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Night of the Living Dead

Roak has jumped to the top of the list of upscale Houston nightspots (mermaid not pictured).
Marco Torres

Since opening in July, posh River Oaks nightclub Roak (3320 Kirby) has grown more and more popular. At barely past 11 p.m. on a recent Saturday, the crowd is already swelling into a mass of mostly attractive, mostly thin people.

Out front, a Porsche, Ferrari, another Porsche, Range Rover and BMW are packed headlights to bumper. The line to get in grows, not because the venue is full, but because the doormen — tiny gatekeepers in tinier suits — are particular about who they let in. Very particular.

Some have already complained about Roak's exclusivity, but for high-end clubs, that's more a rite of passage than major management worry.

"I like the crowd here," says Ley Rodriguez, 43. "Nice people. Beautiful people. The only thing I don't like is that they are too picky at the door. I see them scanning people and then telling them no or that they're full."

For those lucky enough to get inside, Roak is sectioned off into thirds, each more grandiose than the last.

The bare-bones white room at the entrance opens onto an outdoor middle area with some pleasant cabanas and a pool. On occasion, an attractive woman dressed as a mermaid glides through the water.

The expansive back room serves mostly as a nightclub, with new and expensive furniture and glossy decor. The bartenders could be plucked from a Tommy Hilfiger magazine ad.

The whole package is very well put together, with a subtext as clear as any nightclub's could be: We intend to be one of Houston nightlife's elite venues.

"I found out about this place two weeks after it opened," says Mirta Padilla, a 33-year-old global banker. "It's a perfect combination of being able to relax outside for a while and then, after midnight or so, go into more of the club atmosphere and really feel the music and dance."

Barring some sort of catastrophic, game-changing event like the racial incident at Hudson Lounge (2506 Robinhood) last year, Roak's exclusivity and tony atmosphere aren't the only facets that make it one of Houston's most talked-about venues.

There's also this: Before it became a nightclub, Roak was a funeral home.

That may send a little shiver down your spine, especially this close to Halloween, but it's not quite as unusual as it might seem. Clubs take up residence in much less aesthetically pleasing surroundings — ex-supermarkets, strip-mall storefronts, gutted-out warehouses — all the time.

What's more interesting is how Roak has become the centerpiece of an Upper Kirby cluster of bars and clubs seemingly overnight. Neighboring Hendrick's Pub (3320 Kirby) becomes more of a nightclub as the evening moves forward, with a DJ and everything. OTC Patio Bar (3312 Kirby), an open-air bar built from the guts of an old bank drive-through, feels a lot like Brixx (5110 Washington).

Beyond that, The Owl (3200 Kirby, Suite 101) is a friendly, unpretentious hangout and, at all of two years old, the oldest of the surrounding drinkeries. Dorsia (3200 Kirby), a lounge hidden away at the end of the block, attempts to outdo even Roak's high-end appeal (see "Last Call").

It's possible to spend an entire evening wandering from spot to spot, with nary a concern greater than "Which bar has the best-looking people right at this very moment?"

Suddenly this section of Kirby between Richmond and West Alabama has emerged as the heir apparent to Houston's nightlife throne. It's already drawing many of the same faces that were there when Washington Avenue first popped.

Remember, The Drake (1902 Washington) was the first seriously glam club that really put its footprint on the Sixth Ward thoroughfare. From there, nature took over.

This area has the same potential. But if it falls flat, people can always say Upper Kirby must be cursed because Roak totally used to be an old funeral home.

Isn't that creepy and weird?
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LAST CALL

We visited all of these clubs over the course of two nights. Dorsia was the only one to turn us away, telling us they were "at capacity." We stood around and waited for 15 or so minutes, during which a group of men approached, shook hands with the door staff, then walked in. "Maybe we didn't know the secret handshake," remarked Mrs. Nightfly. She wasn't far from the truth. Per its Web site (dorsiahouston.com), Dorsia is a "private, members-only destination" boasting an ambience "like nothing else that exists in Texas." Go figure.

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