Great new restaurant openings weren't the only story of 2014. There were also new, notable bars that opened that are fun additions to Houston's beverage scene. Despite their youth, some have already landed on the top lists compiled by national publications. First, we'll look at two places to keep an eye on in 2015, and then check out the top picks of bars that opened in 2014.
Check These Out in 2015
Ladybird's, 5519 Allen December 2014
How can you not love a place that features a painting of Han Solo in Carbonite on the back door? You can get a cocktail or beer, shoot a game of pool and play Ms. Pac Man, but Ladybird's needs a little more time to get its food program settled. It's located where The Usual used to be. There's no kitchen in the building, so they've asked former Underbelly sous chef Lyle Bento to develop their menu, which will be cooked in an on-site food truck. In the meantime, other food trucks are periodically providing service. Speaking of service, the staff is very kind and happy to make recommendations and while the back bar isn't stocked with anything super-fancy, the brands of whiskey, tequila and rum Ladybird's has chosen are solid. We were happy to see both yellow and green Chartreuse on the shelf.
Wooster's Garden, 3315 Milam December 2014
Wooster's Garden is still in its soft opening phase, but the beautiful, airy building is easy to fall in love with. Black wire mesh fixtures hang from the ceiling while a cascade of antique bulbs adorns the front of the room. Cocktails like Velvet Sun, with vodka, Campari, lime, ginger beer and rose water, have a delicate touch--and a stainless steel wall of taps will keep craft beer lovers happy. Unlike many places in Midtown, it has a sizable parking lot on-site. It's far enough away from the beaten path that it may attract fewer dude-bros than some of the other bars in the area. The food menu is still a work in progress, but they hope to have it nailed down by mid-January.
Onward to the countdown:
10. Hop Scholar Ale House, 610 Rayford May 2014
The opening of Hop Scholar filled a need for a proper craft beer bar in Spring. No, it may not have a hundred taps like The Hay Merchant, but the selections are well-chosen. They include Dogfish Head, Brooklyn Brewery and more worldly selections like Birra del Borgo from Italy and Brouwerij Van Steenberge from Belgium. There's no food served here, but you are welcome to bring your own. Yes, it's BYOF. Check out the list of beers on tap here.
9. Revelry on Richmond, 1613 Richmond July 2014
If you're a sports fan, this is the place for you. There's not a bad seat in the house, as there are dozens of TVs facing every angle. Even if you're not a sports fan, you're likely to find favor with the burger selection, the legit $5 Bloody Marys and the $11 mimosa pitchers on Sundays. The cocktail menu is also more ambitious than you might expect. We were gratified to have a decent Manhattan and see The Last Word as one of the drink choices. Their beer selections are available on Tap Hunter and there are some mighty fine choices indeed, with out-of-the-ordinary selections from Stone and Ommegang, and local brews from 8th Wonder and more. Maybe we can get them to show the next season premier of Game of Thrones.
8. Woodbar, 3939 Richmond December 2014
When is a bar more than a bar? When it starts off in the mornings as a coffee shop and features a menu of delectable small bites starting at 11 a.m. That's also the time when it transitions into a cocktail menu that endures until midnight. Taking a page from the book of parent restaurant Canopy next door, Woodbar features a lovely environment of natural tones, and fresh juices in its cocktails. There's even one with kale juice, which almost allows imbibers believe that drinking is good for them. Almost. At the very least, it makes for a good excuse.
7. Neil's Bahr, 2006 Walker April 2014
Geeky haven Neil's Bahr opened just in time for the summer comics convention season and masses of fans reportedly maxed out capacity both during Comicpalooza and Amazing Comic Con. Folks of the pop culture persuasion can come in, have a beer and read some comic books from the shelves. There's a ping pong table and retro video game machines. It's also a great place to host a Magic: The Gathering tournament or a Dungeons & Dragons session. Come here looking for fun, not fancy cocktails.
6. Lei Low, 6412 North Main February 2014
It sounds like an oxymoron, but Lei Low takes tiki culture very seriously. Brightly patterned shirts? Check. A laid-back environment? Check. Polynesian décor? Enough to make Don the Beachcomber proud. On the weekends, you even might find a DJ spinning up the beats. Here at Lei Low, the party is so hearty that you can get a fruity, rum-saturated cocktail on fire in a ginormous bowl. It serves four. Drinking alone? The Flaming Mai Tai is an adventure in a glass. May we recommend a cab?
5. The Nightingale Room, 308 Main November 2014
If you're ready to shake your groove thing, The Nightingale Room is the new cool place to do it. Thousands of vinyl albums line the shelves behind the bar and guys and gals alike come here to party down while sipping on bartender/co-owner Mike Chriss' simple, unpretentious and tasty cocktails. Old Fashioneds and Airmails sit on the menu right alongside Cosmopolitans and Mexican Razor Blades. There's a fun loft with a bird's eye view of the bar and dance floor--that is, when there's not a band or a DJ up there.
Sanctuari's evolution has been a bit bumpy, but it's retained its high-quality bar program nonetheless. Parent restaurant Triniti made the unusual move of splitting off its own bar area as an entity unto itself, mainly inspired by the work done to revamp the bar program by the Ladies of Libation, aka Leslie Ross and Laurie Sheddan Harvey. The front area was reworked into a swanky lounge area with black and gold accents and christened "Sanctuari." A mere three weeks after the grand opening, Ross abandoned the very place that was established in-part to showcase her talents. Fortunately, Harvey has been more than equal to the task of steering the ship. The cocktails continue to be executed at a high level, there's an interesting wine list and Sanctuari has the best happy hour bites in town, thanks to its relationship with Triniti.
3. Public Services Wine & Whisky, 202 Travis September 2014
Let's make a pact to never allow the beautiful bar space in the Cotton Exchange building sit empty again. It is now filled quite nicely by Public Services. Brought to you by the team who opened Oxheart (chef Justin Yu, baker Karen Man and sommelier Justin Vann), Public Services focuses on poured, not mixed, beverages, like wine, whiskey and beer. While they have a small list of pre-batched cocktails, they're content to leave the shaker game to someone else. The end result is a genteel bar staffed with an enthusiastic staff ready and willing to wax philosophically about everything from under-appreciated sherries to whiskey aged in port barrels.
2. Moving Sidewalk, 306 Main September 2014
There is not a single aspect of Moving Sidewalk's cocktail program that isn't thought through, from the hand-carved, crystal-clear ice to the housemade syrups. It's also home of the most clever cocktail in Houston, the Anna Nicole Smith. A dividing layer of liquid nitrogen divides the ingredients of a White Lady (gin, lemon, Curacao and Lillet Blanc) with absinthe. When the layer dissolves, the combination creates a Corpse Reviver #2. The naysayers who claim that Houston doesn't have bars that rank right up with New York's haven't been to Moving Sidewalk yet.
Truth be told, we wish we could tie the top three all in the number one spot--but there can be only one. Go to the next page to see our top pick.
1. Julep, 1919 Washington August 2014
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Julep always serves its cocktails with a side of Southern hospitality. Service is with a smile here (it's often Anvil Bar & Refuge alumnus Kenny Freeman behind that friendly grin) and who knew that juleps came in more varieties than just mint? Large-format cocktails in glass pitchers are perfect for groups for four to six, as are the towers of shrimp, crab and oysters. The seafood is so fresh and luxurious that it would be right at home on the table of any fine Houston restaurant. Julep was one of the bars nominated for Best New Bar in Food & Wine magazine's People's Choice competition this year and co-owners Alba Huerta and Bobby Heugel were named Imbibe magazine's Bartenders of the Year.