Bars are special places. They're the places people go to celebrate a special occasion or ruminate after a bad day. Clumsy Butcher head Bobby Heugel offered an almost philosophical perspective on bars and bartending when The Pastry War opened in 2013.
"Bars aren't important. It's not noble work," Heugel said at the time. "But really great things happen in bars. Whenever we open a new place, I like to think of all the people that will meet one another and then go on to start families. Or all the birthdays, first dates, all these different things that will happen in bar spaces. It’s just cool."
"Really great things happen in bars."
As selected by our panel of restaurant industry insiders, the seven CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Bar of the Year nominees stand out for the way they provide just the right setting for just the right moment. It's fun to think about all the occasions they have played host to and will host in the future.
Tickets for the Tastemaker Awards party on May 13 at Silver Street Studios are sold out, but there will be 50 General Admission tickets available at the door on a first come, first served basis for $50 each.
One of only two holdovers from last year's nominees, this Montrose wine bar makes service its calling card. Led by advanced sommelier David Keck, the staff can recite details about every selection's varietal, style and flavor profile. Whether a patron is in the mood for a fruit forward red or a crisp, acidic white, count on Camerata's bartenders to suggest just the right bottle. They've even started to share that knowledge with their customers by holding wine classes on a variety of topics. As for the selection, it's sufficiently diverse that wine professionals from across the city frequently drop in to taste the new arrivals.
El Big Bad
This nomination probably reflects the essential truth about El Big Bad. Although it was originally intended to be a more food-focused version of El Gran Malo, people, or at least our panelists, seek it out for its lengthy selection of infused tequilas and agave cocktails first and foremost. Now under the direction of well-traveled Houston chef Jonathan Jones, the food is good, if not quite destination-worthy in the same way the cocktails are. For those who've never been, El Big Bad is at its absolute best enjoyed on nice days when patrons fill the third-story patio that looks out over Market Square; have a blueberry-jalapeno margarita, pair it with a couple of tacos and enjoy the sunshine.
At Julep, Alba Huerta's passion for Southern culture comes through in the elegant design that gives the room a romantic, genteel atmosphere. The bar's bourbon selection alone makes it a destination, but the decadent seafood tower is a can't-miss splurge. No wonder its become a standard-bearer for Washington Ave's new, more grown up direction. Thankfully, as Julep's oyster-shucking contest demonstrated, it doesn't take itself so seriously that it can't host a silly good time.
This tiki bar in a North Main street strip center blends owners 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 deliver layers of flavor while being extremely strong. Two is an absolute limit for all but the most experienced drinkers.
Mongoose vs Cobra
Potent drinks, a great craft beer selection and a tidy food menu of tempting snacks all contribute to Mongoose versus Cobra's status as one of Midtown's best bar. Part of the Midtown mini-empire developed by 13 Celsius/Weights + Measures co-owners Ian Rosenberg and Mike Sammons, this place provides a respite from the nearby party scene while still providing an atmosphere that feels both upscale and welcoming. Credit the bar's staff for maintaining that tricky balancing act. No wonder it's our other two-time Tastemakers nominee.
Moving Sidewalk swapped out its former life as Goro & Gun for a second act as a cocktail bar with a subdued look that puts the focus squarely on co-owner (and Tastemakers Bartender of the Year nominee) Alexander 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 a custom ice program that separate its drinks from neighboring establishments. The bar's service-oriented attitude means that drinks come out quickly, even when patrons are three deep on a rollicking Saturday night.
No establishment in Houston caters to geek culture as well as this EaDo spot that opened in 2014. Dressed up like a superhero? Come on in and read about your character's adventures from one of the comic books on a shelf. Need a GoldenEye or Mario Kart fix? Neil's Bahr offers retro video games and even hosts occasional tournaments. Yes, the weekly trivia nights are very competitive.