Houston Public Library: Julia Ideson Building
Houston Public Library Maybe it's not as glamorous as one or two brand-spanking-new sporting arenas. And maybe it doesn't have the sexy, futuristic cachet of the automobile-hunting light rail. But the Houston library system offers something those other budget-gobblers can't: free knowledge. Sure, there's the occasional overdue-book penalty, but it's relatively cheap compared to the price of getting the light rail dents out of your car. And really, nothing's more forward-looking than free reading programs for children, or free summer learning and activity centers for adults, including computer and art classes and free movies. The library system has a minuscule budget, but with three branches being renovated this year, it's a positive alternative to expensive stadiums and destruction-derby transit systems.

Best Place for a Lunchtime Tryst

Skyline Bar and Grill
Skyline Bar and Grill People love a good view. It's so steadfast a truth, in fact, that when the Hiltons opened a restaurant on the top floor of their new downtown convention center hotel, they named it Skyline Bar and Grill. The marketing team, no doubt, was promptly given a bonus. The Hilton is located stealthily on the outskirts of downtown, so if you're meeting that secret someone (or if just the thought of walking a block in Houston's heat makes you sweat), the valet will gladly accommodate you. The drinks and French/ Mediterranean/Asian fusion fare are a bit pricey, but you knew that going in. It's the Hilton, not Motel 6. So enjoy your lunch, blow a kiss, look into each other's eyes and then get a room.

Katie McCall Ever since it hit the air four years ago, KHWB's nightly 9 p.m. news broadcast has been a welcome addition to the Houston media scene -- solid reporting, not a lot of glitzy hidden-camera investigations of strip clubs. Epitomizing the station's less-frills, more-facts approach is night reporter Katie McCall. A cum laude graduate of Vanderbilt (in Spanish and English, no less; no RTF major here), she's been at KHWB since the start-up, having come over from a Tucson station. The Chicago native was the first to report that Andrea Yates had been hospitalized after refusing food; less seriously, she landed the only interview with Janet Jackson's tailor after the Super Bowl. Whether it's the Enron epic or the latest weather disaster, McCall brings a sharp eye and an aggressiveness to get the story, and get it right.

Jeffrey Arndt Metro has gotten its fair share of grief over the past year, what with the new light rail train barreling over cars and pedestrians like a vengeance-seeking instrument of an angry god. But the fender-benders draw attention away from just what the agency has accomplished: a smooth opening of a $324 million rail line and, even trickier, the transition needed to get Main Street commuters off their buses and onto the train. And all this had to be accomplished with a Super Bowl coming to town just a month after the grand opening. Where should the credit go? A lot of it is owed to Jeffrey Arndt, Metro's senior vice president of operations. Arndt has worked in a wide range of jobs in his almost 25 years at the agency; he's excelled at both the slow-but-steady jobs like improving service for handicapped riders and the sudden disasters like dealing with Tropical Storm Allison and emptying downtown Houston on 9/11. Just because Houston drivers can't see large trains doesn't mean that Arndt hasn't had a good year in a largely thankless job.

Jim Blackburn Houston is a city where it's always good to have the phone number of an environmental attorney handy. After all, you never know when somebody's going to decide to build a container port on your favorite spread of wetlands, covertly spew toxins into your air or simply dump a bunch of crap in your backyard. So thank your lucky water lilies for Jim Blackburn, Houston's environmental lawyer extraordinaire. Blackburn might not always win his cases (hey, it's Texas), but he's almost always on the side of nature and the little guy. Winner of the National Wildlife Federation's 2001 Conservationist of the Year Award in the legal category, Blackburn also does his part to reach out to his community. He teaches environmental law at Rice University and helped organize this year's Global Forum on Water as well as an air pollution conference for the State Bar of Texas. This fall, keep an eye out for Blackburn's name on bookshelves. His Book of Texas Bays will be released in October.

Goode Co. Barbeque When it comes to native pride -- the kind that makes you want to hook your thumbs inside your overalls and throw your chest out -- no state in the union does it quite like ours. Everything is bigger in Texas; everything, that is, except for irony. Hey, we are bigger than France, aren't we? The entreaty tattooed on the side of Jim Goode's barbecue barn is no thrift-store kitsch phrase -- it's earnest, it's the real deal: "You just might give some serious thought to thanking your lucky stars that you're in Texas." The old-timey jukebox, the DIY ice chest of beer, the assorted horns and antlers on the wall and ol' Jim looking like the lost fourth member of ZZ Top -- in a culture of affectation, premature nostalgia and placeless chain eateries, these are artifacts without artifice. So slather up a plate with our finest national export and ask yourself this question: Is there anywhere you'd rather be?

Scott Gertner's Skybar For better or for worse, ours is a horizontal city. Actually, strike that. It's usually worse than better. At flood time, summer storms lay waste to our barely sloping topography. In traffic snarls, you're never quite sure if it's going to get better over the next hill, because there is no next hill. So it's not that we rejoice when we climb above the fourth floor somewhere -- it's that we're downright dumbstruck. From the heights of the swank Scott Gertner's Skybar in Montrose, you can gaze upon the empire of freeways and sprawl that the oil magnates see from their high-rise offices every day. At ten stories up, it may not be a Williams Tower penthouse, but if you need to get above it all, Skybar will suit you just fine.

Marfreless
Marfreless "I think I've made out with two chicks here," a patron says, adding, "not on the same night, though." When it comes to Marfreless, he's certainly not alone. This West Gray-area nightspot is so secretive, only a stenciled black street number marks the door. You can hardly blame the prurient for assuming it's a swingers bar. And while the prurient are wrong (as they so often are), it's only by a matter of degree. Marfreless is a grown-up version of the seventh-grade broom closet: a makeout bar. Downstairs you'll find attentive service, soft candles, dark wood. Upstairs -- well, let's just say you don't go there for the food. Two rooms and a fleet of sofas offer varying levels of intimacy perfect for necking and nibbling. If you can manage to coax your date up the stairs, you're probably well on your way. The drinks aren't cheap; there are plenty of $7 martinis and $9 glasses of wine. But when you think about what you're really getting, Marfreless might be the best deal in town.

Sherlock's Baker Street Pub
Sherlock's Pub Hey, we don't specify what kind of single guy, so Sherlock's wins due to sheer volume. You'll find the dudes at any one of the seven Sherlock's locations around town, clad in backwards baseball caps, shorts and sandals. They pack into the Irish-themed pubs, hit on the cute waitresses in short khaki shorts and sing along to the unthreatening, familiar tunes of a cover band. The mostly college-aged crowd is drawn here by nightly drink specials and cheap, cheap bottled beer during the week, ensuring a generous crowd even on a Tuesday.

Hotel Derek
Hotel Derek Where better to party like a rock star than the hotel named after a fictional one? The Hotel Derek, situated in the middle of the world's largest traffic jam at Westheimer and Loop 610, is a far cry from the stuffy sanctuary of most Houston hotels, but that's the point: The Derek is a hotel for people who like luxury but aren't dead yet. Downstairs, the Maverick restaurant is loud and trendy -- the perfect place to get rip-roaring drunk in style. For maximum pleasure Derek-style, we recommend buying multiple rounds for the entire bar, picking up a groupie and sweeping her upstairs to your very own ultramodern oasis, complete with a crackling fire on the TV screen and a fully stocked minibar. Destroying the room à la Crazy Town is strictly optional.

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