As the old adage says, everything is bigger in Texas. And that’s certainly true of the bar scene in the state’s largest city: Houston. It boasts an exceptional number of establishments specializing in tequila and is home to one of the most celebrated cocktail joints in the whole country, Anvil Bar & Refuge.
Here’s my spirited tour of Houston, which covers watering holes of all kinds. Cheers!
ANVIL BAR & REVUGE, 1424 WESTHEIMER RD., 713 -523-1622:
Anvil kick-started craft-cocktail culture in Houston. This James Beard Award semifinalist, led by the enigmatic Bobby Heugel and the talented Alba Huerta, is the poster child of what a bar should be, providing great music, a fun atmosphere, and fantastic elixirs that combine vintage recipes with modern experimentation.
What to Drink: The Brave (mezcal, sotol, amaro, Curaçao, Angostura Bitters)
BIG STAR BAR, 1005 WEST 19TH ST., 281-501-9560:
Looking for the divey bartender hangout? Head to Big Star for Lone Star Beers and shots of whiskey. Its cracked kitchen tiles, bad living room furniture, and terrible lighting are expected, but there is also a giant garden out back packed with tables where you can get lost in time.
What to Drink: Six-pack of Lone Star Beer (yes, they sell them six at a time) and a Jameson shot
BRASSERIE 19, 1962 WEST GRAY ST., 713-524-1919:
Forget paper menus or chalkboards; the drinks list here is on an iPad. Not only are there images of each tipple, but also with a touch of a button, you’ll find a wealth of knowledge. You can even place your order through the tablet. Head bartender Joseph Stark has compiled a really fine selection of mostly staples, which complements the array of traditional bistro dishes.
What to Drink: Part & Parcel (Aylesbury Duck Vodka, St-Germain, grapefruit juice, hopped grapefruit bitters)
DOWN HOUSE, 1801 YALE ST., 713-864-3696:
With a barn-like feel, Down House features delicious comfort food, a familiar cast of craft beers, and a fun list of classic cocktails, from an Aperol Spritz and a Pimm’s Cup to a Sazerac and Negroni. There’s also a small number of original concoctions that include experiments with house-made tinctures, syrups, and foams.
What to Drink: Mambo Sun (white rum, lime, sugar, pineapple, coconut-lime egg foam)
DOWNING STREET PUB, 2549 KIRBY DRIVE, 713-523-2291:
If you want a single malt and a cigar, this is your hangout. It stocks more than 200 whiskies from around the world, and the giant humidor in the middle of the room would make even Arnold Schwarzenegger swoon. Photos of Winston Churchill and his friends grace the walls, which explains why it’s named after the address of Britain’s prime minister. It is, of course, a very manly place, with groups of guys puffing away on giant stogies and sipping expensive drams.
What to Drink: A flight of whiskies
THE EIGHTEENTH COCKTAIL BAR, 2511 BISSONNET ST., 713-533-9800:
A photo of Al Capone greets you as you walk into this rather obvious speakeasy. And to put you in an old-timey mood, black-and-white movies of Charlie Chaplin are screened and some of Prohibition’s best-known pictures grace the walls, while a jazz musician tinkers away at a piano. The cocktails, however, aren’t trapped in that era, with plenty of trendy ingredients and techniques. The bartenders are passionate about their drinks but are laid-back enough to make this an enjoyable spot.
What to Drink: Blind Pig (Avión Reposado Tequila, Fruitlab Jasmine Liqueur, Bar Keep Baked Apple Bitters)
EL GRAN MALO, 2307 ELLA BLVD., 832-767-3405:
I instantly loved the décor of this tequila watering hole, which captures both the kitsch and cool of Mexico with its murals and rose-covered shrines to tequila. Try one of the outrageous infusions made with the agave-based spirit, like one flavored with black pepper and cayenne, or a tasty margarita. There are also tacos from chef Greg Lowry, which provide the perfect nourishment to match the atmosphere.
What to Drink: Blueberry Jalapeño Cilantro Margarita (silver tequila, blueberries, cilantro, jalapeño, lemon juice, lime juice, agave nectar)
HAVEN, 2502 ALGERIAN WAY, 713-581-6101:
Haven is a restaurant run by award-winning chef Randy Evans that serves "modern Texas cuisine" and showcases a very international and interesting list of fine wines. The range of cocktails draws inspiration from the food and makes use of gourmet house-made ingredients. Each drink comes along with a description or a little factoid to help guide you, such as "refreshing, light and bubbly" or "Meyer lemons are big and beautiful in Texas this year."
What to Drink: The Airmail (rum, lime, honey, sparkling wine)
LA CARAFE, 813 CONGRESS ST., 713-229-9399:
If you want a slice of history, then La Carafe is where you should go. Inside this building constructed in 1847 is a small, dark, candle-lit saloon (the oldest in town) that only serves beer and wine. The pictures on the walls celebrate its past, and the most modern thing in the room is a jukebox. You’ll be quickly transported away to another world.
What to Drink: Beer or wine
MONGOOSE VERSUS COBRA, 1011 MCGOWEN ST., 713-650-6872:
This establishment (pictured above) has a very cool name and one of the most interesting beer lists I have ever seen, with 41 brews from around the world (plus Fernet-Branca) on tap. It also stocks cask-conditioned ales and large-format bottles as well as a nice selection of spirits and cocktails. The talent running this joint clearly likes good booze of every style.
What to Drink: Red-Headed Stranger (double IPA, Campari, gin)
THE PASS & PROVISIONS, 807 TAFT ST., 713-628-902
Only a few weeks old, The Pass & Provisions is the latest hot spot in Houston. Located in a beautiful brick building, it’s both a restaurant and a bar. Its cocktail menu is broken into two sections: "house offerings" and "tried & true," with all the elixirs made from absurdly fine ingredients. Before you leave, take note of the awesome beer taps made from a meat cleaver and a spoon.
What to Drink: Mance Lipscomb (gin, madeira, apple cider, lemon, vanilla)