Does Houston have too many restaurants? It’s a question people ask from time to time as the neverending pace of openings brings a steady stream of new competition to the market.
Conversely, no one ever seems to ask if the city has too many bars. Maybe that’s because bars a little more personal and a little more intimate than restaurants. Sometimes, they serve as the venue for a gathering of friends; others, they provide a solo patron with a little boozy solace.
Regardless of their purpose or intent, Houston’s bar scene continues to flourish. This year saw the further growth of the patio bar that’s swept the inner loop, but just having a lot of outdoor seating isn’t a guarantee of success. Creative food, a wide selection of drinks, and/or good service all help separate these picks from their peers.
If Eight Row Flint gave Agricole Hospitality partner Morgan Weber an outlet for his bourbon obsession, then Miss Carousel provides a similar opportunity for Weber to put his stamp on a hotel lobby-style bar. Filled with mid-century modern furniture that Weber and his wife Julia collected, Miss Carousel has a stylish look that feels different than other Houston cocktail bars, especially since it lacks actual bar seating. The cocktail menu provides a range of options — the gin and tonic is particularly good — designed to suit just about mood, and bar bites from the Indianola kitchen make it a legit option for late night snacking.
Admittedly, this Montrose honky tonk opened in the very waning days of 2017, but most Houtonians encountered it this year. Credit Master Sommelier David Keck and his business partner Peter McCarthy for following a Field of Dreams philosophy — if you build a bar that features free live music most nights a week, people will come dance and drink in it. The unpretentious atmosphere, reasonable prices, and a surprisingly ambitious food menu, created by chef-partner Felipe Riccio, that features tacos wrapped in corn tortillas made with housemade masa all contribute to Goodnight Charlie’s winning appeal.
The Cottonmouth Club
Reserve 101 owner Mike Raymond partnered with his friend, veteran New York bartender Michael Neff, on this stylish downtown cocktail lounge. The dimly-lit downstairs has an intimate vibe and tasty drinks, but the real magic happens upstairs. In a spacious room adorned with Raymond’s original paintings of music icons past (Lightnin’ Hopkins), present (Billy Gibbons), and future (Kam Franklin), Neff holds court. As he curates a playlist of mostly obscure ’70s and ’80s rock gems to capture the mood, he produces drinks perfectly suited to each customer’s taste. When it all comes together, the space achieves its stated goal of being the best bar in the world.
Named for a Houston dive bar where owner Ken Bridge went to see live blues and jazz as a teenager (he met B.B. King there once), the Ready Room has a decidedly retro vibe with its wood-paneled walls, ceiling tiles that look like pressed tin, and vintage chandeliers. Behind the bar, partner Peter Clifton and general manager Cody Northcutt collaborated on the cocktail menu, which features different sections named in honor of Houston’s six historic wards. Drink names from each section are taken from a historic person or place associated with that ward. Live music on the weekends adds to the fun.
No establishment better captures the zeitgeist of Houston’s current patio bar obsession than Shawn Bermudez’s thorough reimagining of Royal Oak. The name is a bit of an ironic joke; every aspect of Present Company is so ridiculously photo worthy — from its neon signs to its living wall to the wallpaper in its bathrooms — that it’s hard to put that iPhone down long enough to interact with your friends. Better-than-it-has-to-be food and creative (if sweet) cocktails only contribute to the bar’s essential status.
Holman Draft Hall/Pitch 25
Credit the Kirby Group for perfecting the beer garden formula that it started with Wooster’s Garden and Heights Bier Garten. Holman, which transformed the nightclub VrSi into a patio bar, offers 100 taps of beer and wine, a range of seating enough, and food by chef Brandon Silva that’s decidedly better than it has to be. Opened in partnership with Dynamo legend Brian Ching, Pitch 25 burst onto the scene just in time for the World Cup and has stayed busy ever since; it’s quarter-sized soccer field makes for entertaining people watching on league night.
The natural wine trend has had proponents in Houston for many years, but this wine bar and bottle shop in Montrose is the first to focus on them exclusively. While how a wine is produced doesn’t always guarantee its deliciousness, the well-trained staff will guide patrons to a bottle that suits their taste. More than the wine, Light Years intimate atmosphere helps make it appealing destination for date night or a gathering with friends. Maybe that’s why Houston’s wine professionals seem to have embraced it so earnestly.
This Dallas import has been packed since it opened in May. Credit the funky decor — a mix of shipping containers, repurposed truck beds, and a freaking Ferris wheel — along with the potent draft, frozen, and canned cocktails. While a spat with the city has prevented actual food trucks from serving the bar, the greasy cheesesteaks aren’t a bad alternative.