West Alabama Ice House is a perennial Best of Houston® winner, most deservedly, so rather than subject you to a rewording of bygone blurbs, we'll just give the place the Zagat treatment. It's not plagiarism if you're quoting yourself, right? "Cheap beers, pretty bohemian bartenders, roots rock and free hot dogs on Friday make this icehouse in the heart of the Montrose a weekly stop for many River Oaks rednecks, broke punk rockers, bikers, yuppies, dog enthusiasts and lager lovers in general." "This place has always been more of a family barbecue than a watering hole, albeit one where even your ne'er-do-well uncle can fit in." "Around back there are more picnic tables, horseshoes and hoops to shoot." "You gotta watch for the drunks pitching horseshoes." "A lot of these folks aren't the best when it comes to aiming."

Houston has a nice tradition of short-form improv, so it was nice to see a change of pace this year with The Greatest Thing in the History of the World. The long-form improv troupe works in the style perfected by the Upright Citizens Brigade. (In fact, many of the members of GTHW have trained with UCB in NY — oops, we mean New York.) For those unfamiliar with long-form improv, it's like a Saturday Night Live skit that's created on the spot. GTHW is introducing Houston to the style at venues such as Rudyard's, the Proletariat and Walter's on Washington. Their name might be too long to remember, but it's also pretty hard to forget. So keep your eyes out for the next flyer to find out why size matters in instant comedy.

Two architects took eight tons of cardboard and three tons of wood and created a surreal landscape that consumed all of Rice Gallery. Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues of the collaborative team Ball-Nogues previously worked with architect Frank Gehry, the don of cardboard furniture. But Ball-Nogues did Gehry one better — instead of using cardboard to make chairs, they used it to craft a terrain of their own design. They die-cut cardboard into curves and sandwiched it together to create a sturdy but undulating surface. Visitors traversed it and slid down the cardboard slopes of what was truly an interactive installation and a spectacular blend of architecture and sculpture. "Rip Curl Canyon" is one of the coolest things we've seen in a long time.

Live jazz, seven nights a week, in Houston? Look no further than Sambuca. Set in an oasis of dark woods and white linen with the occasional tiger print thrown in, Sambuca features local singers, like the sultry Yvonne Washington and Tianna Hall, and high-energy Houston bands, like the Blue Monks and the Mark Dini Group. The bar also regularly plays host to international acts such as Acoustic Alchemy and Larry Carlton. Want to dance? Sambuca's got you covered. In the mood to just sit back and listen? No problem. The monthly music calendar has something for everyone's taste. Sambuca's menu is a great complement to the music onstage (don't miss the miso sea bass).

Hot DJs, an enthusiastic crowd and live music from top local and international Latin acts make Club Tropicana an easy choice for this year's Best Latin Club. (It won the title in 2003 and 2004.) The club is open only three nights a week (Tuesday, Friday and Saturday), so try not to miss the fun. Tuesday is Ladies' Night with music by Grupo Essencia; Friday features Orquesta Kandente and DJ Hollywood; and Saturday brings Orquesta Salmerum and DJ Lino. Past stars to take the Club Tropicana stage include Papo Lucca y Sonora Ponceña, La India and Oscar D'León. The music moves from salsa to merengue to bachata to reggaeton, so there's always something for everyone.

All these decades later, it's still hard to believe that these brassy, jazzed-up funk grooves were made by mere high school kids. It's also amazing how fresh and contemporary these pieces sound today — when done well, classic funk never, ever goes out of style, and Texas Thunder Soul definitely qualifies as well-made classic funk. (Hip-hop DJs, especially DJ Shadow, have been hip to the K.S.B. for years.) And it further astounds when you recognize that this high school band had an actual, identifiable sound of their own — a marriage of the WWII-era big-band brass of Kashmere High bandmaster Conrad O. Johnson's upbringing and the big-city funk of his pupils. Johnson, now 91 and known to many simply as "The Prof," has much to be proud of, but ever the perfectionist, he's still dissatisfied. "The records are just a facsimile," he once told an interviewer. "Seeing and hearing that band perform was unexplainable."

Paris Falls is the brainchild of Jennifer and Raymond Brown. When the two are not perfecting their musical offspring, they're raising their biological one. The pair creates some of the best rock around and recorded most of their first album, Paris Falls Vol. I, after the birth of their son. Pending a good babysitter, you can see them and their backing band around town at least once a month playing their Rhodes-organ infused, Beatle-esque ditties. Time will only tell if Junior will pick up a guitar and help out mom and pop with killer kid solos. Seriously, that would be the best show ever. Get on it, Browns — we'll be waiting with a Best Local Toddler Rocker award.

A chain movie theater is the same everywhere, right? Not so with the one we affectionately call "Fountains." There are indeed fountains nearby, but we hardly ever notice them. We rush right past to get to the unassuming theater that boasts the most comfy seats in town. Maybe it's the vibes from the church that once met in the theater on Sunday mornings; maybe it's the cheery help; maybe it's the blend of folks who go there — if Houston is a melting pot, Fountains is a statistically representative sample. We love it better than all the other theaters, even those that specialize in indies or those that bring drinks and food to your table. It also serves as a Poor Man's Summer Camp: We recommend a self-scheduled double- or triple-feature on scathingly hot summer days. If there's a gap on your menu of movies, you can dash over to the major stores nearby. Or do what we do: Fill out the kiddie games on the placemats at nearby Avalon Diner.

The black gloom of irony inherent in Stephen Sondheim's peerless 1979 musical was elevated by its epic sweep on every level: Grand Guignol-like revenge melodrama, characters who ranged from virginal to debauched, bleak world view of the powerlessness of the powerless, bouncy English music hall roots, cinematic staging, immaculate lyrics and gloriously robust music. In the hands of Masquerade Theatre director Phillip Duggins and music director Paula Smith, Sondheim's chilling work about the avenging "demon barber of Fleet Street" and his murderous killing spree was a tasty showcase for Houston's only musical theater company, and they chowed down on it as if it were one of Mrs. Lovett's savory meat pies. Leads Luther Chakurian and Re­bekah Dahl, as Sweeney's amoral accomplice, were incandescent, as were young lovers Braden Hunt and Kristina Sullivan, and all supporting players. Sondheim's blistering work peeled the paint off Zilkha Hall. Ravishing.

The antithesis of all the trendy lounges catering to the fickle 400 that come and go every year, Pearl Bar is in it for the long haul. Right now, it's just a beer garden with an icehouse vibe behind what once was Mary Jane's. A few picnic tables are scattered about, along with low-tech games like ping-pong and hula-hooping, but Montrose/Heights hipsters flock here to consume the bar's namesake beer — Pearl goes for a mere two bucks a can. The management hopes to roll their profits into the restoration of the interior of the Mary Jane's building, so drinking here is not just fun — it's also doing your part in the battle for historic preservation.

Best Of Houston®

Best Of