Alice's Tall Texan Drive Inn
David Rozycki
Call it a semantic paradox: Once a place gets labeled a dive bar, it ceases to be one. Regular drunks don't use the term "dive bar" -- only hipsters do. And once the hipsters show up, well, you know where we're going with this. But Alice's Tall Texan somehow has managed to buck the trend, keeping true to its dive-bar roots (and clientele) no matter how many of the gentry walk through its doors. In fact, this joint in the Heights is more akin to the Mexican bars dotting the surrounding area than to any of the other so-called dives frequented by tattooed and pierced partiers. There are neon signs aplenty, a dusty gumball machine in the corner and a wall covered in Western-themed wallpaper that would fit in a little boy's bedroom circa 1950. But what keeps us coming back are the $1.25 Lone Stars, served up in fishbowl schooners that require two hands to lift. Now that's an exercise regimen we can embrace.
No one can beat the ne'er-do-wells at Rudz when it comes to scatological cleverness. The normal bathroom taggers are well represented: Chicken Boy, I Love You Baby, Consumer, GY and DTS. But it's the literary odes that get us chuckling when going about our business. Take the mullet haiku, for example: "O squirrel, my brother / Your tail, my hair, we are one / Yet, I must eat you." Granted, this haiku is widely available on the Internet, but still, it makes us laugh. Some of these scribbles have been up for years, and it's a testament to the folks at Rudz that they haven't whitewashed any of them. There are some new additions, too, such as "The New Orleans disaster is not natural." Well, damn. That's actually not very funny, but at least it makes you think.
Under The Volcano
Many bar owners are content to let jukebox vending companies stock their boxes for 'em. That's why you so often see the same Otis Redding, Patsy Cline and Eagles discs everywhere you go. And while there's nothing wrong with those, it's cool when you see and hear something different. Under the Volcano owner Pete Mitchell is all about the difference. An avid music fan, Mitchell personally loads his juke with his faves, which range from New Orleans brass bands to West African pop and bluegrass to cutting-edge hip-hop. What's more, he changes things up once or twice a year. Where else in H-town will you hear Mamadou et Mariam followed by the North Mississippi All-Stars, Manu Chao and Louis Armstrong? Only at the Volcano.
Little Woodrow's (Bellaire)
Like beer? This little ice-house-style tavern's got plenty -- about six dozen varieties, bottled or canned, and a couple dozen on tap. And they have an airy patio out in front. But hell, so do a lot of places, including Little Woodrow's other locations. What sets this location apart is the fact that the front patio sits about 30 feet from the (very active) Union Pacific railroad tracks. In any stay here of more than an hour or so, you're sure to be treated to the spectacle of a fast-moving freight train rumbling past with a full head of steam, boxcars laden with Texas gravel or Wisconsin wheat and, occasionally, flatcars full of camouflaged Humvees and other weapons of war. Sure, the racket tends to put a damper on conversation, but few sights on earth more awe-inspiring than a train, especially when seen with a belly full of beer.
A streamlined classic with touches of pre-Raphaelite dressing by the late Kristian Fredrikson, Stanton Welch's new $1.6 million Swan Lake was the high point of the dance season this year. Beautiful to look at and swift of foot, this version of one of ballet's most beloved tales of love and loss showcased the Houston Ballet corps at its finest. Who knew the gals of HB could perform in such fluid unison as the graceful swan flock? Artistic director Welch is known for his contemporary, plotless works, but with this bird, he's shown he's also capable of reinventing the classics with style and verve.
And once again the award goes to...Mireille Hassenboehler, Houston Ballet's rising star. This long-limbed creature -- who looks and dances like the best and brightest of the Balanchine glory days -- proved her classic chops again this year as Odette/Odille in the new Swan Lake. Not only has this muse triumphed in almost all of the great classical roles, she can also kick it up in contemporary reps by world masters from Christopher Bruce to William Forsythe. Sure, we still love Lauren Anderson, and we are so glad that Barbara Bears came out of retirement, but Hassenboehler is the star in Houston Ballet's future galaxy.
Dominic Walsh Dance Theater Studio
Dominic Walsh is a triple threat: He dances, he choreographs and he has better business acumen than Jeff Skilling. Who knew a former Houston Ballet dancer could put together a company that was not only artistically vibrant but also financially healthy? Walsh has done it. Last season he mounted the most expensive contemporary dance performance ever in Houston, and he added support staff members, office and studio space while continuing his collaboration with Mercury Baroque and his participation in the Illumination Project. And Dominic Walsh Dance Theater shows no signs of slowing down. Next season look for Mauro Bigonzetti's U.S. premiere of Pression as the highlight of DWDT's season.
Rudyard's
Rudyard's is the self-described "living room of Montrose," and considering that quesadillas, pizza and other tasty treats (the ones most likely to stain your sofa) are in no short supply here, this is a fair assessment. Many drinking establishments are really restaurants that also sell alcohol, but Rudyard's is a bar first, with its live music venue and restaurant vying for second. That doesn't mean the food is lacking, though. Their greasy delectables are made to order and include the famous Rudz burger, which became so popular that the bar is now open at lunchtime. But even if you're in no mood for a burger or the equally celebrated fish and chips, you'll find a great variety of salads, steaks, pasta and snacks on the extensive menu. Rudyard's secures the Best Bar Food title with this small detail: Ice-cold ketchup is brought to the table along with your order. It's the little things that matter, and in the beer selection, as well as the food, Rudyard's displays considerable showmanship.
Lead guitarist Erik Westfall, whose band was formerly known as the Slurpees, once said that he knew the band would make it big if they were ever sued by 7-Eleven. Well, they came close: After a write-up in the Chron, the group received a cease-and-desist letter from the home of the frozen treat. And so Westfall and Co. changed the band name to the Squishees and have kindly asked friends, fans and press to avoid associating them with the copyrighted beverage. (We promise that this is the last time, guys.) Of course, it's never a good idea for an up-and-coming act to change its name so early in the game, but the group had to look no further than The Simpsons for a familiar-sounding replacement. Let's just hope Matt Groening enjoys flattery more than litigation.
The people at Helios have always maintained that the joint is an art space, not a bar, but once you've kicked back a few well drinks and/or Lone Stars, it's hard to tell the difference. Owner Mariana Lemesoff and other local artists created most of the tables, chairs and decor from scrap metal. Molds of Lemesoff's arms, legs, face and breasts adorn the walls, and a wreath of stilettos and a loafer designate the men's and women's restrooms, respectively. You're guaranteed to notice something different at each new trip, although you can be sure it won't be one of those alligators wearing a cowboy hat -- unless Lemesoff's next project is taxidermy.

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