As hard as the last year has been for restaurants, bars had an even tougher road. They stayed closed for a longer period of time and reopened more slowly.
Many adapted to shifting government regulations by converting their operations into “restaurants” and adding food for the first time. Others stayed closed for as long as possible until vaccine distribution made it possible for their staffs to operate safely.
Thankfully, these 10 establishments made it through to the other side and are once again serving customers both inside and out. Our judges panel of restaurant industry insiders selected them as the best of the best for their quality, consistency, and service.
Who will win? Find out July 22 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 now.
East End Backyard
Soccer star Brian Ching followed up his success at Pitch 25 with this sprawling patio bar. The outdoor area features a dog park that’s an ideal gathering spot for residents of the nearby apartments and townhomes who need a place for their pups to play. Hosting frequent food pop-ups and other happenings gives regulars plenty of reasons to return.
Eight Row Flint
Agricole Hospitality’s patio bar may have opened with the motto of “whiskey, beer, and tacos,” but it has become almost equally focused on agave. No bar in Houston has more fully embraced the Ranchwater with multiple variations of the ultra-popular tequila and soda concoction. As always, Eight Row’s food menu offers broad appealing, particularly signature items like the Brussels sprouts tacos and buttermilk and white Cheddar queso.
After staying closed longer than more other Houston bars, Grand Prize found itself in the news when a customer assaulted employee Josh Vaughan over a mask requirement. The incident drew national attention and served as a reminder of the bar’s commitment to keeping its staff safe. Beyond the drama, Grand Prize remains an understated establishment with sneaky good cocktails, a welcoming atmosphere, and an appealing food menu — all of which have made it a favorite after work gathering spot for restaurant industry employees.
Heights Bier Garten
The area near Heights Bier Garten offers revelers lots of places to grab a drink, but crowds continue to flock to HBG. Credit its winning combination of a fully landscaped patio, 94 taps of beer and wine, food offerings that start with housemade sausages, and an extensive selection of spirits and cocktails. No wonder The Kirby Group will introduce a new variation of the concept on Washington Avenue later this year.
Johnny's Gold Brick
Intended to be a “bar ass bar” when it opened in 2015, Johnny’s had to navigate unfamiliar waters to survive the last year. It embraced cocktails to-go, added more food pop-ups, and adopted extensive safety protocols to keep both staff and customers safe. One thing hasn’t changed: a creative staff whose monthly menus are always must try.
Like many other establishments, Houston’s best tiki bar responded to the challenges of the last year by selling drinks to-go, which could have been challenging given its reputation for elaborate garnishes. Still, its legions of fans helped sustain Lei Low through the lean times, and regular learned that a little Lei Low is better than none at all. Thankfully, everyone is once again welcome to drink its incredibly potent cocktails in its singularly kitschy, tropical environment.
The Marquis II
Neither interminable street construction nor a global pandemic could stop this 75-year old institution from serving customers. Things may have been touch-and-go at times, but the bars’ fans always step up to keep it going. Now a new generation of Houstonians can experience the singular delights of its signature Texas Teas.
An essential destination for a certain segment of restaurant workers, including our Tastemaker Awards judges, this Washington Avenue establishment offers more than comforting bowls of noodles late into the night. Regulars know it for its peerless selection of Asian whiskies at eminently reasonable prices. More than that, owner Christopher Huang is a cheerful presence on the scene who supports any number of pop-ups, charitable endeavors, and other good works with enthusiasm and sincerity.
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. To keep things rolling during the pandemic, the bar turned to a number of different strategies, including selling hot dogs and offering pours of its rarer bourbons neatly packaged for to-go consumption. The recent return of bar stools marks another important sign that life at bars and restaurants is slowly returning to normal.
Two Headed Dog
Led by last year’s Bartender of the Year winner Lindsay Rae Burleson, this Midtown spot can satisfy a person’s craving for a shot and a beer in an unpretentious environment or cocktail obsessives who want to market at its housemade ingredients. Life as a to-go operation involved promotions such as drinks with ridiculous garnishes, but the return of in-person service is a welcome one. Bring on the vibrator races!