It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Houston bar culture can be divided into two eras: B.B. and A.B. — Before Bobby and After.
We are now in the year 8 A.B., for it was in 2009 that mixologist Bobby Heugel opened Anvil Bar in the Montrose district and changed the way generations of Houstonians drank, possibly forever.
Yes, Heugel has mentors and predecessors, but nobody brought the gospel of fresh, delivered the tidings of tinctures, nor handed down the arcane kabbalah of craft cocktails to the youth of Houston quite like “Bobby Huge.”
Since then, Heugel’s empire has expanded. There’s his ode to craft beer in Hay Merchant, just down the street from Anvil. Downtown, he has a hand in the OKRA Charity Saloon (where a portion of the proceeds goes to the needy), the Nightingale Room (cocktails plus vinyl and live music) and the Pastry War, where he indulges his passion for hand-crafted mezcal.
You can’t go wrong at any of those bars, but contemporary Houston’s bar scene is far bigger than one man. This one-time shot-and-a-longneck kinda town has blossomed into one of the nation’s most varied and respected bar scenes.
These seven bars, firmly in the A.B. era, offer a bevy of beverage experiences, from lolling in a hammock al fresco with a cool glass of craft beer to sipping Elijah Craig Bourbon in the Gilded Age splendor of downtown’s old Cotton Exchange, with plenty of juleps, old-fashioneds and fine wines in between.
Just in time for the Super Bowl 51, Houston’s bar scene is LIt.
A chandelier-lit sliver of a room in a historic building on one of Houston’s best-preserved downtown blocks, Moving Sidewalk is all about dishing out craft cocktails minus all the eye-rolling attitude you find too often in such bars.
The driven, friendly staff — on the young side, though bar veterans all — prepare all their tinctures, syrups and fresh-squeezed juices in a tiny kitchen they call the Workshop, as only the best are worthy of pouring in the shaker with their carefully selected assemblage of whiskeys, rums and agave spirits.
For devotees of a refreshing mouth-tingle, there’s the sweet, sour and pungent Thunder River: Black Strap rum, tarted with apple ginger falernum, spiced with chili ginger tincture and carbonated with a touch of ginger beer.
If the weather’s warm, and it might very well be, try the totally tropical, Indian-accented Sitar Wolf: dark rum meets mango, tamarind, coconut and lime, accented with sprinklings of curry and a splash of habanero bitters.
Their happy hours (5-8 p.m. daily) feature a delightfully oddball selection: adorable, stubby Miller High Life seven-ounce “Ponies” at a buck a pop.
Fun fact: The bar’s name does not (necessarily) refer to the sensation you will feel after knocking back a couple of libations here.
The Moving Sidewalks were a trippy blues-rock combo that frequently played in a psychedelic club called the Love Street Light Circus a few blocks north. That band’s leader, sharp-dressed Billy Gibbons, went on to found ZZ Top, and you know the rest.
Moving Sidewalk, movingsidewalkbar.com
Why, yes, of course you can imbibe on the eponymous icy, crushed mint and Turbinado sugar-laced bourbon concoction here.
In fact, you can wrap your hands around a cold nickel-plated cup containing any one of many daily shifting variants on the Derby Day libation.
There’s always a traditional house julep, or maybe you’ll opt for a “Southern” (with Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac and Smith & Cross Jamaican rum replacing bourbon), or a “Sparkling,” starring effervescent Gamay wine and cognac instead of Kentucky whiskey, just to name a couple.
It all depends on the weather and the whims of internationally renowned owner Alba Huerta, who learned the finer points of the trade with Heugel at Anvil.
The rest of the cocktail menu warbles verse after verse of a song of the South, ranging everywhere from New Orleans (Hurricanes and Sazeracs) to Mississippi (the Eudora: dry gin, sherry, honey, celery and soda) and up to Virginia via the Cherry Bounce Sour, Martha Washington’s favorite tipple. (So that’s why George chopped down that cherry tree!)
Housed in a reclaimed Victorian clothing factory, Julep’s mellow vibe, graceful decor, small but delectable cold seafood menu (their seafood tower should be on your bucket list), and attention to detail have won it numerous accolades near and far.
Fun fact: Huerta has often said that Julep’s drink menu, both in style and in substance, was shaped in part by recipes and graphics she discovered in a tall stack of vintage copies of Ladies’ Home Journal.
Julep, 713-869-4383, julephouston.com
Houston Watch Co.
Taking its name from a long-shuttered watch shop, this two-level craft cocktail lounge has an effortless speak-easy vibe.
The front door is easy to blithely blow past, and there are gigantic antique safes marooned, probably for all eternity, on the balcony and in the ladies room. (Thanks to its two-ton heft, a previous tenant built the bathroom around one of the safes rather than trying to haul it out.)
The tile floors and upstairs balcony railing are original, while the chairs upstairs were salvaged from an auction of furnishings from the Petroleum Club — think the sort of establishment in which Houston’s answers to J.R. Ewing would swing a deal, woo a mistress or organize a price-fixing cartel.
Old-fashioneds are the lifeblood of the place, and you can get them in four flavors: rye, bourbon, sotol or Haitian rhum, each for only $8. Happy hour is even more of a steal: half-price on all wine and select whiskey and Lone Star longnecks for $2.
Fun facts: The lofts in the upper stories of this building were once the regional offices for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and the Houston Watch Company shop was not merely a place to pick up a Timex — it was also a sort of Prime Meridian for the railroad.
All the engineers and conductors synched their watches to the official time coming from 913 Franklin, a vital safeguard against train collisions.
And it was also the home of Houston’s “time service.” You remember that? When your watch stopped ticking or the power went out in your house, you’d dial some number and a robot would tell you what time it was?
Houston Watch Co., 713-485-0006, houstonwatchcompany.com
Houston is not much in the way of natural beauty, so we’ve had to build our own wonder. That would be our majestic skyline, the subject of pretty much every postcard ever mailed out of this town.
And the best place to knock back a cold one and take in that view is unquestionably the Raven Tower, the taproom located on the White Oak Music Hall complex.
Housed in a former metal shop on what passes around here for a hill on the banks of White Oak Bayou, Raven Tower is an industrial variation on the concept of the rustic Texas icehouse-style bar — indoor-outdoor, airy and lacking all four walls.
That absent wall is ideal here, because this place is all about the view. Oh, that and the two dozen beers on tap, full bar, and life-enhancing street tacos from the La Macro truck.
Go around sunset, and watch as Houston’s supertalls change colors in the fading light from coke-bottle green and metallic blue to harvest golden and burnt orange, and then stick around as they start to sparkle from within under the stars.
Fun fact: Three short days before the decisive Battle of San Jacinto that secured Texas independence, city namesake and one-time denizen Gen. Sam Houston and his army broke camp somewhere very near this spot.
As a young man in Tennessee, the future president of the Republic of Texas lived with the Cherokee, who named him “the Raven.” Years later, after a scandalous divorce, Sam hit the bottle, hard, and the Cherokee renamed him “the Big Drunk.”
What could be more appropriate than a bar named after the Raven near the spot where Houston spent his first night in the mega-city that bears his name?
Raven Tower, 832-925-7585, whiteoakmusichall.com/the-raven-tower
More and more, Houstonians are learning to embrace the outdoors, even during our brutally humid, sweltering summers. Nowhere is that more apparent than at Axelrad, a lush new beer garden surrounding a renovated 100-year-old grocery on Alabama Street, where the Museum District meets the Third Ward.
Axelrad specializes in local and regional craft beers (to match the local and regional art on the walls) poured into your glass via colorful tap handles created by a Venezuelan artist.
Grab your brew and head outside: Axelrad is home to Houston’s first and only hammock grove, so you know this is a place where you can really and truly kick back.
Come sundown, you might see videos or films screened al fresco, or catch a live band: Axelrad is the Houston home of New Orleans jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, and that green, gold and purple-lit tree makes him, and any other Mardi Gras-lover, feel right at home.
It’s dog- and kid-friendly (until 9 p.m.), and they’ve partnered up with adjacent Luigi’s Pizza, home of some of Houston’s finest pie, available by the slice or the whole shebang.
Fun fact: You get a 5% discount if you come by foot, bus, cab, ride-share, bike or even horseback — anything other than driving yourself.
Axelrad, 713-597-8800, axelradbeergarden.com
Public Services Wine & Whisky
Housed beneath gold-accented vaulted ceilings in one of Houston’s grandest rooms atop the High Victorian Cotton Exchange building, Public Services caters mainly to those who prefer wine or pure spirits served in a quiet but friendly atmosphere.
Justin Vann, former sommelier at James Beard Award-winning chef Justin Yu’s soon-to-close Oxheart, serves up elusive wines — a staggering array of varietals of red, white, rose and sparkling, and also extensive selections of sherry, port and Madeira.
On the spirits side, you can sample Scotches from a half-dozen distinct Scottish regions, not to mention whiskeys from Ireland, Japan, Taiwan, Spain and India.
Those who want to stay stateside can sample every variety of American whiskey from rye to sour mash to bourbon. Many, many bourbons: from dear Old Grand-Dad on the economy side to Elijah Craig Single Barrel at $42 a pour.
Fun fact: For the first 75 years of its existence, cotton was the undisputed king in Houston. At that time, the room that houses Public Services was Houston’s equivalent of the New York Stock Exchange — the very heart of the city’s economy.
And then along came oil. Still, there is no better place to drink in the history of Houston than Public Services.
Public Services Wine & Whisky, 713-516-8897, publicservicesbar.com/
Bayou & Bottle
Launching his first foray into Texas just in time for the Super Bowl, Denver-based international celebrity chef Richard Sandoval will throw open the doors of Bayou & Bottle later this month.
B&B will spotlight bourbon — they plan to stock 70 varieties and the bar will feature a wall of personalized lockers for you to stash your bottles and a “Bourbon Baroness” to help you navigate the process.
Other details are skimpy but tantalizing: the food menu will be “flavorful” and “reflect Houston’s melting pot of cultures.” From 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. you can grab your food and go from a purpose-built counter. And there will be something new under the sun: a Topgolf Swing Suite, the first golf simulator of its kind on the planet.
Bayou & Bottle is one component in the Four Seasons’ plan to transform itself into a self-contained urban resort: with the pool deck on the fourth floor, an overhauled fitness center/spa, to the Quattro/Vinoteca Italian restaurant/wine bar combo and Bayou & Bottle’s fun and games, the Four Seasons is aiming for nothing less than status as “Houston’s Living Room.”
Fun fact: Though neither of the competing teams will be staying in the Four Seasons, the hotel remains one of the choicest spots to rub elbows with other celebs in town for the big game.
As the swankiest hotel closest to Toyota Center and Minute Maid Park, it’s the home away from home for most top-tier rappers, divas and rock stars and NBA and MLB athletes.
Bayou & Bottle, 713-650-1300, fourseasons.com/houston/dining/