Inversion

This coffeehouse is attracting as much attention as its namesake. Inspired by Inversion, the giant-vortex house that once stood at 1956 Montrose, Inversion Coffee House has just as many Houstonians stopping by for its art as for its killer cup of joe. Inversion has all the pleasantries of Starbucks (i.e., quality coffee served by a staff that doesn't think they're above taking your order) as well as its own flair. It shares space with Art League Houston, and owner Michael Terrazas welcomes local artists on his walls. The coffee shop has been around for less than a year, but it's hard to find a time the tables aren't filled with students, business types, artsy types and pretty much all types. But no worries — the staff is on the ball and, regardless of the number of customers, you'll hardly ever wait longer than a couple of minutes for a latte.

A lovely lament from Tom Waits's latest, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards, "Fannin Street" seems especially timely. The song opens like this: "There's a crooked street in Houston town / it's a well-worn path I've traveled down / now there's ruin in my name / I wish I'd never got off the train and I wish I'd listened to the words you said / Don't go down to Fannin Street / you'll be lost and never found, you can never turn around." It would seem that Waits doesn't get here that often, as there was only one block of Fannin Street where those words applied – the area around the Hotel Metropole, one of the last flophouses downtown. And now that too is gone. Earlier this summer, this last piss-reeking, wino-friendly block on Fannin was bought by Gerald Hines, so the hotel and the eminently funky, Bukowskian dive bar on the ground floor are now boarded up, likely enough soon to be "lost and never found."

Local playwright John Harvey is nothing if not bizarre, at least he's that way in writing. His disturbingly funny plays, featured at Mildred's Umbrella, have examined incest, debauchery and sex with animals. Last season's Rot, presented with the help of those grand puppets from Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre, was Harvey's most tortured and most hilarious yet. It featured a nasty family consisting of a tyrannical mother named Barbara (Patricia Duran), a spineless father named Earl (Eric Doss) and a hell-raising daughter named Ann (Jennifer Decker). Wracked with the plague, Earl crawled across the stage on his belly while his horrible wife called him a "fucking piece of shit," among other insults. "Die Earl," she said to her foolish husband, over and over. Deadly to the point of apocryphal, the story was creepy and compelling. And the production's use of puppetry brought Harvey's inventiveness to a whole new level.

El Pueblito Place
Jeff Balke

Sure, you could eat their delicious Guatemalan and Mexican dishes in a jail cell or a submarine and they'd still probably taste good, but you'll be doing yourself a disservice if you don't dine on the patio. It's like you're not even on the same continent. Tiki torches and string lights wrapped around lush palms provide intimate lighting, and the curtained cabanas are perfect for dinner with that special someone. Sitting there, stuffed, knocking back a cold Famosa and listening to beautiful Latin music, you realize that you just might be on one of the best vacations you ever took.

Magical, lyrical, ecstatically in love with the power of language, and profoundly political, Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul was one of last season's best plays. A good part of the power came from the writing, which was unquestionably extraordinary, but what made Main Street Theater's production so amazing was Christianne Mays's brilliant hour-long monologue as the Homebody, a middle-class, wildly intelligent British housewife who struggles to find herself in a mediocre world. Mays captured the always wry and charming self-effacement in the character, and her glowing blue eyes radiated with desire, regret and disappointment. Thin and lovely, Mays embodied the quiet hunger of a woman who needs inner peace even as she longs for boundless freedom. Her performance was nothing short of mesmerizing.

The Barn

Perched on the northeast edge of downtown, the squatty building doesn't look like much from the outside. But that's okay, all the magic happens inside. The 7,200-square-foot venue houses a 120-seat black-box performance space that's as versatile and smart as they come. One night it's turned into a full in-the-round theater; two weeks later, the whole thing has been reconfigured into a proscenium-style space, complete with wings and perfect sight lines. There's no place better to see contemporary dance in the city; in fact, all performance art would look terrific on that stage.

From their name to their repertoire, historical nautical themes permeate all that the Flying Fish Sailors do. Each of their albums features a sea shanty or four, and even shanties about such landlubberly subjects as mowing the lawn, and U-Haul trucks. (If you ask them nicely, they'll don "pseudo-pirate" attire for a gig.) Guitarist Jay Lee fondly recalls playing a set on the tall ship Elissa in Galveston — "When we would do the sea shanties, the volunteers on the Elissa knew the words and they would sing along, and it was really cool," he remembers. So far, that's been their only show on the briny deep, but they've played hundreds of gigs on land. "We've laid siege to every place from the Red Lion to the Mucky Duck and boarded many a bar," Lee says. As the Sea Captain on The Simpsons might put it, "Arrr, this be the yarrest band thar be."

Rudyard's

If you ever find yourself at Rudyard's on a Tuesday night, do yourself a favor and head upstairs to check out Rudz Comedy Werkshop. The free event — run by and for comedians — gives local comedians a chance to stretch their wings with more than the usual two to five minutes normally offered at open-mike nights. Every week at least three comedians are given 30-to-45-minute slots in the first portion of the show, which is followed by a standard open mike. Local comedian Al. B, who organizes the show, is always looking for fresh talent to feature, which is beneficial for fans who prefer to see all of what Houston comedy has to offer — not just the same handful of voices.

Sadly, except for "schmuck," "schlemiel" and a few other silly-sounding words, Yiddish is mostly dead. A Yiddish theater revival would go a long way in resurrecting the language, and there's no better place for it than the gorgeous, grossly underutilized open-air chapel at Emanu El Memorial Park. Long live Tevye the dairyman and Kalmen the matchmaker!

Slick Willie's Family Pool Hall

Sure, sure, we don't like to praise the chain outlets, but this really is the best pool hall in town, and we're not just saying that because we get a kick out of the irony of a place called Slick Willie's being stationed right across the street from the girl bar: Twenty-three of the big-boy pool tables (and one of the super big boys) are scattered about this clean, quiet, reasonably priced lair that, even though it's in the gayborhood, is populated by people who like their sticks and balls and holes in all variety of combinations. The place seems to keep the sharks and chickens out as much as possible, leaving yards and yards of felt for regular folks who like to shoot stick. Rack 'em up.

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