After a banner 2013 that saw the arrival of heavy hitters like Camerata, Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar and D&T Drive Inn, it would have been easy to expect 2014 to be a bit of a down year for Houston's bar scene. Coming into the year, it seemed like almost every possible niche had been filled.
All offered something slightly different in terms of concept, execution or location that make them compelling places to visit.
Yet, this year produced a bumper crop of new drinking establishments. From Houston's first dedicated tiki bar to a late night ramen shop to a high-style ode to the South, bars in 2014 all offered something slightly different in terms of concept, execution or location that make them compelling places to visit.
Also, I'm giving an incomplete to a couple places that may ultimately prove to be worthy entries on the list if only I had more time to form an opinion: Sanctuari at Triniti, which I need to revisit in the wake of talented bartender Leslie Ross's departure; Love and Squalor, the bar at Weights + Measures with a '70s vibe that officially opened December 28 and Wooster's Garden, the Midtown cocktail and craft beer bar with a beautiful space and a compelling mix of offerings.
If this list inspires you to try only one new establishment, it should be Lei Low. The tiki bar in a North Main street strip center blends the husband and wife team of Russell and Elizabeth Thoede's passion for tiki culture with a space that transports patrons to a tropical island — or, at least, a tropical island with a healthy dose of post-World War II kitsch.
The drinks mix fresh fruit juices (the bar goes through a staggering amount of pineapple every day), with house-infused rums and complimentary spirits to create cocktails that are boozy but also complex. Theme nights and a backyard patio further enhance the atmosphere. Places like Voodoo Queen, Under the Volcano and Double Trouble may have tiki elements, but none have so thoroughly embraced the concept with such delightful results.
Credit the owners of Goro & Gun for two important realizations: first, people who hang out on the 300 block of Main are more interested in drinks than food; two, bartender Alexander Gregg deserves his own establishment. Enter Moving Sidewalk, which trades Goro's whimsical decor (no more Pee-wee Herman or money cat) for a subdued look that puts the focus squarely on Gregg's talented staff.
While it might seem that the block already has enough places to get a drink, Moving Sidewalk takes advantage of its full kitchen to create syrups, infusions and other cocktail components that separate its drinks from neighboring establishments. Also, a service-oriented attitude means that drinks come out quickly, even when patrons are three deep on a rollicking Saturday night.
Julep/The Nightingale Room
Both of these concepts from the Clumsy Butcher Group (Underbelly, Anvil, etc) are built around the personal interests of the talented people the company has partnered with to run them. At Julep, Alba Huerta's passion for Southern cocktails comes through in the elegant design, extensive cocktail menu and cold seafood offerings. At The Nightingale Room, Mike Criss's desire to give the 300 block of Main a high energy music venue stems from the massive vinyl collection and fun drinks that include a variety of creative shots.
Julep is obviously the more fully-formed venture at this point; it's bourbon selection alone makes it a destination, but don't miss the killer French fries and hush puppies on the food menu. However, the Nightingale will grow in 2015 when it starts hosting live performances from its elevated stage. Together, they're raising people's expectations for bars around the city — and forcing other operators to step up their game.
Public Services Wine & Whisky
When I visited Public Services during its soft opening, I wondered about the audience for a bar with a limited selection of pre-mixed cocktails and a lengthy list of wine and whisky. In time, I've come to appreciate that this bar from sommelier Justin Vann and Oxheart chef/owners Justin Yu and Karen Man uses both its menu and its pretty Victorian era decor to separate itself from all of the other recent openings downtown.
Whether during a quiet weeknight visit or during a more bustling Saturday night service, the bar seems to attract mostly upwardly mobile young professionals who appreciate the ability to pair a well-chosen glass of sherry with their whisky of choice, as well as the hyper-knowledgable service led by Vann and general manager Sean Jensen. Add in bar snacks from the Oxheart kitchen, including a cheese plate that features Mann's peerless biscuits, and Public Services becomes the sort of place that's both intimate enough for a date night and comfortable enough for a small birthday gathering with friends.
Credit Shawn Bermudez, the principle behind Pistolero's, Boondocks and Royal Oak, for knowing his audience. As he's gotten older, each of his successive concepts have gotten a little more mature, a little more comfortable. With a Juliet balcony and plush booths, Stone's Throw probably won't appeal to the T-shirt wearing, Lone Star-drinking crowd at Boondocks, but it does appeal to someone like me, a guy in his mid-30s who wants to enjoy a lively atmosphere and good drinks without too much of a fuss.
Daily specials, particularly Wednesday night's discounts on punch bowls, help keep the tab reasonable, too.
Every neighborhood needs a comfortable watering hole staffed by friendly faces who remember their regulars' favorite drinks. In Oak Forest, that bar is Sassafras. Opened by bartenders who worked together at Grand Prize and Big Star Bar, Sassafras offers a full range of spirits, an interesting mix of craft beers and a well-chosen smattering of wines to keep its regulars happy.
The dimly lit room features a few video games for entertainment, but the focus is on hanging out with friends. One thing that separates the bar from its peers is a Monday night steak that features dry-aged Black Hills meat for only $20. It might be the best value in the city.
A California-based rugby bar with a classically trained French chef serving a twist on South African cuisine that opens on Main Street in Houston sounds like the setup to a joke, but The Springbok is a place for a serious good time. The bar first emerged this summer as a popular destination for watching the World Cup and has evolved to be a solid spot for catching American football, too.
Chef Seth Greenburg's menu features elevated bar food like a wild boar Sloppy Joe alongside more elevated fare like lamb tartare. The beer and spirit selection caters to local tastes but also include some essential South African favorites. Together with Prohibition and El Big Bad, The Springbok gives downtown's emerging bar scene some solid food options, too.
Let's celebrate Ninja Ramen for what it is rather than complaining about what it isn't. Whether the ramen has met owner Christopher Huang's aspirations to serve a dish that meets the level of "good" instead of just "good for Houston" is a subject of fierce debate; for what it's worth, I like what I've eaten there, particularly the dipping noodles in a soy cream sauce, even if Tiger Den is still my personal favorite.
Regardless, it's both a solid late night dining option and a purveyor of an extensive selection of high quality Japanese beers and whiskeys at reasonable prices. Those are both good and valuable things, in my opinion, and worthy of celebrating.