The Fourth of July is supposed to be about freedom, and where better to celebrate liberty than the anarchistic Bolivar Peninsula? Want to drink openly on the beach? That's not a problem here. Neither is the possession and liberal use of extremely powerful fireworks. For two solid hours after the hot sun settles in Galveston Bay, the good folk of Bolivar launch steady streams of Roman candles and artillery shells into the air. The skies whine with whistling jakes, the dunes crackle with the reports of black cats, and sparklers sizzle on every beach house deck. Every hundred or so yards, there's another display, each of which must have cost hundreds of dollars and none of which is publicly funded. Thomas Jefferson would be proud.

Each June since 1978, Houston's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community has officially celebrated being proud of who they are with the snazzy, spectacular Pride Parade. Because of Houston's sweltering summer heat, in 1997 planners started holding the event after sundown, giving the parade the exuberant charge of a nightclub in full swing -- and starting a trend of nighttime pride parades throughout the country. Since the dancers, activists and flag-bearers make their way through the Montrose area as opposed to downtown, there's a groovy local flavor to the event (although there's talk that the parade is outgrowing its space). What started as a small affair is now a must-attend event even for local government officials and businesses like JP Morgan Chase. Gay police officers and firefighters also participate, and this year's silver anniversary of the parade drew in the biggest crowd ever (nearly 150,000), with revelers crowding under a 1,000-pound chandelier that hung above the intersection of Westheimer and Montrose.
This project has been written off for dead so many times it earned the reputation as the Freddy Krueger of downtown Houston development. In the midst of a fierce City Council contest for the hotel contract in 1995, the FBI used it as the bait in a bribery sting. That led to the famous "Hotel Six" series of trials, resulting in the convictions of former councilman Ben Reyes and port commissioner Betti Maldonado. Then a deal with Crescent Development to build the hotel fell apart, leaving the city to pick up the pieces with its own financing plan. When the Hilton Americas opens this December, it will likely go down in history as the hotel too tough to kill. Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau chief Jordy Tollett says the moral of the tale is "if you just keep trying, trying and trying, you just may succeed."
Jenni's Noodle House
Unless you're crazy about Lysol and Tilex, we can almost guarantee that the bathrooms at Jenni's Noodle House are cleaner than yours. You could eat a plate of Jenni's famous disco dumplings right off the floor (not that Jenni would appreciate that). But it's not just the shiny surfaces and sweet smell of these lavatories that make them our pick for best johns. It's their sense of hospitality. A table holds tiny plastic cups and a bottle of Scope, in case you need to freshen your breath after a plate of Buddha soba or Art Car curry. There's a bottle of hand cream in there, too. And a friendly sign suggests that diners wipe down the sink for the benefit of future patrons. While most of us would be tempted to laugh off that request in other restaurants, there's something about Jenni's sense of decorum that makes us want to chip in and help -- or at the very least, not forget to flush.

Etta's Lounge
The Sunday-night Etta's experience never fails to leave a lasting impression on visitors. It isn't simply the soul music or the burgers or the buckets of Budweiser (or the guilty pleasure of partying into the working week). The atmosphere here is spiritual. This is night church. The older, sharply dressed African-American crowd sips Canadian whiskey at the front end of the room, while the casual, college-age mob congregates toward the back. They meet on the dance floor thanks to the music of Grady Gaines and the Texas Upsetters. Young and old do the Harlem shuffle unfazed by the gawky first-timers fighting for rhythm against the waves of veteran shufflers crashing around them. You only learn by doing, child.
On a day when it isn't too terribly hot, take a blanket out to Hermann Park. If it's Sunday, grab a bagel, some coffee and The New York Times. Then settle in and take a look around. You might see a family on the hill singing "Let's Go Fly a Kite" -- until the mother yells at the father for not holding the kite right. You might see a couple rolling around on a blanket in a mad embrace. You might see a weird dance troupe in alien-inspired unitards frolicking around for production pictures. And when you get sick of the people, there are always the ducks.
Backstreet Cafe
Photo by Joanna O'Leary
It's easy to screw up a first date. You could: a) come on too strong or not strong enough, b) bring a vegetarian to a steak house or c) spend the evening detailing your sexual history. If you have a propensity for answer c, we can't help you. But choosing the perfect first-date venue could solve your other problems. Backstreet Cafe will send your date the right message. It's classy, but it's not Mark's -- that would signify that you're trying too hard. At Backstreet, there are no tablecloths, but there's a sommelier. The menu offers not only sandwiches but also fancier steak and fish dishes. And just in case your date has forsworn flesh, there's a killer veggie plate. The restaurant is a converted two-story house with intimate dining areas in several rooms, and its easy combination of romance and casualness will set the perfect tone for your evening. If you manage to steer clear of ex-talk, you're virtually guaranteed a smooch or two.
The Amacones don't just look cute -- they're delicious.
Photo by Troy Fields
The Amacones don't just look cute -- they're delicious.
The love's run dry, and it's time to sit down and talk with the person you've been seeing. It would be rude to suggest a meeting at KFC. It would be misleading to go to somewhere romantic, like Aries. And it would be dangerous to visit any bar, which could lead to excessive drinking -- and a final shag. We suggest breaking up at Amazón Grill. The atmosphere is clean, bright, loud and decidedly neutral; the walk-up service casual; and the Latin cuisine, especially the corn empanadas and tacos, delish. Admittedly, the margaritas are also tasty and fairly strong, so allow yourself only one, just to get your nerve up before doing the deed. If it doesn't go well, you can tell your dinner companion that you're off for plantain chips and cilantro sauce and bolt for the parking lot.
The Lexington Grille
Not far away, traffic is snarled on the Southwest Freeway as motorists fight to regain those lost minutes of lunchtime. Even closer, the crowds are crushing into Shepherd Plaza-area eateries for the midday rush. Thankfully, no such frenzies will ever find their way into The Lexington Grill. Tucked away on a quiet side street, this small restaurant thrives on its atmosphere of peaceful calm. Diners at the handful of tables may be closing a business deal or deep in romantic bliss. Their common love at the Lexington, however, is the dynamic food (including unrivaled crab cakes), splendid service and sense of intimacy -- the ingredients for truly memorable meals.

Taco Milagro
Cool evenings find the umbrella-studded corner patio at Taco Milagro packed with the young and the beautiful. Whether you're looking to be discovered by modeling agents from Page Parkes down the street or the politicos and oil magnates who frequent the Downing Street cigar bar next door, this place is all about seeing and being seen. Sit back, keep those Gucci shades on all night, and sip tequila. They'll find you.

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