Life is about perspective and so is Houston's downtown. Perhaps some look at it as a commercial district and once wannabe party king that lost its luster with the emergence of its cousin Midtown. Or you can see it as a beautiful skyline -- the best in Texas -- that's lightly peppered with a magnificent mix of hole-in-the-wall, hip and grown-up bar establishments.
It's not the scene where you're seen, it's the scene where you soak up the booze and the atmosphere and carry the conversation like a grown-up. You ignore the "for lease" signs on the establishments that once gave the central hub a swagger that excited the city in ways it hadn't in years, and you concentrate on what's left...the rest of the best.
Some old, some new, but all worthy, and the previous two Best of Houston® winners are still pouring strong.
7. Dirt Bar: Dirt should be the backdrop to a True Blood episode. It's gothic and dark and it blasts metal in the midst of an almost pitch-black atmosphere lit only by red-illuminated ice pick-like lamps hanging from the ceiling and two great big TV flat-screens quenching sports nuts' thirst. With such little light, the TV pictures are pristine with NBA playoffs.
Dirt is right next to House of Blues and so whether you use it as a starter bar or a landing spot, you'll get your fix. Beer or maybe a little blood from the Texas version of Sookie. You never know.
1209 Caroline, 713-651-3988, Web site.
6. State Bar & Lounge: State Bar is a great big piece of mahogany carved out of Houston's historical political prowess. The scent that hits you as you walk in the door takes you to a place of antiquity. This gorgeous lounge sits on the second floor of the Rice Lofts, paying homage to the city's oil boom.
If you're into history, you should know that the furniture and memorabilia are from "the old Rice Hotel's Capitol Club, a legendary locale from the turn of the century that witnessed such historic milestones as the first electrical lights and air conditioners of the city, prominent judges and oilmen cementing the success of Southern Texas, and the last place President Kennedy ate before traveling to Dallas in 1963," according to its Web site. And that's plenty reason to drink with history.
909 Texas #2A, 713-229-8888, Web site
5. Lone Star Saloon: Rocks Off has blurry flashbacks of the Golden Q, a black-and-gold-painted bar in Elsa, Texas. Our mother used to send us in there to get our father when he didn't come home. But he was arm-wrestling for money and respect.
Like the Golden Q, Lone Star Saloon in downtown Houston has patrons who are friendly, but also a random lineup of blue- and white-collar workers and tortured souls who didn't bother to put in their dentures, but you don't pay their dentist bills, so deal with it.
Lone Star is a narrow corridor with a wall fan that hasn't been cleaned for a few decades and the cleanest bathrooms you'll ever use. It's a beautiful contradiction. This isn't for the fufu, faint-at-heart wanting Top 40 blasting from the speakers, who want to be seen by the scene. This is George Strait's "Run" leg-humping R. Kelly's "Bump and Grind."
It belongs in Eagle Lake, but it's in the heart of downtown. Bartender Nancy is amazing. It's the Mike Tyson of bars. Its style is impetuous, its defense is impregnable and it's just ferocious. It wants your heart. It wants to eat your children. Praise be to Allah!
1900 Travis, 713 757-1616
4. Reserve 101: Reserve 101 is a bartender's bar. Literally. It's owned by two former bartenders, says bartender Cassidy. She's one of four bartenders who have the expertise to change your life with more than 250 types of mouthwatering whiskey.
Cassidy is also a delicious plate of tattoos with piercing green eyes who'll politely dismiss your amateur knowledge of Jack Daniel's brands and expose you to a whole new world of that mountain dew, that hooch, that white lightning. Okay, enough with the whiskey synonyms.
Behind the bar is a room with sinking leather chairs that resembles a rich man's home library. Upstairs are TVs that show sports. What else can you ask for? Did we mention it's across the street from House of Blues? The bar has the ambience that makes you feel like you're not in Houston, maybe on a street corner in Manhattan. Then again, the whiskey will do that to you, too.
1201 Caroline, 713-655-7101, Web site
3. MKT Bar: MKT Bar is like a hip downtown loft wrapped inside a bar nestled in a specialty food grocery store surrounded by downtown skyscrapers that serves wine, beer and gelato, and puts Niceguy DJs and live-music quintets from New Orleans in your life.
Lots to swallow? More like lots to groove to and indulge in. MKT, boasting exposed brick walls draped in black and white photography shone with precision lighting, is located inside Phoenicia Market Downtown. (If that discourages you, get past it)
On a recent Friday night, Rocks Off was pleasantly surprised to see that DJ Yves of acclaimed Houston underground group The Niceguys was at the helm of the ones and twos, inducing nostalgia with Michael Jackson's greatest hits, just before genre-bending New Orleans band Hazy Ray had everyone head-bobbing and very much in awe with a "where in the hell did these guys come from?" live performance.
This experience said two things about MKT: 1) Their Thursday-through-Sunday 1-2 punch of DJ and live band is an unrivaled happy-hour scene in downtown, and 2) every musician worth a stage should want to perform here, as it puts them front and center before a pretty and attentive crowd hungry for good music.
The pizza will make you slap your mother's mother, and the atmosphere is such that you can have your kids accompany you and no one would judge you. Check out their music events calendar and experience the damn thing. You won't regret it.
1001 Austin, 832-360-2222, Web site
2. Warren's Inn: Sister bar to the much-respected and admired La Carafe, Warren's Inn holds its own in history and backstory -- and a lighter, more refreshing air than its relative. Its owner tells Rocks Off it was once a striptease bar many moons ago and its trademark gazebo was once home to many ass-shaking goddesses.
The chandeliers, she says, also once belonged to a New Orleans cathouse. The jukebox is one to be respected and appreciated. Jam out to Sarah Vaughan, Sam Cooke, Etta James and Ray Charles while enjoying a stiff drink from a heavy-handed bartender. Best of Houston® Winner, 2010
307 Travis, 713-247-9207
1. La Carafe: Someone on a comment board once described La Carafe as a bar you could have stumbled upon in the Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris. That's kind of a nail-on-the-head description of an establishment that, like the movie, is drenched in history. Bill Barry, the former owner, traveled the world eight times and sent back wall art that now makes up much of the mystical personality La Carafe exudes. It was once a bakery, a trading post, a Pony Express stop and a Mexican hairdressing salon, according to current owner Carolyn Wenglar, who inherited it from her brother. (She also owns the bar across the square resting at No. 2 on this list.)
The jukebox is equally impressive, filled with some Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, The Pretenders, Bob Marley and Louis Armstrong. The old speakers give off a crackle-like, hollow boxed sound. The cash register is almost 100 years old and can only be charged in denominations of nines, so the bartenders know their multiplication.
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It's tiny, but it's one of the oldest commercial locations in Houston and a must-visit for any out-of-towner. You feel like you're breathing in the history with the overwhelming incense attacking the senses. Visit the top-floor bar on Friday and Saturday night at 9 p.m. and soak in the best skyline in the South. Best of Houston® winner, 2009
813 Congress, 713-229-9399, Facebook page