Throw out any preconceptions you might have of the typical cocktail bar while you’re in Houston. Like with everywhere else in the Western world, mixology has infiltrated the Houston drink scene. However, visitors to Houston will be hard pressed to find the pretentious Prohibition-style speakeasies and Mad Men-inspired leather and dark oak lounges with the velour booths and judgy bartenders. Houston’s homey and its cocktail bars are too, and you don’t need to be from Houston feel it. The spaces are unique and airy and the people are friendly. Perhaps they won’t call themselves master mixologists, but surely some of them are, like the geniuses behind the 100-strong cocktail menu at Anvil Bar & Refuge, which is highly reputed nationally by publications like GQ; and The Pastry War, a discerning tequila/mezcal joint that would seem political about their sourcing if they weren’t just following their taste buds. Want a good cocktail without the associated pomp? Get down to H-town.
Counter to traditional cocktail culture, the Anvil Bar welcomes all manner of mixed drink-imbiber and does unpretentious experimental concoctions perhaps even better than than their classics (which are still pretty top shelf). This place is, like, a hundred cocktails mixed with fresh and unconventional ingredients like Habanero tincture and fresh coriander; it’s lamb meatballs and campari popcorn because unconventional and boozy combinations are delicious and so is lamb. The Anvil is pre-Prohibition and postmodern, a mix of excess alcohol and tight, local decor; seven eccentric food specials and shelves upon shelves of sparkling bottles from all of the world. It’s a bar and a refuge; it’s a touch of class in a beer-and-a-shot town and it’s totally delectable.
Photo from their FB page
A refreshing (in several ways) departure from the conventional speakeasy or hipsterized cocktail bar, Beaver Ice House is an uber-casual and inviting corner gastropub with a rich history. In the time before refrigerators, Texans had rely on large iceboxes to keep food fresh, running to the neighborhood "ice house" to replenish the ice. Icehouses soon turned to selling beer, remaining the meeting place for neighbors to hang out and now the establishments are deeply revered as neighborhood cornerstones. The Beaver keeps their rustic atmosphere and offers fun cocktails and punches with names like Twerk and Jerk (made with gin, jerk mix and lime) and Philly Fish House (with rum, cognac, peach brandy, and lemon) as well as down home Texas casual eats like smoked pork shoulder and shrimp burgers.
Captain Foxheart’s Bad News Bar & Spirit Lounge is more like it: a tiny unmarked door through a law office opens up to a massive pub space (the bar alone seats 25), plunged in leather, darkwood and mood lights with a divine view of Downtown Houston in the background. One of the champions of a revitalizing downtown area, they did it by serving unique and highly dedicated cocktails like the Riverboat Bobsled, a nutty explosion made with walnut liqueur, bourbon, Casoni, orange bitters and Angostura. Captain Foxheart opened shop in 2013 and they’re already a fixture on the Houston club circuit, because anywhere that serves Negroni on tap deserves to be a local treasure, and frankly, the hidden speakeasy thing? It’s going to make people feel really, really cool.
Another cocktail-keen downtown establishment comes from very respectable pedigree (the Clumsy Butcher group are behind Anvil and Underbelly) and is reshaping how the city views tequila and mezcal. You won’t find a drop of Cuervo here, nor a cocktail made from Sauza. Patròn? What is this, a rap video? No, The Pastry War specializes in small-production tequila and other agave-based liquors, usually from small family operations. The Mexican-themed bar space is impeccably decorated; airy and paneled with pale wood, and draped with blue and green glass lighting fixtures. Some of these drinks won’t be seen at your typical cocktail bar: people in the know opt for a shot of tequila or mezcal and chase it with a shot of pureed vegetables and spices, but after a hot Houston day there’s the always the delicious and refreshing margarita with tequila, key limes, persian limes and agave nectar.
Guaranteed, Okra Charity Saloon is unlike any bar you’ve ever been to. One hundred percent of their profits go to charity, which is voted on by their patrons – the people who work there, the bartenders, chefs and waitstaff donate their time. An acronym for Organized Kollaboration On Restaurant Affairs but mainly a fun and punchy way to introduce delicious signature fried okra, their simple yet delicious eats come from Paul Petronella from Paulie’s Restaurant, and the short list of wine is curated by Justin Vann, one of Food & Wine’s 2013 Sommeliers of the Year. A huge perk to having a rotating list of bartenders means that they each bring their own personality to their drinks, so every Pimm’s Cup, Long Island Tea and Blackstrap Daiquiri is made just a little differently every night.