bars of the year
Raise a glass to Houston’s 14 best bars of 2020
UPDATE: The CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, originally scheduled for April 2, will now be held on August 6. The story has been updated with the new date.
Let’s cut to the chase and share an important truth. Bars are fun.
Dining at a restaurants comes with lots of expectations, especially when it comes to service. If a meal starts to go south, almost nothing can save it.
The solution to a bad experience at a bar is simple. Pay your tab and go to another bar.
Not that such a thing would ever happen at the 14 finalists for the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Bar of the Year. These establishments, a mix of established veterans and some of 2019’s most exciting newcomers, always show their customers a good time.
Admittedly, this list, selected by our panel of judges made up of former Tastemaker Award winners, barely scratches the surface of what Houston’s bar scene has to offer. That’s just a testament to how varied the city’s options are.
Who will win? Find out August 6 at the Tastemaker Awards party. We’ll dine on bites from this year’s nominated restaurants before emcee Bun B reveals the winners. Buy tickets (at special early bird pricing!) now.
Camerata at Paulie's
The Montrose wine bar remains a place when oenophiles and neophytes can gather to enjoy their favorite vintages. Led by owner Paul Petronella and wine director Chris Poldoian, the staff not only guide customers to a wine that suits their taste, but they help people appreciate wines they would not otherwise have known about. The dimly-lit, modern space has an undeniably romantic vibe, which may explain why it’s such a popular date night spot. Later this year, they’ll expand their reach with a second location in Garden Oaks.
That a master sommelier, a talented chef, and a local businessman would unite to open a honky tonk certainly surprised people, but Goodnight Charlie’s makes more sense now that its partners — David Keck, Felipe Riccio, Peter McCarthy, and (later) June Rodil — have added two restaurants and a wine shop to their portfolio. The bar serves as the perfect place to start or finish an evening when dining at Rosie Cannonball or a destination in its own right. Free live music, well-priced whiskey, and the friendly staff have all made Goodnight Charlie’s an instant Montrose staple.
Heights Bier Garten/Worcester's Annex
The crown jewel of The Kirby Group, the local mini-empire that also includes Wooster’s Garden, Holman Draft Hall, and Pitch 25, these twin bars cater to all tastes. Wine and beer lovers will find something worth sipping from the 94 taps, and spirits enthusiasts can dive deep into a spirits list that’s particularly strong in both whiskey and agave. The expansive, fully-landscapped patio isn’t just a comfortable place to drink; chef Brandon Silva’s menu of housemade sausages, sandwiches, and shareable vegetable plates make the bars a good place to eat, too.
How to Survive on Land and Sea
For his first solo project, Mike Sammons — best known as a partner in both 13 Celsius and Mongoose versus Cobra — turned a shabby building in the East End into an utterly charming wine bar. How to Survive limits its by-the-glass to fewer than a dozen options; the implication being that they’re all equally delicious and worth trying. Those looking to learn more about what they’re drinking can grab a seat at the large, U-shaped bar, where the knowledgeable staff can explain the fine points of Sammons’ selections. While the interior is mostly no-frills, that suits the neighborhood’s industrial character.
Johnny's Gold Brick
One of the city’s most reliable destinations for a well-made cocktail, Johnny’s operates on two levels. Keep it simple by ordering one of the bar’s $8 classic cocktails (the menu is painted on the wall) or a craft beer. Those feeling a little more adventurous should check out the monthly specials, where the bartenders express their creativity with complex concoctions. They cost a little more than $8, but they’re always worth trying.
With its brass overhang and comfortable booths, Alba Huerta’s Southern-inspired cocktail bar has a romantic quality that sets it apart from other establishments. Whether sipping on its namesake cocktail or a house original like the Cherry Bounce Sour, the drinks are always balanced and flavorful. The tidy food menu offers satisfying bites that are as eclectic and thoughtful as the drinks.
Even as more tiki-inspired bars open in Houston, no establishment does a better job of transporting its patrons to a tropical paradise than this Heights institution. Beyond the kitschy decor, drinkers will find a full selection of classic tiki cocktails that are enhanced with a wide array of housemade syrups and infusions, and groups will enjoy the large format cocktails served in ornate punch bowls. Rums fans will find plenty to explore on the back bar.
This natural wine bar has become a favorite of Houston’s beverage professionals since it opened in 2018. Whether picking a glass of pet nat to sip on the patio or grabbing a bottle to-go, the well-priced selection of wines from around the world always offers interesting choices. Located in a converted house, the bar offers a mix of seating options — as well as a comfortable patio — that make it an appealing date night destination.
If nothing else, this EaDo bar’s stylish room full of mid-century modern furniture serves as proof of one essential truth — Julia and Morgan Weber have excellent taste. Morgan Weber, and the bar’s staff, have excellent taste in drinks, too, as evidenced by the lengthy cocktail menu that can cover just about any craving. Sharing a building with Indianola means the bar gets access to the restaurant’s extensive wine list and snacks from the kitchen, or people can satisfy their hunger with a slice delivered from Vinny’s.
If you build it, they will come. The phrase doesn’t only apply to baseball diamonds in Iowa cornfields but also to bars along the rail line in north Houston. Since it opened last summer, Monkey’s Tail has been an undeniable hit to its winning combination of tasty cocktails and approachable food. Where else can one get a beer, a shot, and a slice of pizza (or burger or hot dog) for just $8? The “No Pas Ta Cabron” — a cocktail served in a clear, plastic pouch — has been both an Instagram and taste sensation.
This wine bar and all-day cafe serves as a fitting companion to Anvil. In the morning and afternoon, Penny Quarter hosts a who’s who of Houston’s wine community that take advantage of the generous happy hour (half-off wines by-the-glass from 2-5 pm) as well as the nutritious, vegetarian-friendly menu created by co-owner Justin Yu and chef de cuisine Natasha Douglas. At night, patrons share charcuterie plates while exploring Justin Vann’s wine list and lounging in the second-story balcony.
Casual, unpretentious, and welcoming, the Montrose institution works equally well for bourbon connoisseurs who want to dive deep into the bar’s extensive selection as it does for people who want to drink beer while playing pinball. Poison Girl has been around long enough to last through at least two waves of people complaining about how much Montrose has changed for the worse, but its combination of strong drinks, reasonable prices, and a Kool-Aid Man has a timeless appeal that’s essentially universal.
The Toasted Coconut
As with its sister concept Nobie’s, this tiki-inspired concept doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it does take its food and drinks seriously. That means well-balanced, flavorful drinks from bartenders Sarah Troxell and Peter Jahnke combined with a tropical-inspired menu of appealing bites from chef Martin Stayer. More than the butter chicken dumplings or rum forward drinks, the service — delivered by a staff who truly seem happy to be working there — make every visit to The Toasted Coconut a pleasant experience.