If you find the aroma of coffee intoxicating, you'll be in heaven at the House of Coffee Beans, which has an on-premise roaster that constantly emits alluring fragrances. The coffee beans are purchased from all over the world in the green state and then medium-roasted in small batches. Looking for some shade-grown, hand-picked beans from a family-owned estate in Guatemala? Here's where you'll find them. In addition to selling more than 100 different types of coffee, they also have every coffee machine and gadget known to man. Prices range from a few dollars a pound to over $40 for the Jamaican Blue Mountain variety, and the staff is happy to offer advice on what to buy. After all, they've been roasting and selling coffee for 30 years, so they really know their beans.

Epicure Cafe
The Austrians take their coffee and cake very seriously. After all, where else do they confer the honor of konditoreimeister, or master pastry chef? (Okay, Germany.) Epicure Cafe owner Khan Esmail is a native of Iran who studied in Austria and brought his knowledge and skills to Houston some 16 years ago. Everything he sells, he makes. Fine European pastries and handmade cookies have undergone even further refinements under his direction. A simple napoleon is transformed into a strawberry napoleon. Cream cakes are embellished with Frangelico, pistachios or cappuccino-raspberry, and his crème caramel is legendary. If you're looking for a way to liven up your next coffee klatch, you'll find the offerings at Epicure simply irresistible.
You wouldn't expect a 1930s-era drugstore and diner to have an attitude, but Avalon does when it comes to gift cards. In fact, it's one of the best places in town to grab a greeting. Four rows and a rack are stuffed with paper salutations -- Weiner Dog and Sunrise Greetings sharing space with recycled products and traditional get-well cards. But those in the know come for the humorous ones, the cards with a little kick. Is a card not going to cut it? The store also stocks wrapping paper and lots of little gifty things -- from fragrances to paperweights -- for last-minute shoppers.

Despite being choked by the light rail construction, the flower stalls along Fannin Street, like perennials, are making a comeback. Need to redecorate for tonight's party or impress a date? The indoor-outdoor markets are still the best place to buy roses without breaking the bank. Ten bucks will usually get you a dozen roses of almost any color that will last at least a day or two. For those just off the trucks from south of the border, $14.95 is the going rate. You can get higher-quality roses, you can get prettier roses, but you can't get cheaper roses anywhere else. And a rose is a rose is a rose...

Diamonds might be a girl's best friend, but they're also as common as a flat highway in East Texas. The mall's no help. Every bauble there is a cookie-cutter version of every other. Instead, try A.A. Benjamin, a tiny showroom hidden in the back of a bank building. Among the many antique and estate delights laid out in the glass cases are hand-cut, one-of-a-kind diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires set in platinum and gold dating back to the 1800s (some even further). Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and La Cloche are just a few of the designers represented in their collection. If they don't have what you want on hand, they'll go looking for it. And if you're really special, they'll even bring the merchandise to you, to view in the comfort of your office or home. You can't get more uncommon than that.

Sound Exchange
Sound Exchange on Richmond and Black Dog Records were neck and neck for top honors in this category. Both stores have an exquisite collection of rare and long-lost vinyl LPs, often at affordable prices, and they both have their share of eccentric regulars who like to hip the knowledgeable employees to the latest conspiracies. For a while there, Black Dog was in the lead, thanks to its use of incense. But after a second look, Sound Exchange won because of its extensive bargain-basement selection. Yes, for one dollar each, you can get a bounty of lost vinyl treasures: R&B, jazz, Christopher Cross...Plus, the Exchange has a rep for letting local bands -- such as the Jewws and Freedom Sold -- do makeshift shows right next to the record players for sale. Like any good record store, Sound Exchange preserves the independent spirit of music. Now, if it could just add a couple of incense sticks here and there...

Can a pregnant woman find happiness in a clothing boutique? She can if it's Rice Village's Nine, the trendy maternity store where the trust-fund babies with babies on board come to shop. With an atmosphere that feels more like Neiman's than nine months in waiting, the little store caters to pretty young mommies-to-be with clothes that are hardly your mother's maternity outfits. Pregnancy Survival Kits (stretchy pieces you can mix and match) mingle with maternity eveningwear. And where else can you get a Japanese Weekend Maternity Thong?

The Briar Shoppe
Sisters Pat and Donna O'Connor have turned this store, which their mother opened more than 40 years ago, into a stogie smoker's oasis. With a 200-square-foot walk-in humidor featuring everything from Arturo to Zeno, you can't go wrong. The shop(pe) also features a wide selection of pipes, wine, liquor and smoking accessories such as humidors, lighters and cutters. And they hold a wine-tasting every Saturday. But the all-female, all-smoking staff prides itself most on its customer service.

Frederick August Otto Schwarz came all the way to Baltimore from Germany 141 years ago so that you could get some kick-ass toys. The least you could do is check out his store. So they're not local -- so what? The huge Houston location across the street from the Galleria is the quintessential toy store. If you need a plush bear or an obscure Barbie, they can't be beat. Plus, they pride themselves on their customer service -- they'll wrap your gifts and ship them anywhere in the world. They're also combating their somewhat snooty image by dropping their prices. Please, please, please, can we go?
Face it: Unlike those poseurs at the mall pet stores, the animals here really need you. At any given time, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has 300 to 400 pets waiting to be adopted -- every kind of critter, from dogs and cats to horses and pigs. Your $65 kitty or doggy adoption fee includes spaying or neutering, health screening, leashes and cat carriers, and vouchers for initial visits to vets in the SPCA's network. Think a mutt (or mixed breed, as we like to call them) just isn't right for you? Check out the SPCA anyway: Twenty percent of the society's animals are pure-bred.

Best Of Houston®

Best Of