"It doesn't smell like sewage anymore!"
Although a sign above the entrance still reads "The Mink," little inside this newly renovated drinkery feels quite the same. The layout is unchanged, but burgundy walls, low lighting and the soft sounds of jazz or blues now set the tone of The Alley Kat Bar and Lounge, the newest watering hole on "The Island" in Midtown.
The Alley Kat feels as though it has outgrown its awkward albeit charming teenage years, giving way to a fresh perspective on a well-liked Midtown nightspot that had deteriorated over time. The Mink used to have an allure all its own, but over the past few years it became seedier and dustier, and the restrooms became more of a risk than a convenience.
Nonetheless, many cried foul when news broke in September 2011 that The Mink had been sold. The new owners tried to branch out by booking different types of music, but struggled to find a new niche for the bar and announced their abdication in late August 2012.
Luckily, The Alley Kat has serious potential. It feels like the Mink put on a suit and tie, kicked a few bad habits and is again reinventing itself, while maintaining much of the same makeup that everyone loved in the first place.
"There's still some individuality that makes us unique," says new managing partner Kory Hinton. "The light frames when you walk in and the wooden bar are staples of the Mink... There are elements I would like to keep, but there are also [different] elements I'd like to incorporate."
Hinton doesn't want to scare off former regulars of the bar and hopes that keeping a few key elements of its former self will make the transition easier, but she also wants new business and is adding some panache.
It's still a shotgun-style bar, one that could easily be overlooked as passers-by drive down Main, but is now a suaver, fancier version of its former self. The Alley Kat isn't enforcing any sort of dress code, but while it seems to have become a perfectly acceptable place to take your date after dinner, you won't feel out of place wearing jeans and a T-shirt.
That friend who lacked hygiene, whom you put up with because he had charisma and played good tunes? He has cleaned up, and is looking to party again. And yes, his restrooms have been heavily reconditioned: new sinks, new toilets, new floor boards, repainted walls, the works.
Hinton has a background with Ra Sushi, SkyBar, Gatlin's Barbecue and even worked in retail sales for the Houston Press from April 2011 to April 2012. She says The Alley Kat's goal is simple: the owners want to continue to complement the neighborhood and offer an easygoing environment in which to enjoy a beverage with friends.
Open since early January, the venue doesn't have any firm plans for a grand opening yet. Hinton says they want to finish refurbishing the back building's bar and upstairs area, which she says will eventually play host to live music again.
"We want to respect the artists and make them feel like they're appreciated," Hinton says, adding that an upgraded sound system and lighting are in the works, though their completion will take time. Hinton hopes to have a rotating schedule of genres on weekends, "something like salsa Fridays and blues Saturdays," she says.
The Alley Kat is still working out kinks and such, while attracting business via word of mouth. The bar was still pretty quiet at 9 p.m. one recent evening when my friends and I arrived, but it was comfortably packed inside only 30 minutes later. It stayed that way past midnight, when we left.
"We don't want to identify ourselves as a club," Hinton says. "A club is a two-year business model, and we intend to be here ten years from now. We want to become a staple of the neighborhood, like the Continental Club and the Breakfast Klub."
With everything Hinton says is in the works, The Alley Kat's future looks bright, both for newcomers and former Mink enthusiasts. It still feels unpretentious; it's just received a bit of polish.
The bar's four-dollar premium beers won't break your bank, but the cocktails are about twice that (and well worth it). Ask for a Marseilles Fruit Fizz or just about anything with egg whites, and get some protein with your buzz.
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You'd best behave while you're on site, though, because Hinton isn't afraid to escort you out with a smile.