Houston's Best New Bars
Houston's Best New Bars: How drinking in the city changed forever this year
In my picks for Houston's best new restaurants, I offered the opinion that none of the places that have opened this year (at least through the end of November) are likely to rise to the same level of national prominence as the top restaurants of 2012. Which is fine. Not every restaurant has to be a game changer and not every year will be revolutionary.
On the other hand, I think 2013 was a great year for bars. As we approach Anvil's fifth anniversary in February, the cocktail mecca's undeniable influence on the city's drinking habits has begun to yield new places that expand on the legacy. The bar's former employees are starting their own places that rival the original in creativity. Even rebelling against the king has spurred a couple other bars to interesting offerings of their own.
This year was also a good one for wine, craft beer and bars with food that’s way better than traditional pub grub. Give those old favorites a break and check out one of the new arrivals. They’re pretty great.
God bless Paul Petronella for resisting his landlord's pleas to expand his Italian restaurant Paulie's into the vacant space next. First, the extra seating would have made the wait for food interminable, and, more importantly, there wouldn't have been a place for Advanced Sommelier David Keck to open Camerata. As befits Keck's stint as Uchi's beverage director, Camerata distinguishes itself with top-notch service.
The staff can not only recommend a wine based on flavor profile (dry, not too sweet reds, for instance), but they know how the wine was made and who produced it. That's all part of Keck's goal to educate Houstonians about wine. Yet, Camerata never feels stuffy or self-important. Just a comfortable, stylish space to gather with friends and drink great wine.
I suspect there’s a certain group of people who will read Bad News Bar owner Justin Burrow’s responses on Yelp to people who post negative reviews and decide the bar isn’t for them. That’s a shame, because Bad News is fantastic. Unmarked, dimly lit and expansive, the bar is pretty much the perfect place to spend a couple hours lingering over cocktails with friends.
Unmarked, dimly lit and expansive, the bar is pretty much the perfect place to spend a couple hours lingering over cocktails with friends.
When standing on the patio and watching both pedestrians hop from bar to bar and METRO rail pass below, the dreams that these new downtown openings will become permanent fixtures seems likely to become reality. As for the service, it's smooth and friendly, whether ordering from the cocktail menu or a classic.
Hopefully the fire marshal will raise the bar's occupancy soon. Then, more people will get to experience Bad News's magic without the waits that plague the bar on weekends.
When the restaurant industry crowd wants to grab a drink downtown without the crowds at OKRA or the line at Bad News, they had to Clutch City Squire. It's the straight-forward, comfortable alternative to its higher-profile neighbors on the 300 block of Main.
You don't need a cocktail menu — just order one of the beer and shot specials. As is appropriate given its name, Clutch City shows both Houston Rockets and Houston Astros games.
Looking for something a little more lively? Check out the bar's karaoke, comedy and DJ nights. Just don't pester the familiar faces smoking on the patio. They're there to relax.
Midtown's revival as a nightlife destination has been one of 2013's under the radar trends. No bar has better epitomized that resurgence than Austin-import Dogwood. Revelers from around the city have flocked to the two-story, open air patio bar, especially during good weather.
It's dog-friendly, the food selections are solid and there's a decent mix of craft and mainstream beer options. It isn't a cocktail destination, but the lively atmosphere is the primary draw. Catch a game on one of the multiple TVs and enjoy the view. Not every bar has to be serious business.
As a bar patron, I don't consider myself too difficult to please. Just develop the best possible use for Pabst Blue Ribbon and put the first Queens of the Stone Age album in your jukebox, and I'll be a regular customer.
D&T's frozen shandy meets the first criteria, and the jukebox, carefully selected by manager Jason Moore, ensures I can hear the dulcet tones of "Regular John" whenever I want. Other people might appreciate the absolutely killer, reasonably priced craft beer selection, comfortable patio, excellent bar snacks (developed by Down House chef Benjy Mason and Mike McElroy) and neighborhood atmosphere.
Or that the bar will host pop-ups for two of 2014's most highly anticipated restaurants, Hunky Dory and Foreign Correspondents. But me, I'm all about that frozen shandy and the jukebox.
Free Press head honcho Omar Afra had a simple vision: Open a neighborhood bar with great food and all-day hours that also serves as a showcase for some of the city's best artists. He tapped Eatsie Boys chef Matt Marcus to develop a menu of slightly twisted comfort classics, called in a bunch of big names to decorate the space and stocked the bar with reasonably priced drinks and a solid mix of local craft beers.
The result is a cleaned up, slightly more modern take on Montrose institution Rudyard's. Proving there's always room for another friendly place where neighbors can gather for food and drinks at all times of the day.
Few bars have had a more immediate impact on Houston than the OKRA Charity Saloon. A collaboration between some of Houston's most high-profile bar and restaurant owners, the bar launched with two missions. One, serve as a way for a group of successful entrepreneurs to give back to the city via an establishment that donates all of its profits to a different local charity each month. Two, serve as the beachhead for a wave of new concepts that opened all around it in Market Square.
As anyone who’s seen people standing four deep on the bar on a Saturday night can attest, the Charity Saloon has been a success on both fronts. Monthly donations have surged past $40,000, almost 10 new bars and restaurants have opened nearby and long-time survivors like Warren’s and La Carafe are seeing an uptick, too. All while serving drinks that befit its connection to Anvil and a tightly edited food menu of panini developed by Paulie’s owner Paul Petronella.
As anyone who’s seen people standing four deep on the bar on a Saturday night can attest, the Charity Saloon has been a success.
When it opened this fall, Clumsy Butcher president Bobby Heugel touted The Pastry War as a bar that serves the best possible agave-based spirits. Which it does. But even better than the rare mezcals and hard to find tequila are the cocktails developed by beverage director Alba Huerta.
Regardless of how they’re served, on the rocks or frozen, traditional lime or with an inventive syrup like strawberry balsamic or mango habanero, they’re solid improvements on Houston’s favorite cocktail. Combined with the Day of the Dead-inspired décor, the bar has a festive atmosphere that’s just fun.
It's a top notch happy hour destination and feels like it would be a fun stop on a birthday bar crawl. Just be nice to the door guy.
Of all the new bars to open in Midtown this year, 3rd Floor feels the most adult. By which I mean it’s an appropriate spot for a nightcap after a business dinner or as a first stop on date night. The elegant interior comes with scenic views of the downtown skyline. With an extensive selection of both craft beer and wine on tap, everyone can find something to enjoy.
While I wouldn’t make a meal out of the flatbreads and sharable plates, they do help take the edge off and taste pretty good, too.
Give credit to partners Evan Shannon and Brandon Young. They know how to please a crowd. After reopening craft beer and sausage emporium Moon Tower Inn, they launched Voodoo Queen as a tiki-inspired neighborhood bar. In the summer, try one of the over-sized frozen drinks made with plenty of booze. Now that the weather’s cooled off, there’s a new menu of hot drinks.
Looking for something to eat? Try one of the po' boys or snack on chicken and waffles. Want something to do? There’s darts and a pool table. Want something to listen to? Voodoo Queen has the only jukebox in town that’s equally likely to spin George Strait and Danzig.