Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
This bar is located in the heart of River Oaks, and we're always leery of anyplace called a "saloon" that sits amid so much gentrification. But our doubts vanished the moment we saw the sign off San Felipe boasting a "large TV." Next, when the barmaid announced, "What can I get you, honey?" like an oral history of the South itself, we knew this place was genuine. The clientele isn't all River Oaks, either, but a mix of folks from all walks of Houston life who know a good thing when they drink in it. If you wanna play pool, though, you may have to wait; the Roll'N runs a bit short on tables (there's only one). But folks go there for the relaxed mood, the friendly staff and the great atmosphere. The drinks are pretty good, too.
The jewel in Pam Robinson's Washington Avenue crown -- and the nerve center in the three-club cluster she calls Pamland Central -- Walter's is less a nightclub than a neighborhood bar with a stage. On that stage, the music comes from both near and far, the musicians both semifamous and downright illustrious. Everyone from rookie bandleader Hilary Sloan to Grammy-winners Augie Meyers and Flaco Jimenez to living legends W.C. Clark and Tony Joe White have performed in the medium-sized room, which offers some of the most intimate surroundings in town. The bartenders -- one of whom is the cousin of Walter's regular guest Mike Barfield -- know just as much about music as they do about mixology. And thanks to the nearby railroad yard, you can listen to the lonesome whistle echoing back the blues, rockabilly and honky-tonk sounds billowing out of Walter's.
It's tough in Houston for new local acts to get gigs. It's a catch-22: While everyone wants to see the next big thing, local audiences can be blasé about going out and seeing new bands. A band has to get a rep before people start coming out to see them, but how can they earn their spurs if nobody will let them get up and play? Fitzgerald's will. Now in its 25th year, the rambling old Polish dance hall has survived conversion from a blues and roots bar into the proving ground for fresh rock and punk acts. It has outlasted and absorbed its main competitor, Emo's, and even gives the late Montrose landmark a weekly memorial with its Wednesday-night tributes. Want to get ahead of the curve and be able to turn your nose up and say, "Well, you should have seen them when..."? Then get thee to Fitzgerald's often and stay late.
For all those tired of the scene, Meteor might well bring you back into the fold. This sleek joint off Fairview offers a fresh take on the neighborhood gay bar. It's decked out in modern threads with neato ceiling fans and comfy oversize high-backed couches. The numerous TV sets around the room showcase music videos of the latest dance grooves without overwhelming the conversation you started up with that really cute guy drinking the cosmo. It's the kind of ultrahip, classy place where you can bring the straights along for a night on the town. It's trendy but not pretentious, attractive but not flashy -- kinda like most of the guys you'll meet here. Whether you're out with old friends for a drink or looking to make new ones, give Meteor a try. It just might become your new scene.
Didn't know there's a lesbian Tejano bar in town? Tight niche. Mela's has been filling that niche free of competition since 1980, back when few folks were comfortable with the thought of lesbianism and fewer were familiar with the word Tejano. Owner Herlinda "Mela" Contreras, 55, was born and raised in Houston as one of 16 children. Contreras was honored as the female grand marshal for this year's pride parade. Her family always knew she was gay but never gave her anything less than full support. That support has been instrumental in her success at keeping her bar open more than 20 years. Mela's has changed with time, with its guests branching out to lesbian and straight couples alike, Latinos, bolillos (gringos) and every other race. Order up a michelada, a house favorite made with Mexican beer (usually Corona) mixed with lime and hot sauce. The spicy coolness strikes a tasty balance against Houston's heat.
Not many jukes can take the pressure of having their own theme night, but Tom McLendon's Big Easy box can. Every Monday, he turns off the coin slot and customers have free rein to play all the Lightnin' Hopkins, Ray Charles, Neville Brothers and George (both Porter and Jones) they want. There's free pool, too, so if you want to go in and bone up on your billiards and your Gulf Coast classics some Blue Monday, the Big Easy's your best bet.
Tack an extra digit onto your SAT scores. Valhalla is a grad student-run bar tucked into a corner of the old chemistry building on Rice's abundantly treed campus (look for the red arched door). Even without the verdant surroundings, Valhalla's ridiculously cheap 75-cent beer is a sufficient lure for anyone interested in the effects of ethanol on the human body. The bartenders are volunteer Rice staff, faculty, students and alumni. Out on the lawn, perpetual doctoral students and their families lounge on the grass while their four-year-olds debate the existence of the Higgs boson particle and deconstruct Finnegans Wake. As DEET-coated children play Frisbee to observe laminar flow, adults take turns making beer runs into the dim, quasi-subterranean bar.