After two banner years in 2013 and 2014, the pace of new bar openings slowed considerably in 2015. After all, it seemed as though every possible niche had been filled — at least inside the Loop.
Thankfully, savvy operators still found a way to differentiate themselves from the pack and attract attention with winning new concepts that focused on serving their neighborhoods well.
If anything, this year's best new bars focused on friendly service and speedy execution. Houstonians have demonstrated that we're willing to wait five or 10 minutes for the perfectly stirred, properly diluted concoction that get's a subtle lift from two drops of a housemade tincture. But, all in all, we'd rather have something that's 85 percent as delicious and is served in two minutes.
Also worth noting is the impact that Uber has had on bar patrons. We're all a little safer thanks to the app's convenience and low prices (except during surges). Operators have commented to me that they've noticed parking lots are slightly less full than in the past as people make the smart choice not to drink and drive.
Bars being a bit more personal than restaurants, a few places didn't make my list, because they just aren't my thing. I hear great things about Midtown nightclub Clé but probably won't patronize it. Similarly, I haven't made it to EaDo newcomers like Around the Corner and Arlo's Ballroom. Maybe next year.
Since it opened last December, this Midtown spot (thankfully, the Midtrose moniker hasn't caught on) has made a splash for its creative cocktails, extensive craft beer selection and inviting, upscale atmosphere. Any menu that dedicates sections both to boilermakers and simple highballs demonstrates a high regard for ease of consumption that's a welcome alternative to fussier drinks — although they have those, too. A variety of well-crafted bar bites makes it an appealing happy hour destination.
Johnny's Gold Brick
The Treadsack Group's "bar ass bar" offers an inviting space that transformed the former Boom Boom Room with green walls and wood accents. Created by bar director Leslie Ross, the budget-friendly menu of 10 classic cocktails — conveniently painted on the wall and priced at only $8 — features accessible flavors that have been given Ross's signature twist. The boilermaker, a bottle of Lone Star paired with an Old Fashioned shot, is an instant classic. Friendly service lead by manager Justin Ware and bartender Brad Stringer, as well as a carefully chosen playlist, ensure the night goes well. If Johnny's had only done those things, it would have been enough, but providing a new home from Pi Pizza Truck gives the bar legitimate late night utility.
The transformation of iconic gay bar EJ's into this summer's most talked-about new arrival demonstrates that partners partners Sara and Rob Cromie, Harres Exezidis and chief operating officer Jake Rainey successfully applied the lessons they learned at both Cottonwood and Liberty Station to their coastal Mexican cantina. Like the other two properties, La Grange delivers a well-chosen selection of craft beer, but the bar's tequila-oriented cocktail program that's uses quality spirits and fresh juices stands on its own. The crowds can be intense, but stopping in for brunch allows for a quieter way to experience the expansive courtyard.
Anvil veteran Chris Frankel has created a craft cocktail oasis in the middle of Midtown in a small space above Cook & Collins. At Spare Key, Frankel shares his passion for travel with a menu dedicated to cocktails from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. as well as monthly pop-ups inspired by different countries. Of course, he's not above indulging in more whimsical fare like a night dedicated to bombs (cocktails made with Redbull) including the "Bomb-os Gin Fizz" and a "Bombazaki" (made with expensive Japanese whisky) that are designed to horrify mustache-twirling cocktails snobs.
The Barking Pig
Former Simone on Sunset owner Kristen Powell has given the residents of Lazybrook/Timbergrove a stylish new hangout. Like Simone, The Barking Pig features an expansive patio, but this time the overall concept is more "family-friendly" than "adults-only." A solid mix of cocktails, wine and beer mean that everyone can find something to sip, and the appealing food menu, supplemented with weekly specials like steak night, is similarly democratic. Powell has even expanded the bathrooms, which was a notorious area of concern when the spaced housed El Gran Malo and Lilo & Ella.
Houston Watch Co.
Located just a couple of blocks away from the hustle and bustle of 300 Main, Houston Watch Co gives the north end of downtown a quiet neighborhood bar with good drinks and friendly service in an attractive, understated space. It doesn't seem like such a thing should be terribly noteworthy, but the welcoming atmosphere makes it an inviting place for either an after-work cocktail or the final stop at end of the night. As more and more people begin to live downtown, I expect a place like Watch Co. to emerge as the same sort of neighborhood drinking spot that Rudyard's and Poison Girl have become in Montrose.
Beckrew Wine House
This stylish spot in the Upper Kirby area offers a low-key respite from the more high energy bars at nearby restaurants like Fleming's, SaltAir and Eddie V's. With a diverse, well-priced list, even the most casual wine fan will likely find something to enjoy. The tidy food menu probably won't satisfy those looking for a full meal, but the signature selection of honeys supplements an appealing mix of cheese, charcuterie and other snacks.
After a few visits to the Azuma Group's Midtown newcomer, I've decided that I like it better as a bar than a restaurant. That way I can enjoy one of the cocktails created by California-based consultants Tin Roof Drink Community and a raw dish or robata skewer from chef Philippe Gaston's menu without spending quite as much money on the more uneven main dishes. For more substantial meals, I'll stick to sister restaurants Kata Robata and Soma.
Incomplete: The Commoner/The Boulevardier
I enjoyed my visits to The Hospitable Viking's dual-concept, Gin Braverman-designed space that features a casual bar downstairs and fancy lounge upstairs, but a series of staff changes, highlighted by the departure of former Aviary ice chef Hope Clarke, mean that my old opinions need updating. New management is in place, and they've alluded to big plans to help realize the space's potential. Whether those come to fruition remains to be seen.
Honorable Mention: Axelrad Beer Garden and Eight Row Flint
It's too soon into the life of either this beer garden in Midtown or Agricole Hospitality's new bourbon-oriented icehouse to form any firm conclusions about what they'll be, but both are off to strong starts. They also both feature sprawling patios and attractive spaces, but only Axelrad offers the ability to drink beer while lounging in a hammock.
Axelrad's 30 craft beer taps offer a variety of styles with a good mix of both local and national options. New Orleans-based jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins performs a set every Wednesday night that's an entertaining mid-week respite.
Meanwhile, Eight Row seems poised to serve two separate constituencies: those who share owner Morgan Weber's bourbon obsession and a more neighborhood crowd that just wants a frozen cocktail and a taco or chips and guacamole. As I am a fan of both bourbon and tacos, it feels like I place I'll be patronizing frequently in 2016.