Art Car Museum
The Press conducted a lot of research for this category (see "Free Booze," December 1), and we've got to hand it to the freewheelin' spirits at the Art Car Museum for running away with the prize. Of course, they don't really serve up cocktails per se; rather, a couple of kegs are tapped and bottles of wine are just left out on the table. No gatekeeper. No drink tickets. No little plastic cups. Just tons of booze and plenty of good times. It's like you're at a house party, but the artwork on the walls (and in the driveway) is a lot more interesting than anything you'd ever find at your buddy's house.
Maybe it's because the Angelika seems to be the only Houston theater where there aren't any assholes answering cell-phone calls throughout the entire movie. Maybe it's the cinematic selection, a mixture of art-house indie and mainstream indulgence. Whatever the reason, the Angelika provides a downright pleasant moviegoing experience, while the megaplexes leave you wishing you'd stayed home, gotten a root canal -- done anything but pay $10 to watch someone get his head sawed off while an audience of impromptu movie critics tries to talk over the movie.
Somewhere on the dial, among the Blue October and Laura Ingraham, there's a little college radio station pumping out 50,000 watts of pure uncommercialized goodness. From the excellent MK Ultra DJ sets every Friday night to the generally upbeat morning drive, Rice University's KTRU gives Houston the very thing most other radio stations lack: quality. The kids cutting their teeth on indie rock, hip-hop and electro manage to pull off a better radio station than Clear Channel could ever dream up.
There's really no competition in this category. While many other radio stations have "news departments" or an assortment of programs, KTRH remains the gold standard. With a mixture of original local reports, locally based talk show hosts (Sam Malone, Deborah Duncan, Chris Baker) and selected national programs, KTRH's coverage of Houston is deep and well rounded. KTRH is the first (and only) place on the dial to go for Astros coverage and weather emergencies, proving particularly valuable and informative during Hurricane Rita. Finally, its morning team of Lana Hughes and J.P. Pritchard has an amazing chemistry and vocal cadence, delivering a brisk summation of the day's top stories during the all-important morning commute hours.
Whether Cynthia's dishing out some delicious Malibu punch or it's Big Bass serving up some funk-dafied bass thump, we're in love with the Gallant Knight. A gem in the middle of Medical Center dullness, the Gallant Knight has been helping kids and doctors get their blues on for more than 35 years. Go there on a Saturday night, and even if you're totally white-bread, you'll immediately forget all your honky troubles and start to feel a little rhythm in your feet. But don't get too carried away there, bud. Don't want to mess up the loafers.
If you work downtown, you should already know that the best place to unwind is the Magnolia Hotel. After a long, tedious day of playing office politics and staring out the window at the beautiful array of ozone and carbon monoxide that makes up Houston's daytime sky, you deserve a little piano jazz and some milk and cookies at a swanky hotel. Even if you don't work downtown, consider driving there after work. Screw the dog! Daddy needs a little $14 martini action to let off some steam!
The Tipsy Clover is the kind of beautifully schizophrenic neighborhood bar that serves a dual purpose: It can be the place to go to meet up with friends after work, grab a pizza and play a casual game of pool. Or it can be an all-out frenzy of Golden Tee competitiveness and dart-board mayhem, depending on your timing. The relaxed pub feel gives the place a comfortable vibe, but it's still clean and new enough to be worthy of a parking lot full of Midtown residents' BMWs.
Leon's Lounge
There's no other bar in Midtown -- or in Houston, for that matter -- like Leon's Lounge. Not only does it boast an existence spanning nearly six decades -- quite a feat, considering the blink-and-you-missed-it nature of Houston businesses -- it's also the most interesting place you can find any night of the week in Midtown. If you happen to show up when the owners are in good spirits and hanging out with the patrons, you're guaranteed to have a night that will include -- at the bare minimum -- a long conversation with a lovely lady named Scarlet. And, if you're lucky, sit back for an impromptu concert by Scarlet's mom.
Poison Girl
Though a number of other worthy watering holes crowd the field, Poison Girl strong-arms the competition with its outstanding service, noteworthy patio and, most of all, its compulsion to give back. Despite being all but concealed in shadows, Poison Girl has become popular through word of mouth. Why? It's a bar for adults who want to drink: There's no food on the menu (unless you're on a liquid diet), and patrons know they can enjoy a Lone Star in an atmosphere devoid of nervous giggling and whispering from the barely-21 set. Regulars populate the bar most weeknights, but on the weekend the bar draws fresh faces who've heard tell of the pinball, the patio and the pinup art. And on the first Sunday of each month, Poison Girl presents "Drink Houston Better," during which all sales proceeds go directly to a local charitable organization. So even those who never darken Poison Girl's shadowy doorway benefit from the imprint left by its considerable neighborhood presence.
Warren's Inn
Warren's is a bar. You drink at Warren's. You don't watch the game, you don't pick up chicks. You have them pour you a stiff cocktail and you put John Lee Hooker on the juke and you smoke a cigarette. You look at the inevitable old drunk guy, and you make a toast to his liver. He belongs here, in this old, dimly lit, cozy corner of downtown. He belongs here as much as Warren's belongs in Houston. It's the polar opposite of the velvet-rope crap just down the street, and both the old drunk guy and Warren's will be there long after those clubs burn out. And, with any luck, you'll be there, too, lighting another smoke while Otis comes on. And this time, you'll say, make it a double.

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