'To cold beer, and hot chicks," the bar chants in unison, glasses raised high in solidarity. The bartender just bought everyone another round of shots, after a recent Monday happy hour ended. The glass draws closer, and the overwhelming smell of black licorice hits our nose.
It becomes apparent that we're about to shoot bitters at the Little Dipper Lounge (304 Main). Somewhere along the way, we came to believe that Fernet Branca, the strong-smelling herbal liqueur sitting in our shot glass, was only to be used as an emergency hangover remedy.
According to Robert, our server, it also exists to be shot time and again. That kind of knowledge about liquor is common among Market Square bartenders. There are no novices around these parts.
Little Dipper is the newest addition to the Poison Girl/Black Hole/Antidote family, opening in October amid the square's already-bustling bar scene. The lounge feels little like its famous eldest sibling, Poison Girl, though; you won't find much in the way of kitsch except a creepy doll head or two.
Smack-dab in the middle of downtown's historic district, Market Square was ringed with bouncer-inhabited nightclubs and young, pretty patrons not that long ago. But in the footsteps of standbys like Warren's (307 Travis) and La Carafe (813 Congress), and spurred by the late-2012 opening of OKRA Charity Saloon (924 Congress), the newer bars here focus on the art of well-formulated cocktails rather than loud dance music and bottle service, a strategy that's drawing a more professional, mature crowd.
But it's also a drinking crowd.
There are only about ten of us scattered around Little Dipper's massive bar, but we're downing enough Fernet Branca to fuel an Italian army, becoming louder and less sophisticated with each round. The bitters shots are downed with gusto, and we move on to the fantastic Old Fashioneds for which Robert has so painstakingly grated orange peels. Really, it's way out of our drinking league.
Making our way through the other nearby bars, it's quickly evident how much there is to learn about the art of the cocktail. Even Clutch City Squire (410 Main), Market Square's dive-y come-one-come-all tavern since March of this year, has an intimidating and impressive cocktail menu to enjoy as punk rock blares and the guy behind the bar wearing a Misfits shirt dances like nobody's watching.
Meanwhile, decorated with animated murals of Mexican folklore, The Pastry War (310 Main) opened this past August with a sizable list of exotic tequilas we had no idea existed. At least we aren't the only ones overwhelmed. Seated to our right at the overcrowded bar, Maria Rodriguez looks intimidated not only by the sheer magnitude of the tequila list, but by the margarita accoutrements.
"What's good?" she asks.
"No clue," we respond.
As newbies, we decide it's only practical to try all of them (for science, you see). The stout, sour slush of the pomegranate margarita ultimately wins, with its pops of red berries. After all the licorice-black bitters at Little Dipper, we welcome the color.
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Also centered around the art of creating a proper cocktail is the elusive Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar & Spirit Lodge (308 Main). The tiny bar sits above Little Dipper, but getting there is not quite as simple as merely walking upstairs. It's intentionally hard to find, which is part of its mystery.
Finding the place is a bit like falling down the right rabbit hole. It involves a mystery door, a hidden staircase and a door marked with a fox. The search — and the whiskey bribes to folks who know how to find it — are worth it, though.
After plying him with a couple of rounds of whiskey on the rocks, we convince a newfound criminal-attorney friend from Little Dipper, Tucker, to show us the secret staircase up to this cocktail heaven. The people who know the location of Bad News, which also opened in March 2013, aren't always so forthcoming with the info.
The bar is well protected by its patrons, for good reason. But in spite of our status as both Bad News and fancy-cocktail novices, we appreciate the care it puts into creating the right kind of speakeasy vibe. From the antique sofa lining the lounge to the Bourbon Street-inspired patio that peers over Main Street, Bad News is the type of place that makes it a bit less intimidating to try something new. It hardly feels like Houston, or this century for that matter, inviting you to step out of that vodka comfort zone.