If nothing else, the list of 100 bars to try that Anvil owner Bobby Heugel created, when his bar closed for renovations last summer, underscored an important truth — Houstonians do not lack for great places to drink.
Sorting through the hundreds of options to develop a list of eight finalists for the 2016 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Bar of the Year must have involved hours and hours of painstaking research for our panel of restaurant industry insiders. Thankfully, they put in the time to sip wine, beer, and cocktails to produce a group that represents the best of what the city has to offer.
Although Houston doesn't lack for historic spots to wet one's whistle, our finalists are a young group. Except for Anvil, all of them have opened since 2012: three alone in 2015. Even the newcomers have a certain timeless quality to them. Hopefully, they'll be around for decades to come.
Anvil Bar & Refuge
Rather than resting on its laurels, Anvil continues to hustle hard to earn its position as one of Houston’s premier cocktail bars. A recent series of renovations allowed it to expand its spirit selection, and the bar’s celebrated “break-even bottle” gives patrons the opportunity to try premium spirits at a steep discount. Innovative pop-ups — everything from Texas Tiki Disco to an upcoming steak night with Oxheart’s Justin Yu — further demonstrate the staff’s creativity and continued relevance.
Camerata at Paulie's
As it prepares to celebrate its third birthday this summer, the sleek space next to Paulie’s serves some of Houston’s most intriguing wines. A recent update to the food menu doesn’t exactly make it a dinner destination, but at least patrons have new snacking options.
Want to put wine director David Keck and his team to the test? Order a wine by-the-glass. Then ask for something slightly different (sweeter, drier, more acidic, etc) and watch them select exactly what you wanted.
Eight Row Flint
Only open since December, this modern icehouse from Coltivare/Revival Market owners Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber has made a big impression in a short amount of time. Partial credit goes to the space itself, a former gas station turned into a sprawling patio bar that already feels like an essential destination.
Of course, Weber’s self-described “obsession” with bourbon also fuels the interest, especially the innovative tap system that allows for the spirit to be poured straight from the barrel. A tidy menu, developed by Pera and Tastemaker Awards Rising Star Chef of the Year nominee Vincent Huynh, features tacos made with the bar’s namesake heirloom corn.
The Hay Merchant
Just as Anvil remains a great place to drink cocktails, the second of three Clumsy Butcher spots on this list is one of Houston’s best places to drink a craft beer. Owner Kevin Floyd’s preferences for geeky selections, typically beers that are hoppy or sour, drives much of the tap wall, but the staff can find something for almost any taste. Food options include the semi-famous cease and desist burger, top-notch wings, and family-size options like a chicken fried steak that feeds four (comfortably).
Johnny's Gold Brick
Nothing defines the unpretentious nature of the Treadsack Group’s “bar ass bar” more clearly than its cocktail menu. The 10 classics — chosen because co-owner Chris Cusack thought they would appeal to his aunt, who he affectionately refers to as Disco Dot — are painted on the wall and priced at only $8.
The talented staff has grown the menu over the first year of Johnny’s existence by adding a monthly cocktail menu, but the bar’s first mission of serving its neighborhood remains intact. First time visitors should start with the boilermaker. In this case, it’s a “dressed” Old Fashioned shot (with sugar on the rim and an orange wedge) paired with a Lone Star.
New rule: If a bar creates an entire menu based around rides from Astroworld, it’s getting nominated for a Tastemaker Award. Or the cult classic surfer-bank robber movie Point Break. Or a '90s-style punk zine.
With those kind of inspirations, this downtown cocktail bar sets itself apart by not taking itself too seriously. The staff still cares passionately about making drinks well, of course, and co-owner Alex Gregg’s crystal clear, hand cut ice serves as a testament to the lengths they’ll go to for deliciousness.
The Pastry War
The downtown mezcaleria takes a personal approach to its spirit selection by serving tequila, mezcal, and sotol made at distilleries that have been visited by either Alba Huerta or Bobby Heugel. All those personal relationships have yielded an extensive spirit list that’s earned national attention and a shout out from celebrity chef Rick Bayless.
For those who want something a little more traditional, the house margarita remains one of the best in Houston thanks to its combination of key and Persian limes that nail the sweet-tart balance. Shake things up one with one of the house cocktails or simply try a mezcal margarita with Green Chartreuse.
Public Services Wine & Whisky
A bar devoted to Sommelier of the Year nominee Justin Vann’s twin obsessions of fortified wine and whisky aged in fortified wine casks would seem to have a limited appeal, but, of course, Public Services does more than just serve Houston’s biggest select of Sherry.
The historic space in the Cotton Exchange building received a mild makeover from local firm gindesigns (also responsible for Camerata) that makes it a perfect date spot. Led by Bartender of the Year nominee Sean Jensen, the well-trained staff can guide people through the geekier aspects of the list or steer them towards a reliable favorite.
At Spare Key, Bartender of the Year nominee Chris 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, Frankel’s focus on getting the details right extends to the carefully made house cocktails, too, even if his ironic appreciation for adding Red Bull to expensive liquor makes him somewhat suspect.
Best of all, the space has been given a facelift as part of the transition of Cook & Collins into Spare Key, which has made the space brighter and more comfortable. The '80s heavy soundtrack remains intact, thankfully, because no one can deny the auditory pleasure of Toto, Journey, and Hall & Oates.
Join us May 18 at Asia Society Texas for the Tastemaker Awards Party. We'll celebrate the nominees and reveal the winners in a ceremony led by Bryan Caswell. Tickets are on sale now.