The Rest of the Best: Houston's Top 10 Dive Bars

D&W Lounge.
D&W Lounge.

"I know it when I see it." - Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, on correctly identifying pornography. Also applies to dive bars.

The dive distinction is complicated. Used to be you could stick a bar in the non-dive phylum if a web jukebox were present. But nowadays there are dives that still feel like coming down in a Greyhound station (in a good way?) even though you can download the Carpenters on the jukebox, if you're so inclined.

Dirt doesn't make a dive. Every bar is dirty. I'm not going to lick the floor at Red Lion, not unless I spill something really expensive, but that doesn't mean it's a dive. No matter what Guy Fieri says.

As for patrons, the West Alabama Ice House has a rode-hard crew of regulars, but since the place started dressing nicer (and flying a Greek flag, for some reason) it hasn't felt the same. A great neighborhood place - or a semblance of its former, grittier self, depending on who you ask - but not so much a dive any longer.

Then there are bars that give me particular trouble. La Carafe and Warren's - if they were college football recruits, I'd give them the amorphous "athlete" distinction and slap a rare five-star ranking next to their names. Despite the rating, I didn't include either on this list, and it's difficult to explain why. They have a timeless quality that doesn't make pigeonholing them impossible, but it does feel sacrilegious. Is Blood on the Tracks a rock and roll album? Stop typing, music geeks, that was rhetorical.

It should be clear, then, that this top-ten list is neither comprehensive nor meant to be gospel. (If you want comprehensive, get Press reporter John Nova Lomax's book.) And it's missing more than a few solid choices: Ruthie's, TK Bitterman's, REHAB, Catbird's, Shady Tavern, Blanco's, Big Star, Big Easy, Dan Electro's, a couple other places that Shilcutt poached for her best neighborhood bars list.

In a city as dirty as Houston, though, ten slots better not be enough to come up with a definitive dive bar list. Here's a shot anyway.

Blue Lagoon.
Blue Lagoon.

10. Blue Lagoon

Last time I was at this Spring Branch dive, I talked to a woman who, based on her familiarity with the bartender and other patrons, seemed like she'd spent every weekend since the Clinton administration at the decades-old bar. Turned out she'd been drinking her white Russians there for only a couple weeks. Another month, and she might get her photo on the wall near the pool table, with the dozens of snapshots of other regulars. (Many of them are damn near hilarious, though I wouldn't expect any of the pictured to suffer much embarrassment.) A smoking patio out back looks like a porch where your country grandpa might retreat when Nana's working his last nerve. It's hard not to feel at home here.

Cozy Corner.
Cozy Corner.
Photo by Troy Fields

9. Cozy Corner

Westbury regulars drive this boozy outpost, and as the neighborhood has changed, so has this dive. When gays and lesbians who wanted to buy homes but couldn't afford Inner Loop prices starting moving in, the bar-goers among them naturally chose the only watering hole in the area. And the new residents and Westbury originals who patronize this seasoned little room next to a dentist's office get along like long-lost, tipsy pals. Shuffleboard gets played, Jello shots get passed around, and if you promise not to throw the controllers, you can even have a turn on the Wii. (Shilcutt already snatched this bar up, but it's hard to resist re-listing such a friendly place in a part of town with a dearth of nightlife.)

The Uncle Sam sign says "I want you at karaoke." Can't argue with that.
The Uncle Sam sign says "I want you at karaoke." Can't argue with that.

8. D&W Lounge

This beer-and-wine joint in the shadow of the east-side coffee plant is a good reflection of its neighborhood - weather-beaten but not dangerous, racially mixed (though maybe just a little bit whiter than the rest of the Second Ward area), isolated-feeling despite being only a couple minutes from downtown. Saturday karaoke is popular, especially with grown-ass Hispanic women, and conversation on the chicken-coop patio is easy to come by any day of the week. I've wandered in and been pleasantly surprised by Nick Gaitan and the Umbrella Man playing a live set to a packed house. About a year ago this place was cash-only and had no online presence; now there are six Yelp reviews and a credit card machine. Hit it up before CultureMap does. Better yet, pick it as a first date spot to make sure your prospective guy or girl can hang.

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