After the sun sets, lounges, saloons and speakeasies come alive in Houston. – By Kathi Mosbacher
Forget everything commonplace that’s been said about the Bayou City. An up-to-date look at its nightlife will confirm Forbes magazine’s recent declaration that “Houston is the coolest city in the country to live.” Driven by its exotic ethnic and cultural diversity, the fusions explored in the Houston night scene run the gamut from expertly curated beer halls to jazzy speakeasies and luxe lounges, where imaginative pairings of decor, food and beverages await the intrepid visitor.
Curated Cocktails and Craft Beer
Cocktails are taken very seriously in this town, and nowhere more so than at Anvil Bar & Refuge, a reclaimed mid-century Bridgestone tire store on Westheimer. The atmosphere is bare-brick, industrial chic, and the cocktails are confected from seasonal, fresh ingredients and house-made infusions. Sample one of the house favorites, such as the Pliny’s Tonic—a drink tart with lime, cooled with cucumber and mint and infused with a surprising heat of habanero tincture. (713-523-1622; anvilhouston.com)
Just half a block away is The Hay Merchant Craft Food and Beer. Owned by Bobby Heugel (who also owns Anvil Bar & Refuge) and his partners—Steve Flippo, Chris Shepherd and Kevin Floyd—this beer hall approaches its craft with the same solemnity as cocktails at Anvil.
“Hay Merchant is a craft beer bar with 80 taps that focuses on mostly American craft beer,” Floyd says. “Our only job is to be good stewards of good beer.”
Cask is king here, but the food is taken just as seriously. Under the guidance of renowned chef Antoine Ware, the kitchen turns out a masterful assortment of way-beyond-bar food offerings—including the highly addictive fried pig ears, sweet and savory Korean barbecue beef and caramelized honey and fish sauce-glazed Vietnamese chicken wings. (713-528-9805; haymerchant.com)
Historic Bars and Plucky Saloons
For those searching for soul, Leon’s Lounge has the distinction of being the oldest bar in Houston (opened in 1947). Re-imagined two years ago and renovated by bar-owning veterans Pete Mitchell and his Argentine wife, Vera, the lounge today is a distinctive spot among the typical bars and saloons. “It reminded Vera very much of the kind of chandelier-lighted, antique-filled bar you might find in San Telmo, the French part of Buenos Aires,” Mitchell says. Here, the classic cocktail has paid its dues, whereas the Pimm’s Cup is a perennial favorite in the sweltering Houston weather. The Whiskey Smash is also a refreshing choice with freshly muddled julep. Buttery empanadas, clearly Vera’s touch, are local favorites in the bar food category, too. (713-659-5366)
Next is Mongoose versus Cobra, where owners Ian Rosenberg and Mike Sammons rescued a 100-year-old brick structure, transforming it into an industrial yet elegant saloon. The saloon’s unusual name is inspired by a Joseph Rudyard Kipling story, where the wily mongoose outwits the powerful cobra. Both partners felt this story was emblematic of their challenge to celebrate the underdog: the little-known craft merchants of beer and spirits. The bar snacks are tasty, with Texas favorites such as beef jerky, pickled eggs or a freshly baked pretzel served with house-made mustard or smothered in cheese, bacon and chilies, rightly called the “Midnight Special.” (713-650-6872; mongooseversuscobra.com)
Another newcomer, The Eighteenth Cocktail Bar, was opened by father and son duo Frank and Erick Ramirez. The bar boasts a vintage look with crystal globe lights, plush velvet armchairs and tufted leather banquets. Tuesday through Friday, a crowd converges for happy hour to enjoy jazz duo Waterstrip Jazz, sip Al Capone’s favorite cocktail in delicate Champagne coupes and watch silent images of black-and-white films such as “Scarface” on flat screen TVs. The pace picks up afterward with a disc jockey on Thursday through Saturday night. (713-533-9800; 18thbar.net)
If sitting quietly enjoying a perfect shepherd’s pie and a traditional 20-ounce imperial pint of Guinness while listening to Junior Brown play steel guitar sounds good, McGonigel’s Mucky Duck is the place to be.
“It’s a restaurant and eclectic music venue,” says Rusty Andrews, who opened “The Duck” some 22 years ago. “Part of our charm is intimacy, like listening to a concert in your living room with your best friends.” “The Duck” is also respected for the caliber of its artists and its chicken potpie. (713-528-5999; mcgonigels.com)
Katsuya by Starck is one of the most glamorous places to be on a Friday night in the River Oaks neighborhood. While it’s by no means a requirement, a well-cut blazer or business suit and a little black dress and Louboutins would not be out of place at the Dragon Lounge and Bar inside the restaurant.
Concierge Tim Hess at The St. Regis Houston agrees: “It’s a very ‘see and be seen’ kind of place. Beautiful people in a beautiful bar.” Grab a seat on one of the lounge’s soft, white couches, order a vodka-based Burning Mandarin braced with fresh-squeezed citrus and the heat of crushed serrano chilies. Also, be sure to enjoy a few of master sushi chef Katsuya Uechi’s spectacular creations, like his signature crispy rice with spicy tuna or delicately baked crab roll and sauteed shishito peppers. Or, try a 12-ounce Kobe ribeye on top of maitake mushrooms enriched wit
h a little truffle butter, which is exclusive to its menu. (713-590-2800; sbe.com/katsuya/houston)
Saint Genevieve, another posh lounge, sits directly across from Katsuya at the chic, new property on the corner of Kirby Drive and Westheimer, called West Ave. Brothers Jeff and Darren Van Delden, owners of several other popular bars around town, decided to up the ante with this 100-year-old lounge.
“We focus on creating a sophisticated, social environment with intriguing cocktails and foods that bring people together,” Darren says. Try the elegant Audrey or Darren’s personal favorite, the Chingon, a high-impact but low-calorie mixture of Corzo Silver Tequila, fresh lime, agave, seeded jalapeno and fresh ginger. The exotic but beautifully executed menu, devised by local culinary star Kevin Naderi, features the recommended crispy Brussels sprout chips, short rib taquitos and Mumbai fried chicken. (713-524-2441; saintgen.com)
Houston may not be the first place that comes to mind regarding lively night scenes, however, venues with unique interiors, signature drinks and exciting atmospheres are putting the city on the map. With its range of settings—from relaxed beer halls to jazzy speakeasies—visitors and residents alike will surely find a favorite local spot to come back to again and again.