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It has its own narrow roads and street signs and features dining, residences, business offices, shopping and more. For nightlife, the current main draw is the understated but impressive Monnalisa Bar (800 W. Sam Houston Pkwy. N.).
Monnalisa is located on the second level of Hotel Sorella, owned by the Valencia Group. The bar falls under the purview of Sorella's food and beverage manager, Hiram Ponce de Leon, who looks almost exactly like you'd expect a guy named Hiram Ponce de Leon would.
He's tall with a medium build. He has dark eyes, darker hair and a bright smile. The only thing he's missing is a ponytail, and maybe a sword like Zorro — if we had a "de" in our surname, you can bet your sweet ass we'd carry a sword everywhere we went.
Ponce de Leon has now opened three properties for Valencia. Despite its location within eyesight of the Beltway, the fact that Monnalisa regularly attracts upwards of 250 people on weekend nights is no surprise to him.
"It's a getaway atmosphere here," Ponce de Leon asserts. "You can come here and feel like you're not in Houston, like you're in Vegas or Miami."
Ponce de Leon motions toward the outdoor patio, a highlight of the bar that offers tent-like cabanas and an LED-lit swimming pool (mostly for ambience). The patio is easily the bar's most attractive feature, particularly on these summer evenings, but the interior's rich decor isn't far behind.
"I like the atmosphere here," says software vendor Maria Onufrow, currently having drinks with her co-workers. "It's very charming, very stylish."
A large fire pit anchors the center of the room, ample but unobtrusive seating lines the edges and a wide bar sits at the back. Part of the floors look to be standard slate-gray industrial carpet, but are actually tiny, embedded gray pebbles. The tables near the lounging chairs are solid polished-cedar stumps, meant to complement the accents inside neighboring fine-dining restaurant Bistro Alex.
Inside and out, Monnalisa feels perfectly thought out and impeccably arranged. It's the kind of place where you don't feel ridiculous paying $9 for a salad. Or you feel less ridiculous, anyway.
It's the kind of place where, when a guy says something like, "I should really learn how to speak Cantonese" to a girl, it's less because he's just trying to impress her so she'll take her shirt off and more because he has actual business in South China...that he'll inevitably tell her about to try and impress her so she'll take her shirt off.
Monnalisa bodes well for west-side residents who'd rather not drive all the way into town for an upscale evening out. "It's new and fresh," says Valeria Talavera, a Cy-Fair College student who lives in the area and has been to the bar no less than five times. "I think this area will become the next Washington Avenue. I like this place a lot.
"Out on the deck with the lights and the pool," she continues, motioning outside, "it's like we stopped off in Miami."
Somewhere, Hiram Ponce de Leon is smiling.
Monnalisa offers live music Tuesdays through Saturdays, with jazz, Latin or Texas music during the week. But for an almost guaranteed winner, show up Saturdays this month for the concert series hosted by former Houstonian Jesse Dayton. Now a longtime Austinite, Dayton has worked with everyone from Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson to Rob Zombie (no joke). He's mostly honky-tonk and rockabilly and whatnot, but even if you don't normally enjoy that type of music, Dayton might make you reconsider. And he has hair like the rooster in Rock-a-Doodle. Check him out online at www.jessedayton.com.