When Bobby Heugel says he’s about to open the bar of his career, Houston cocktail lovers shiver with anticipation. After all, that’s a pretty tall order for one of the creators of essential drinking destinations such as Anvil, The Pastry War, and Better Luck Tomorrow.
Heugel’s ambitions are centered around Refuge, a new bar that will open in a second floor space in the same building as Anvil. To create Refuge, Heugel and his team walled off the second floor of the former Etro/Penny Quarter space. The result is a dimly lit (most of the lighting comes from lamps), intimate environment with space for approximately 50 people. It’s the veteran entrepreneur’s first new project since Penny Quarter opened in 2019.
“The past two years have really made us question what is important to us and why we do what we do,” Heugel said in a statement. “Sure, the safe move coming out of this difficult era would be to open bars that are easier to operate and more profitable, but what I missed the most while being forced to operate in ‘survival mode’ during COVID was the challenge of finding new levels of creativity in our bars and helping our guests forget the world outside with unique experiences.
“We lost that, and we’re going to celebrate being able to do that again with Refuge. It’s going to be our best bar yet — no doubt about it.”
Opening Refuge means that Anvil’s official name of “Anvil Bar & Refuge” will now refer to two spaces: Anvil Bar (downstairs) and Refuge (upstairs). It also means that day-to-day operations of Tongue-Cut Sparrow have been suspended for now, although its space remains available for private events. The formal, Japanese-inspired cocktail bar relocated to its current home in 2020 after the pandemic forced the closure of both The Pastry War and Penny Quarter. Heugel tells CultureMap that the bar isn’t permanently closed, but his team has focused its attention on Refuge for now.
Thoughtful touches inspired by Heugel’s career and travels to the world’s best bars can be found throughout the space. Drinks are served on linen coasters, and poured into high quality glassware sourced from Japan, Italy, France, and the United States. Every table will be equipped with a brass ice bucket to keep its water carafe properly chilled. A soundtrack the blends hip-hop and jazz will keep the atmosphere lively. Signature design elements include a walnut-topped bar, brass dishes for snacks, and a giant replica neon sign of the one found in Havana’s Floridita bar; Heugel has been holding onto the piece for years until he created the right environment to display it, according to a release.
Even more than elegant glassware, creating a successful bar requires the right team. At Refuge, that starts with veteran Anvil general manager Tommy Ho, who will also supervise the new bar. Heugel adds that he and business partner Steve Flippo are making Ho a partner in both establishments.
"Opening Refuge and taking this enormous step in my hospitality career is surreal," Ho said. "We can’t wait to showcase everything the team has tirelessly worked on. Very few people in our industry get to be a part of a project that pursues these types of goals and getting to be a partner in that type of bar makes all the work to this point worth it.”
Tongue-Cut Sparrow veterans Peter Jahnke and Máté Hartai will be behind the bar at the opening before heading to Galveston to assist with the opening of Hotel Lucine, the ambitious new project Heugel has undertaken with his business partner at Better Luck Tomorrow and Squable, James Beard Award-winning chef Justin Yu. Head bartender Kristen Nepomuceno comes to Refuge from Squable, where she displayed the sort of consistent professionalism that made her an ideal fit for the new role.
“Working with Kristen at Squable reminded me distinctly of people that mentored me in the past and of traits the industry is missing today,” Heugel said in a statement. “She’s energetic and friendly of course, but she never ‘takes a guest off’ or misses a moment to form a lasting relationship with someone. It’s a professional standard as much as an interpersonal one that you just don’t see that often these days.”
“Refuge inhabits a wonderfully intimate space which spoke to me immediately," Nepomuceno said. "I’m humbled to have the opportunity to lead such a seasoned bar team, and I’m excited to be part of this very ambitious opening. More than anything, I’m excited to take a leadership role with a company that has coached so many employees into bar ownership, a goal I have for myself one day,”
Refuge’s drinks start with a back bar of 200 spirits selected by Ho. It distinguishes itself from Anvil’s 200 bottles by features different varieties of Shōchū, more modern gins, “new wave amaros,” and European brandies.
Drinks will be divided into three sections: Originals, Classics & Riffs, and Excessives. Selections include the Pantone 359, described as “a pastel green mixture of coconut-washed rum and basil soda from Hartai,” and Eastern Non-Sour, a Japanese whisky sour made with a seven-citrus cordial. Other options include Nepomuceno’s Hall Pass, a sparkling cocktail with French gin, lemon, chamomile, gooseberry and Champagne, and Heugel’s Greenhorn, a combination of Valley Tequila, Midori, and Suze. Heugel suggests the “best drink on the menu” belongs to Jahnke, who created a Sauternes Cobbler with mango. As its name implies, the selections in the Excessives section will feature cocktails made with premium spirits at a price point above the $16 charged for the other drinks.
“Great drinks and a fun room aren’t competing ideas, despite how commonly that occurs in cocktails bars today," Heugel said. "I think we proved that at Anvil years ago, and we’re going to do that again but in a way that shows just how much we’ve learned and grown as a team.”
Refuge will have a soft opening this weekend before officially opening to the public Tuesday, May 17. From then on, it will be open Tuesday-Saturday from 5 pm-1 am.