designers and swarming with the people that can afford it, you’d be smart to find a good bench to see it all play out.
- Car Spotting
With so many folks who enjoy the finest things in life, you’d be hard-pressed to find a part of Houston with such a population of the most exclusive cars known to man. You’ll easily see a Ferrari or two, a selection of Rolls-Royce’s, and maybe even my favorite sour apple green Lamborghini Gallardo. I personally like to play a game called ‘count the grocery-getters’. With Range Rovers and Benz G-Wagons being the soccer mom favorites in this area, count how many of each you see in a five-minute window and then look at your Camry and try to convince yourself that you’re being smart by not buying a car that’s worth the same as a three-bedroom house.
- Get Lit
Or, atleast watch houses get lit. This one is only valid for 45 days a year, but it’s seriously one of my favorite things to do in all of Houston. The River Oaks neighborhood is famous for going all-out for the holidays and the majority of the 300+ estates are adorned with lights and festive front yard environments to help even the biggest Grinch get into the spirit. With string lights dangling from 50 foot tall Live Oaks and tailored vignettes out of a Christmas Carol, it’s Houston’s best version of a winter wonderland. What we lack in frozen precipitation, we make up for with pretty lights and stuff. Lights go up right before Thanksgiving and are up through the new year.
Upper Kirby and River Oaks are actually one of the better foodie areas inside the loop. With very limited fast food options, local favorites reign supreme and actually do it pretty well. I guess when your regular patrons have seen most all of the world, you have to bring your A game.
House of pies — $
The OG no-frills diner of Upper Kirby is always on-point. Open 24/7 (outside of COVID times), House of Pies is a favorite for people all over the city and is especially busy right after 2 a.m. on the weekend, just as the bars and clubs are closing. The menu is expansive and has most of your basic items like breakfast plates, sandwiches, burgers, etc. None of the menu items are like ‘amazing’, but when it comes to their desserts and famous pies… damn. That stuff goes hard. Save up on calories throughout the week to splurge on their strawberry cheesecake and then send me a ‘thank you’ letter.
Local Foods — $
Looking for a tasty lunch or dinner spot made with quality ingredients and a wine list? Welcome to Local Foods. With five location in Houston, this trendy neighborhood cafe has a great selection of inventive main courses and sides to help you live your best life. Their vegan taco salad is my go-to, and when you pair it with their roasted beet hummus you’ve got a filling meal with less guilt. The interior of the restaurant is light, bright and full of greenery, and is connected to their patio overlooking the Westheimer/Kirby intersection. Oh, and it’s next to the neighborhood SoulCycle. Yes, full of moms throughout the day.
Pepper Twins — $$
The day I discovered Pepper Twins was the day my outlook on Chinese fare totally changed. I had been used to General Tso’s and Orange Chicken for all my life, but that took a turn once I tried the Mapo Tofu and Pepper Twins Chicken here. All of their meat dishes are halal, contain premium cuts, and generously sized – like, really generous. The interior of the restaurant is like a typical Chinese eatery, but where they really win you over is the BYOB policy of $5 per wine bottle or $1 beer. Go here as soon as you move into the area.
Pondicheri — $$
From James Beard-nominated chef Anita Jaisinghani, Pondicheri is a favorite of Houston residents that enjoy a little spice without venturing out to Hillcroft Ave. (Gandhi District). That’s exactly what it is though – a little spice, not a lot, not authentic but basically Indian street foods and main dishes upcharged in a cool, convenient environment. The restaurant is very airy with its industrial-chic fittings and large light-filled windows. Though, what I think is really cool is if you head upstairs, you’ll enter their Bake Lab + Shop. Filled with savory and sweet Indian-inspired baked goods, snacks, and a mean masala chai, this South Asian-ish cafe might just become your favorite place to post up and get some work done.
Kata Robata — $$$
Easily the most popular sushi restaurant in Houston, Kata Robata is known for having their seafood flown in daily, directly from the Pacific. Though, don’t think you’re just getting a table by walking in. This is a definite ‘call ahead’ restaurant. Being that it’s a favorite of almost every Houston-based pro athlete, the table you want is probably reserved for J.J. Watt, who has said on multiple occasions that it’s his go-to for lunch or dinner, even though he lives 15 miles away in Piney Point. On a good day, that’s 30-minutes away in Houston traffic. That tells you something.
FUN FACT: Oil billionaires and River Oaks residents, Jeffery and Mindy Hildebrand always wondered why there wasn’t a donut shop close to their home… so, they built one. Aptly named River Oaks Donuts, it’s actually pretty good and has a drive-thru for your ease.
In Upper Kirby and River Oaks, nightlife is not really a thing. The few exceptions are closer to other areas or are in west River Oaks at River Oaks District.
This is your typical Instagram influencer wannabe-filled, more-club-scene-than-restaurant “specializing” in steaks and seafood. Quotes around specializing because the only thing it specializes in is having steak and seafood on the menu so that patrons feel even cooler being a regular there. The raw bar is passable at best and the main dishes are more appetizing in name than when on your plate. But hey, their cocktail menu is legit. After 9 p.m. this is the spot to see the finest products of Houston’s plastic surgeons. The thing I hate/love the most about it is the mirror-lined, LED rod-filled alley that leads you to the washrooms. What a trip.
Just down the block from River Oaks District, you’ll find Bosscat Kitchen and Libations. This restaurant/bar with origins from Orange County is an eclectic mishmash of over-the-top menu items and an exceptional environment and adult beverage selection. The tufted leather booths and minimalist design give off an aire of the old school cocktail lounge. While you’re sipping on their version of a Vesper Martini, you’ll probably get enticed by the table next to you receiving their pig candy (a surprising combo of kimchi and caramel) or my favorite red velvet churros. Solid service staff, too. Give this place a try. Oh, and it was featured in Netflix’s popular show Indian Matchmaking. Aparna was seriously a character, but apparently has good taste in drinks.
Kirby Ice House
If you’re looking for something a bit more relaxed, Kirby Ice House is probably your scene. With a huge selection of beers, rotating food trucks, many TVs, and large outdoor space, this can easily become your every Tuesday evening kind of place. The vibe is that of your uncle’s Hill Country ranch house with picnic tables and adirondack chairs filling the outside, and large brown couches perfect for sinking into a drink on the interior of the establishment. The demographic can be a little ‘vanilla’, so don’t expect to see a great selection of Houston’s diverse population here.
Taco Street – Upper Kirby and River Oaks
For all that this area does give you access to, there are no real legit tacos. Here’s a quick cheat sheet:
This old school fancy Tex-Mex restaurant is filled with white linen tables, an older crowd, and a very basic, yet convoluted take on the cuisine. In addition to their normal AF crispy tacos and tacos al carbon (with chili con queso?! wtf), their tuna tartare tacos look pretty and taste raw tuna in a shell, with a few dabs of aioli. How is this tex-mex, or even a taco? But, more than tacos, Armando’s is known for their cougars on the prowl at night. Single dude in your late 20’s and bored in the evening? Put on a dress shirt and go sit at the bar. You are now cougar bait, bro.
This is how minimal your taco selection is in Upper Kirby and River Oaks, that I’m literally writing about Torchy’s being one of the must-try tacos in the area. Lol. Nothing wrong with Torchy’s, I actually really like the tacos, but it’s not something that’s native to this neighborhood. Since you should know enough about this chain by now, I’ll describe the parking lot. The entrance/exit is at a pretty steep incline, so be careful on your way in and out. Also, there is like just 10 parking spots with no street parking for like a block. Also, there is NO drive thru. I say this because it fuc*ing looks like there’s a drive thru, but it’s just their garbage area in the back, and the damn parking lot doesn’t wind around the building. So, you’re just there, facing a garbage can and can’t reverse because the damn parking lot is full. As you can tell, this has happened to me more than once. It looks like there is drive thru!
A Day in the Life
Living in Upper Kirby/River Oaks definitely affords you quite a bit of conveniences and amenities. You’re central to mostly the whole city with easy access to the major highways.
For grocery shopping, you have a great selection to choose from. There’s a Central Market in west River Oaks, a cool Trader Joes in east Upper Kirby (it’s a converted movie theater), the Cougar Kroger in east River Oaks, a Whole Foods right in the middle of it all, and not one, but TWO Target’s bookending the area. #Blessed
As for traffic, I’m going to give this area the best compliment you can give a Houston neighborhood… the traffic is not bad. There, I said it! You can get from the east end of the area to the west end in 15 minutes on a good day. That’s about three miles.
If you’re looking for a caffeine boost to start your day, there are like four Starbucks spread throughout the neighborhood and some classy French bakeries to class it up along Westheimer.
When it comes to shopping, this area is bursting with shopping centers and strip malls with stores ranging from designer to vintage. Here’s a quick guide:
High End: River Oaks District (Prada, Moncler, Dolce & Gabbana, etc.)
Mid-Range: Highland Village (Pottery Barn, Anthropologie, Madewell, etc.)
Budget: There are a couple of vintage clothing resellers (Buffalo Exchange, Flamingo’s Vintage Pound) along West Alabama Road, near the cool Trader Joes
Gas stations, dry cleaning, and convenience stores are all pretty widespread and you’ll have one just a stone’s throw from your residence.
So you must be wondering, ‘what was that Cougar Kroger he mentioned?’ Good question. Houston has a long history and committed relationship with Kroger’s and each location inside the loop has received an unofficial nickname. Montrose has the soon-to-shutter Disco Kroger, then there’s Tailgate Kroger near NRG Stadium, and not to be outdone, New Money Kroger in The Heights has been overrun with yuppies. Each moniker gives you an insight into the personality of the shoppers at that address. Which leads us to Cougar Kroger – your local grocer that is a feeding ground for hot moms and divorcees looking to recapture their youth via yoga pants and more. The more you know.
The Verdict on River Oaks/Upper Kirby
Not horrible traffic + good roads
Pretty safe by Houston standards
Good chance for well-traveled/cultured neighbors
A solid selection of dining options
Easy access to I-59 and Loop 610
Public green spaces are limited
Not much nightlife, unless you’re in expensive River Oaks District
Good chance for neighbors to be entitled douches
Not a youthful vibe
The tex-mex in this part of town is whack city
Upper Kirby and River Oaks have not changed much over the last 15 years. Maybe you’ll see a new high-rise come up every couple of years, or some fancy new development set it’s roots every five years, but the vibe and charm of the area remains intact. People in this area don’t like change. They’ve been used to something for a long time and they don’t want it changing just because some millennial would prefer better tacos in the area. Take your Torchy’s and be happy.
For those wanting to remain young and alive, this area may not be the best choice for you. As we discussed, lightlife is relatively non-existent, there isn’t much in the way of unique affordable experiences, and population diversity isn’t a thing.
Now, for someone who knows how old they are and can retain that without needing to party every night or be in the middle of the action, this area is the perfect mix for you. It doesn’t get very loud at night. Traffic is only heavy a couple of times a day. You’ll probably end up making some well-connected friends and you’re a short drive from The Galleria or Montrose to pump up the liveliness. Also, for the middle of the road foodie, Upper Kirby and River Oaks has a pretty well-rounded selection of options to sink your teeth into. Besides tacos. This is not a Taco Street.
Also, a bit of advice: If you move to Upper Kirby or boring Greenway Plaza, I know how tempting it would be to say you live in River Oaks, given the proximity and how fancy it is. Beware of this. If you don’t live in 77019 or 77027, you’re not in River Oaks and you’re gonna look like a damn fool when your new buddies show up and you don’t live in a, at minimum, 5,000 sq ft mansion. Don’t play yourself.
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