Daring New Bar Opening

An intimate cocktail bar opens up in midst of Houston's most crazed party scene: Will quality work in Midtown?

An Intimate cocktail haven opens up in Midtown's crazed party scene

Spare Key Midtown bar Chris Frankel
Spare Key's intimate space may not lend well to late night photography, but it's very different than its Midtown neighbors. Photo by Eric Sandler
Chris Frankel bartender Anvil
Chris Frankel brings his experience from Anvil and other bars to Spare Key. Photo courtesy of Houston Food Crawl
Spare Key Midtown bar Chris Frankel
Chris Frankel bartender Anvil

It's a busy Saturday night on Bagby Street where Midtown earns its reputation as the city's premier party spot. The hour may be past 1 a.m., but places like The Gaslamp, Dogwood and Sage County all still sport long lines of well-dressed people. 

In the middle of the chaos, a refuge exists. Unmarked —at least for now — up a flight of stairs above Cook & Collins, only about a dozen people have noticed the very soft opening of Spare Key. Even when the bar marks its official debut on Friday night, it will be a very different place than its neighbors.

At only 30 seats or so, Spare Key's capacity might be barely more people than the line for the bathroom at the Dogwood. Instead of a platoon of bartenders pulling taps and shaking Vegas bombs, Spare Key only has two people behind the bar. One of them is operating partner Chris Frankel. He's a St. John's alum with a well-traveled pedigree that includes stints at places like Anvil, RDG + Bar Annie and Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar and Spirit Lodge.

Frankel has lived in Midtown for eight years. He knows he's offering something different from his neighbors or even from other cocktail bars. For example, instead of an elaborate menu, Spare Key only has five classics and five house cocktails on its menu.

 At only 30 seats or so, Spare Key's capacity might be barely more people than the line for the bathroom at the Dogwood.  

"There is a trend to overdo cocktails with an elaborate menu," Frankel explains. "Sometimes you want a well-made Old Fashioned or Manhattan. I think there's room for another bar that serves them."

More importantly, Frankel prefers to to have a conversation with his patrons about what they like instead of having them study a menu. That interaction allows him to craft a cocktail that suits their tastes.

When a patron on Saturday asked for a Tito's vodka, which isn't on Spare Key's spirits list, Frankel was quick to suggest the vodka he does carry.

Recalling the moment a few days later, Frankel says it's an example of Spare Key's style. "A lot of bars would say, 'We don't do that,' but that's not how to approach service." Furthermore, Frankel, who spent much of 2014 traveling, says he intends to work every shift at Spare Key for several months.

Whether there's a market for that in Midtown remains to be seen. It's entirely possible that the audience for high quality cocktails will stay in Montrose or downtown and leave Midtown for people who can't imagine life without Jägermeister. Then again, Frankel's been working to open his own concept for awhile. He thinks he's catching the neighborhood at the right moment and cites newcomers like Wooster's Garden and the upcoming Izakaya from Kata Robata as examples of the changes taking place.

Of course, Frankel's well-documented affection for Red Bull should help him meet his future customers in the middle between cocktail snobbery and party shots.

"My reputation proceeds me," he says with a chuckle. "I'll keep it in stock. If you want to bomb something, it's always available."