There is a vibrant range of quality bars in Houston (my top 10 Houston food recommends here), a city whose drink scene is on the rise, whether the cocktail bar that finally ushered in the cocktail renaissance here in 2009, Anvil, to the city’s strongest Italian amaro selection and cocktails at Coltivare.
Some spots didn’t quite work for me: the expansive patio, 50-draft beer selection, sweet bartenders and downtown view at Wooster’s Garden were ruined by an awkward, pick-up scene crowd and disparate cocktail ingredients that didn’t quite work together (applewood-smoked strawberry shrub with Calvados, absinthe and creme de menthe?)
Covering the gamut from wine and beer to cocktail bars, here are 10 bars that stood out.
Julep is my favorite Houston bar, thanks to the Southern elegance, bites and cocktails from owner Alba Huerta (not to mention a small but thoughtful sparkling wine and small production California and France wine list).
Themes flow from Cocktails of the Rural South to a NY-meets-the-South menu, alongside regular Southern classics (1/2 price during a daily happy hour, 3-6pm), like a Ramos Gin Fizz, Madeira Cobbler, MInt Julep, Milk Punch, Sazerac, Hurricane or Pendennis Club.
Paired with a “hits the spot” Southern spread ($14) of pimento cheese, smoked prosciutto, pickled peppers and Ritz crackers — or a lobster roll ($14) with Louisiana kettle chips — a visit here is such a pleasure, one longs to linger despite the crowds. Tasting through the entire cocktail menu this summer brought out numerous highlights, none stronger than Huerta’s Cherry Bounce Sour ($10), which has been on the menu awhile (and hopefully stays). It’s a vibrant, rosy, tart cocktail combining house cherry bounce, bonded bourbon, lemon, turbinado sugar, Angostura bitters and egg white.
Particularly unique, Amethyst Flip ($12) is lush with Cognac, sloe gin, purple sweet potato and whole egg, cut with a splash of dry Champagne and aromatic with nutmeg. The revival of the classic Gibson cocktail over the last couple years has been a welcome one and Huerta’s version, Farmhouse Gibson ($10), shines with dry gin, blanc vermouth and pickled onion given further savory “oomph” from pickling sherry vinegar, orange bitters and mustard seed.
For a group of four or more, Bottled in Bond ($60) is a notable way to go: a Manhattan-style cocktail (bonded bourbon, bonded rye whiskey, Torino sweet vermouth, aged bitters) arrives in a whiskey decanter on ice served with cherries, almonds and dark chocolate to bring out different taste profiles of the whiskies.
Inside the chic restaurant Triniti (more on that here) is equally chic cocktail destination Sanctuari, all in golds, tans and blacks. Surrounded by strip malls, one wouldn’t suspect a cocktail destination exists here.
More than any other place I visited in Houston, Sanctuari expresses the culinary cocktail side of things, pulling from the kitchen with savory, complex, even umami flavors in balanced cocktails by the bartending team of Reginald Tucker, Andrew Taake and Blake Jorgenson.
Reginald’s Southern Mai Tai ($12) ups the Mai Tai game with bonded rye, dry curacao, lime and Angostura bitters and a house cinnamon pecan orgeat, while garam masala spice-infused honey enlivens The British Are Coming ($12), a cocktail of earl grey-infused gin, Dolin dry vermouth and dandelion burdock bitters. One of the standouts that (rightfully) stays on the menu is the tart-subtle Hanoi High Five ($12), combining Thai chili-infused Green Chartreuse, gin, lemon, lime, lemongrass, ginger, green curry and, yes, fish sauce.
3. MOVING SIDEWALK
Soothing and cool under chandeliers in a lofty, brick-walled space, Moving Sidewalk wins for most creative, playful Houston print cocktail menus. They just launched an Astroworld amusement park souvenir map, but recently it was a Point Break summer-themed menu (what’s not to love?!)
Alex Gregg and partners Brad Moore and Ryan Rouse know what they’re doing, the cocktails striking that fine balance between drinkability and creativity. Think drinks like Lawyers Don’t Surf, combining rye whiskey, Cocchi Americano aperitif and Rarbabaro Zucca (rhubarb) amaro with celery salt tincture, or even dreamy twists on “simple” cocktails like a strawberry daiquiri with white rum and clarified strawberry and lime juice for silky texture and intense flavor. This is a bar I’d return to each time I’m in Houston just to see what they’re doing next.
While in Houston this July, I went to a preview of Izakaya just before it opened, tasting through the top-notch cocktails from SF-based Tin Roof Drink Community, which is SF’s own Claire Sprouse (originally from Houston) and Chad Arnholt.
Alongside izakaya-style dishes, Sprouse and Arnholt created a wide-ranging drink menu that runs from the straightforward — Hotei Highball ($10): Cappelletti Aperitivo, dry vermouth, house mandarin soda — to classics with a twist like the Izakaya Whisk(e)y Cocktail ($11), a house whisk(e)y blend of Japanese, Scotch and US whiskies punctuated with peach and sesame bitters.
Tasting like vacation, A Trip to Bird Island ($13) is creamy and breezy with tequila, coconut, Batava arrack, lime and earthy matcha green tea. The intriguing FUKU Bounce ($13) tempers Clear Creek pear brandy, lemon and togarashi spices with dry sparkling wine.
The Tiger’s Cup ($10) plays with a basic gin and tonic, giving Old Tom gin, lemon and tonic further life with shishito peppers and sea salt.
5. MONGOOSE Versus COBRA
Mongoose vs. Cobra (from Weights + Measures owner Mike Sammons) was my favorite Houston beer bar (though The Hay Merchant is another strong beer destination) for multiple reasons, a high one being 43 draft beers listed on the wall in old train station format, including changing cask, bottle and conditioned ales and plenty of Texas’ best beers. But there is also the striking, lofty space in a former grocery and auto-repair shop marked by brick and woods.
Their food is likewise a selling point: Gunga Din’s PB&B ($9) layers peanut butter, apples, bacon, drunken raisins and local honey bacon on jalapeno challah bread, recalling the unforgettable PB bacon challah sandwich on 15 Romolo’s (in SF) menu for years. For a group, the hearty Ploughman’s Pail ($26) is a smart choice: a WWII-era pail packed with local purveyors’ pickles, nuts, olives, cheese, pickled eggs, hand cut sausages, cured meats, black pepper beef jerky, black bread and in-house pickled veggies.
On top of the excellent beers, they won me over with their spirits and cocktails. The fact that a beer bar in Texas serves Reisetbauer 7 year whiskey (same producer behind the superb schnaps) from Austria ($11 for 1 oz. pour) and Sacred Gin from London ($12 for 2 oz. pour) shows a serious savvy and palate. A hopped Negroni ($11) infused with fresh Citra hops marries cocktails and beer, while another house joy is Smuggler’s Blues ($10), mixing banana-infused rhum agricole and Brugal anejo rum with Cynar (Italian herbal artichoke liqueur), hazelnut orgeat, lime and a whisper of absinthe.
6. D&T DRIVE INN
From the Treadsack group, D&T Drive Inn is my Houston dive bar of choice, housed in a 1959 ice house in The Heights neighborhood with over 50 beers on draft, as well as fun beer flights like Death Star (dark beers), HelliHOPter (hoppy beers/IPAs) and Puddle Jumper (Texas beers).
They also serve a Shandy slushie ($4) — beer and house lemonade — and Sangria slushies ($6) on tap. I like half ‘n half ($5), a mixture of the two, ideal in the relentless Houston heat. To that effect, back yard misters cool you off at communal picnic tables.
7. CAMERATA at PAULIE’s
My top wine bar in Houston (and all of Texas) is easily Camerata attached to Paulie’s restaurant (with 13 Celsius another excellent wine bar choice), thanks to sommelier David Keck who is as friendly as he is knowledgeable.
International appeal calls from a thoughtfully-curated selection of around 125 bottles and changing by-the-glass list offerings. It’s an industry hangout and easy to see why with offerings like “31 Days of German Riesling” and pours ranging from Sicily (an earthy-yet-acidic/balanced 2013 Scopello Frappato) to Australia (2013 Brokenwood Semillon from Australia’s Hunter Valley).
There is also a local Texas beer on draft ($6). Recently it was the delightful Lone Pint Brewery Zythophile Series from Magnolia, TX.
8. THE PASTRY WAR
Named after the 1838 conflict between Mexico and France, The Pastry War is a rightly lauded tequila and mezcal-focused bar with a spirits menu that will be quite familiar to California and Mexico residents.
Where it stands out — besides the extensive spirits menu, conveniently grouped by agave varietal — is an atmosphere that feels like a mezcaleria with hipster roots, reminiscent of the streets of Mexico in its back room with pool tables next to the side of a car. Snacks like chapulines (fried grasshoppers) transport you to Oaxaca.
Shots of fresh, house sangrita (tomato, red bell pepper, lime, orange, habanero) and verdita (cilantro, mint, serrano, pineapple, lime) taste fantastic with the grasshoppers and pineapple wedges dusted in Tajin. Cocktails are straightforward — often with 3-4 ingredients — but no less intriguing, as in the case of Tuba Player ($10), refreshing with dry gin with kumquat marmalade and coconut water. Try house exclusive mezcal selections like Mezcal Vago’s Cobre y Barro ($8 for ¾ oz. — $13 for 1.5 oz.)
9. WEIGHTS + MEASURES
In addition to delightful food, roomy Weights + Measures offers a strong wine list (appealing to the wine geek in me with Austrian and other international regions I love plus a focus on biodynamic, natural and organically farmed wines), over 70 bottles of thoughtful beers from local brewers (as well as Michigan cidre, Italian beers or Copenhagen milk stout), and lovely cocktails at the wrap-around bar.
Judith’s Pho Cup ($13) from bartender Judith Piotrowski is the most fascinating cocktail, doing something I’ve only seen a few bartenders do well over the past years: combine Southeast Asian savory flavors in a balanced, refreshing, unique drink. Judith does so successfully with gin, aromatized broth syrup, lime, Sriracha and fresh herbs.
A frozen gin and tonic or classic Grasshopper ($12) with fresh cream, Cognac, mint and white lavender chocolate confirm the playful-yet-refined approach here. Harvey Wallbanger Strikes Again ($9) is a house favorite and twist on the 1960’s classic, here mixing gin, vanilla, Galliano, orange and house marmalade.
10. JOHNNY’S GOLD BRICK
From the Treadsack group, Johnny’s Gold Brick is one of those neighborhood bars that turns out well-executed classics (think basic, classic Gimlet, Daiquiri, Cuba Libre) with a smile, heartwarming tunes and plenty of space to bring friends.
For me, further appeal comes in the form of a retro-60’s vibe, illustrated in orange and white vinyl chairs and booths, backed by soothing green walls.