Houston isn’t exactly a bastion of historic preservation. In fact, you might say we are the exact opposite of a city that strives to protect its history. At least that has been the case for decades. But as more Houstonians embrace the need for saving iconic spaces and preserving historical landmarks, it only makes sense that we all start thinking about what is truly worth keeping.
In San Francisco, citizens there have begun a unique effort to help list and, hopefully, maintain “legacy” businesses they believe are part of the fabric of their city. If nothing else, it provides a fascinating look into what San Francisco considers its uniquely local businesses.
So, why not Houston?
The initial list we compiled – culled from crowdsourcing, historical business lists and personal knowledge – was extensive. There is no way we could put a list like this together and NOT leave something off. But, after implementing some basic rules (see at the bottom of this post), there were still a huge number of businesses on the list, particularly since we chose not to limit ourselves to food and drink as they have in San Francisco. Ultimately, we managed to weed it down to 20 (with honorable mentions, naturally).
You’ve probably never heard of this place, but it has been the go-to shop for surfers in Houston since it opened in 1967. Wedged into an old strip mall in Oak Forest, it has also provided skaters with wheels and boards for decades.
19. Rockin’ Robin Guitars and Music
Much like live music venues in Houston, it has been tough for independent music retailers to keep their doors open. Only a handful remain, including perhaps the most venerable, Rockin’ Robin. Crammed with gear, it remains THE place for musicians to buy, sell and trade guitars and instruments.
18. Buchanan’s Native Plants
One of the wonderful things about living in a rainforest-like climate is all the greenery. And when you want to stock up on plants that thrive in Houston, Buchanan’s can steer you in the right direction.
17. Moeller’s Bakery
The first food representative on the list is a bakery that has been around since the Great Depression. The Bellaire sweet shop should be immediately recognizable to area residents from its vintage yellow and brown sign.
16. Ensemble Theatre
Despite what many outsiders may believe, Houston has a thriving cultural arts scene, punctuated by a particularly vibrant theater community. That includes the historic Ensemble Theatre, which features the works and experiences of African American artists.
15. Southland Hardware
Much like big box retailers, large home improvement centers have driven many mom and pop hardware stores into the ground. Not so for Montrose institution, Southland Hardware, however, which has been packed to the ceiling with do it yourself products since 1935.
14. Barbecue Inn
With a bevvy of new joints focused almost exclusively on fried bird, it might be tempting to assume a family owned restaurant with barbecue in the name serving nearly the exact same menu for almost 70 years might be ready to cede the title of best fried chicken in Houston. Don’t bet on it. And the barbecue is damn good too.
13. Rudyard’s British Pub
Billing itself as “the living room of Houston’s Montrose since 1978,” Rudz, as locals call it, has a bit of a split personality. A classic British Pub complete with ale, darts and killer grub, it also has one of the best live music rooms in the city (moved upstairs in the ‘90s after a remodel), complete with perhaps the best sound system in town.
12. Cactus Music
So few record stores have survived the MP3, but Cactus has adapted. From expanding its selection of music related products to capitalizing on the rebirth of vinyl, and, most importantly, turning itself into a music venue for local and traveling artists, Cactus is a survivor.
11. B&W Meat Market
The Friday before July 4 this year found the entire parking lot of B&W on North Shepherd full. It’s like that on many weekends, holiday or otherwise, as barbecue fans stop by to get their meat fix in the shadow of the giant steer sitting atop the sign out front.
10. Texas Junk Company
This is Texas and everyone needs a pair of boots. Problem is, a pair might set you back a few hundred bucks, unless you are shopping at Texas Junk. Technically, an antique store, Houstonians know it is mostly about the boots. Next time a yankee relative is in town for a visit, hit Texas Junk and send them home with a taste of Texas.
9. Murder by the Book
Amazon may own the publishing industry, but there are still a few holdouts where you can get good advice on a new read and even meet your favorite author. MBTB is just such a place and home away from home for mystery novelists and enthusiasts alike.
8. Lankford Grocery
Houston is now recognized as one of the culinary capitals of America. And while there is plenty of wonderful gastronomic diversity here, one thing that has not changed is our ability to make a damn fine burger. Lankford is not only a great dive burger joint, but a local treasure in a city that loves its burgers.
Nothing embodies the perseverance of underground music like Numbers. Since the ‘80s, it has been home to every music and fashion trend that confounded parents and delighted pale, pierced kids. Nevermind the fact that artists like Iggy Pop, the Cure, Nine Inch Nails, Green Day, Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth, Alanis Morissette, Ben Folds Five and Weezer have all graced the Numbers stage.
6. The Breakfast Klub
Drive past this legendary soul food breakfast restaurant any Friday, Saturday or Sunday morning and you’ll no doubt see a line of people around the block waiting for some fried catfish or chicken and waffles. Trust us, the food is worth it, but get there a little early and avoid the line.
5. Warren’s Inn
Warren’s makes up one half of the most notorious and historic pair of watering holes in the city (see No. 3 for the other half). It’s unpretentious, packed with big drinking regulars (including some prominent Houstonians) who like a seriously stiff one and filled with the music from one of the best jukeboxes in Houston.
4. Houston Farmer’s Market at Canino Produce Company
Farmer’s markets have cropped up in cities across the country featuring farm-to-consumer offerings from local growers. In Houston, the market on Airline is the original and still the best. Seven days a week, farmers back up the open-air pavilion and offer produce, spices, herbs and stuff you probably won’t find anywhere else.
3. La Carafe
One of the oldest bars in Houston, La Carafe occupies the oldest building in the city in Market Square cattycorner across from Warren’s Inn. They serve only beer and wine, don’t take credit cards – the ancient cash register is a dead giveaway, but there’s an ATM crammed in the back if you need it – and have one of the best views of downtown from their upstairs balcony.
2. Ninfa’s on Navigation
With Tex-Mex restaurants opening in practically every corner of the city, it might be tough to pick just one if Ninfa’s didn’t exist. Arguably the birthplace of the fajita (it’s still up for debate), the original Navigation eatery is still churning out some of the best Tex-Mex in Houston.
1. Anderson Fair
This might come as a bit of a surprise to some. Many probably have never even heard of the tiny folk club in the Montrose. But a recent documentary and the who’s who list of artists born in this hippie dive (Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams), it is impossible to ignore the immense historical and cultural significance of Anderson Fair.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Honorable Mentions (including ones excluded by the rules below)
Bobbitt Glass Company
The Briar Shoppe
Carter and Cooley
The Detering Company
Guy’s Meat Market
James Coney Island
Last Concert Cafe
Pete’s Fine Meats
River Oaks Theater
St. Arnold’s Brewery
Stages Repertory Theater
Texas Art Supply
Three Brother’s Bakery
Tommie Vaughn Ford
Wabash Feed Store
The rules were as much about limiting the list as they were about setting some basic restrictions. The business must have been operating for at least 20 years. No schools, hospitals, churches, cemeteries or other public spaces. We were only looking for single location stores, so no chains. All must be brick and mortar spaces, no virtual or portable businesses. Generally, we preferred smaller businesses to large corporations and we favored retail over industrial. All stores should be located solely in Houston and cannot be owned by or affiliated directly with a larger company (car dealerships and theaters are good examples). Most importantly, all the businesses are the kind that will probably need saving at some point in the future.