OKRA, the organization founded by local bar and restaurant owners "to pursue charitable community initiatives," is hoping its newest effort will be a trendsetter. Treading untested waters in both concept and locale, The Original Charity Saloon is among the most ambitious bars in Houston memory.
The space that once housed Red Cat Jazz has long been considered an ideal bar spot, even if its downtown address has not. With its original arched hangar ceiling, exposed brick walls and unique glass terrarium roof, the bar's interior is one of the most beautiful in the city. In 2011, local photographer Paul Sedillo posted pictures of the abandoned space on Twitter, giving some their first glimpse at the bar and its possibilities.
In the summer of last year, OKRA announced that it had purchased the space and planned to convert it into a bar where 100 percent of the proceeds would benefit local charities each month. And in December, Charity Saloon finally opened.
Reworking of the bar has been minimal. Seating has been added in the form of no-frills second-hand furniture that's clever in its mismatched functionality: a church pew here, old saloon-style chairs there. In the back corner, a jukebox holds an excellent, eclectic mix that already belongs on citywide top 10 lists. That's not totally surprising given that OKRA members Brad Moore and Ryan Rouse's jukeboxes at Grand Prize and Big Star Bar -- both owned by Moore and Rouse -- are often regarded as attractions in and of themselves. The lofted back seating area gives a commanding view over the entire bar and offers a quiet place to chat up and away from the buzz below.
Don't expect Anvil or Grand Prize-level frills behind the bar either. While the selection isn't deep by today's cocktail standards, the bar functions quite adequately as a drinker's bar, fully stocked to make 98 percent of what an average customer would order at a neighborhood joint. And that's the goal: Open at 3 p.m. daily, Charity Saloon offers another reliable option for downtown happy hour junkies and the growing residential population.
Beer options are similarly streamlined, with local favorites like Bombshell Blonde and Lone Star available in cans and brews like Saint Arnold Elissa IPA and Buffalo Bayou 1836 on draft.
A small menu is available until late in the evening, featuring a selection of panini and crispy waffle fries. We have yet to try the sandwiches, but a couple seated nearby at the bar gave their hearty approval of the "Grand Prize" version. (All of the menu items are named for various bars and restaurants owned by OKRA members.) The fries, served with Sriracha ketchup, are pitch-perfect snack food at $3.
So how does this whole charity thing work? It's simple. Every month, Charity Bar will pick four local charity organizations. Every drink you buy comes with a ticket that can be used to vote for one of the four options. At the end of the month, the votes are tallied and the monthly sales go to that charitable organization.
Look for more targeted philanthropy from the bar as well, with events like last week's Speed Rack night. The Sunday evening saw local Speed Rack contestants shaking drinks for the national charity whose proceeds benefit breast cancer research and awareness.
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With nearly 100 street parking spots -- not to mention two parking garages and the light rail -- within a one-block radius of Charity Saloon, parking is actually easier than at crowded Midtown or Montrose bars, without the looming threat of aggressive tow trucks.
Another goal of Charity Saloon seems to be to operate as an opening salvo, signalling the return of downtown as a viable entertainment district. Look for other bars and restaurants to follow OKRA's push into downtown soon. Eating...Our Words knows of at least four other projects planned for 2013 within walking distance of Charity Saloon.