"The tradition of jazz clubs nationwide is you go in and put up with the adverse conditions to hear great musicians," says Paul English, the jazz player who took over as Ovations' musical director in April. "I think Houston audiences are different than that. We're spoiled. We have nice restaurants, good civic organizations, good fine arts.... I think, presented in that light, you'll see the popularity of jazz in this town grow a lot in the next few years." (P.M.)

Critic's Choice: Cezanne

Best Latin Venue
Bursting with enough energy and sparkle to make Charo look like a wallflower -- and almost bursting out of a form-fitting black cocktail dress -- owner Elvia Parsons-Kras is just as much an attraction to the place as her bar, full-service restaurant, dance floor and live Tejano bands. Catering to an upscale crowd that salsas late into the night, Elvia's attracts a crowd about half Hispanic and half Anglo.

The club began seven years ago as an English pub with a Mexican restaurant and some live music. But, according to manager Ed Parsons, the salsa-music night soon grew too popular to contain to once a week, and Elvia's quickly mutated into a supper club with live music. "Every year, it gets better," Elvia notes immodestly. "More quality."

Bands including Mi Rumba, Ka-Che, La Banda Mambo and most important, unofficial house band Walter Suhr and Mango Punch!, play to the joyous, Anglo and Hispanic crowd that continually packs the dance floor.

Along with the scent of carne tampiquena, romance hangs heavy in the air. Elvia's twentysomething daughter met her husband at the club -- as did Elvia, who's currently on husband number four. (Surprisingly, Parsons was a previous husband; the pair's harmonious working relationship outlasted the marriage.)

Like any good businesswoman, Elvia has expanded her brand name, opening Elvia's Travel and Tours next door to the club. Can Elvia's Wedding Chapel be far behind? (B.R.)

Critic's Choice: Elvia's

Best C&W Venue
Blanco's Bar and Grill
No doubt about it, Blanco's is the least conspicuous kicker joint in Houston, and thereby the most authentic and true to the Texas lifestyle combo of great music, simple eats, friendly service and solid wood floorboards beneath your feet for boot-scootin' the night away. This rugged, unpretentious West Alabama roadhouse doesn't offer shiny dance-floor varnish, parking-lot asphalt or cookie-cutter cowboy gimmicks-- and thus, it doesn't attract jar-head frat types and clean-pressed Clay Walker wannabes.

All that, combined with one of the most underrated Lone Star music lineups around (locals Kevin Black, the Hollisters and Mary Cutrufello are all routine draws), makes Blanco's a comfortable, low-stress evening out for just about anyone, even if you can't two-step a lick. But if you happen to be cursed with two left feet, don't expect your honey to be sitting idle for long. There are usually plenty of guys roving around the place looking for dance partners. And most won't take no for an answer. (H.R.)

Critic's Choice: Blanco's Bar and Grill

Best Folk Venue
McGonigel's Mucky Duck
It's no secret that Rusty and Teresa Andrews have a reputation for being difficult -- stubborn, if you will. But it's just that hard-nosed unwillingness to compromise their vision that has made McGonigel's Mucky Duck the folk/acoustic mainstay that it is: a refuge from loud rock music, with no megaphone-mouth rowdies in the audience.

In achieving its tenuous balance -- equal parts lively Irish pub and subdued, performer-friendly listening room -- the Duck has seen its reputation in folk circles solidify considerably over the last nine years. But then, the club's intimate environs and the Andrews' steadfast loyalty to those who earn it has always had a place in the hearts of its repeat headliners. That list includes a truckload of Texas legends (Terry Allen, Guy Clark, Alejandro Escovedo, Toni Price) as well as the cream of the out-of-state troubadour crop (Gillian Welsh, John Gorka, Chris Smither, Dar Williams).

Perhaps even more important, artists like to play at the Duck -- as shown by Lyle Lovett's recent surprise appearance at the club to sit in with Allen and Clark on a few numbers. A rare treat -- and a coup for the Duck. (H.R.)

Critic's Choice: McGonigel's Mucky Duck

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