The Harp

Jon King has mastered the most important skill in bartending — attitude. He's not all smiles or cheery salutations; rather, he possesses that charming, old-man sass (even though he's barely 40) that's no doubt born of years of serving drunks. You want to earn King's respect, but first you'll have to prove you're not just another Saturday-night Sam or Sally. King is like a suspicious crush waiting to see if you'll return. During your first couple of trips, you'll likely be greeted with little more than a "What can I get ya?" But once he sees you around more, count on being rewarded with plenty of laughs via his clever quips and biting comebacks. King is exactly the kind of bartender you want heading up your neighborhood hangout — a solid dude who's handy with a tap, nozzle or shaker.

Mr. Gino's

Along with the blues themselves, the old-fashioned juke joints that acted as hothouses incubating the music have been on the endangered species list for a while now, but they're not quite gone completely. Located in the Foster Place subdivision about as far south as you can get and still be inside the Loop, the ramshackle converted icehouse is one of the last bastions, if not the last, of real Houston blues of the '40s-'60s Duke-Peacock vintage left in the city. Opened by Louisiana native Eugene Chevis in 1973, in its current location for about half the intervening years, and prominently featured in Dr. Roger Woods's 2003 local blues opus Down in Houston, Mr. Gino's still attracts a decent crowd of curious interlopers and neighborhood regulars, particularly for the Sunday-evening jam sessions headed up by Duke-Peacock veteran I.J. Gosey, where Chevis and staff usually have a batch of beef stew or gumbo steeping so the beer and setups (it's BYOB) go down smooth.

There's something inherently oceanic about Indian Jewelry's Free Gold, the densely layered second disc from the (mostly) Houston-based musical collective headed up by ex-Japanic/Swarm of Angels provocateur Tex Kerschen and wife Erika Thrasher. The rolling, tribal rhythms of several songs create an effect similar to being tossed to and fro on what old salts of yore called the "bounding main." Elsewhere the record evokes everyone from NYC art-rock royalty Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth to shoegaze marvels Lush and My Bloody Valentine to the down-and-dirty Butthole Surfers, but the reason it stands out among other local releases this year is that at its core, Free Gold is all Houston. It's swampy, provocative, sprawling, dirty, frustrating and seems to exist in a humid haze all its own — thus making it a dead-on reflection of its city of origin.

Wortham Theater Center

It's not easy running a major ballet company — you have to deal with daily headaches, budgets and dancer dilemmas, not to ­mention create groundbreaking choreography. ­Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch handles it and still manages to create dances that ­dazzle. Whether he's restaging classics and creating his own full-length ballets, like the 2006 Swan Lake, or doing cutting-edge works, like this year's A Doll's House, he's in his ­element. His dance-making is matched only by his ­talent at collaborating with designers, ­composers and costumers to create fabulous new works. Welch already has an impressive body of work for a contemporary choreographer; he's much in demand at major ballet companies around the world and shows no sign of slowing down. He already has a new full-length in the works for next season.

Downing Street

This one's a natural. It has the dark wood, the leather sofas and chairs, the black-clad ­waitresses — all the class, none of the ­snobbishness. Here's what you do: Walk in and head to the 400-square-foot humidor. If you don't have a favorite, or if the last cigar you had was ten years ago, the gentleman behind the counter will help you choose among the Fuentes, the Montecristos, the Punches and the Davidoffs — not to mention many more. He'll cut and light it for you. Then sit yourself down in one of the plush leather chairs and flip through the drink list. Are you a Scotch lover? What do you like — Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Glengoyne, Glenrothes? Not to sound crass, but they've got Glens out the wazoo. When the friendly waitress comes, order your drink — but even though you might be tempted, don't do it in a lame country-club accent. You don't want to sully this cigar-smokers' sanctuary.

Continental Club

Houston has an oddly schizophrenic relationship with its local bands, showering attention and affection on a select few and all but ignoring others until they give up and move on to greener pastures. Luckily, the Continental Club is one of the few rooms in town that is not only unafraid to book Houston bands into its critical weekend-night slots, but that actually seems to prefer it. But then, when it's got a crowd-pleasing stable of talent like Blaggards, Felipe Galvan y Sus Carnales, Ryan Scroggins & the Trenchtown Texans, Disco Expressions, duneTX, John Evans, Flamin' Hellcats and the reliable happy-hour tandem of Beetle (Thursdays) and Molly & the Ringwalds (Fridays), that's not hard to imagine. Furthermore, the Continental's early weeknights are almost exclusively local bands' domain. And if there's something really special coming down the pike, like the full-orchestra re-creation of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or the periodic "Masters of Soul" revues with the likes of Archie Bell, Roy Head and Barbara Lynn, guess where it's going to happen?

Warehouse Live

Very tough category to call this year — if you hadn't noticed, Houston has been getting some grade-A road shows lately — but Warehouse Live gets the nod for its versatility (i.e., the 300-capacity studio and 1,500-capacity ballroom), world-class sound system and the fact that more often than not its shows sell out, no matter if the evening's entertainment is Spoon and the New Pornographers, Café Tacuba, Ghostland Observatory or the one and only Snoop Dogg. It's clear that even as Houston's concert market grows as congested as the 59/610 interchange at rush hour, the folks at the Messina Group have no trouble bringing top-drawer acts from all genres to their show palace on St. Emanuel.

Catalina Coffee

Catalina owner Max Gonzalez has a know-how you can taste. His passion for all things foamy and bean-born translates into his staff's cups of joe. It doesn't matter which of his always-friendly employees is preparing your latte, coffee or doppio, you're guaranteed a killer caffeine boost. But don't let all the expertise and high-quality ingredients fool you — Catalina caters to every Houstonian. Clientele range from suits and ties to cutoffs and Converse, making this a great place to enjoy a pick-me-up whether you're headed to or leaving work, looking to get some work done or have never worked a day in your life. Readers' Choice: Agora

Shady Tavern Ice House

These shows are all about hidden treasures. First, there's the venue: Shady Tavern is a 69-year-old icehouse that's every bit as nice as the Alabama Ice House, if one-tenth as popular or overcrowded. Then there are the bills at the Secret Saturday shows: Since the talent is never announced beforehand, you never know if you're gonna hear rap, folk, blues or rock, or even if the show will be held indoors or outside in the bar's ramshackle beer garden. All you know for sure is that you are in for a pleasant afternoon of cheap beer, warm weather and music.

The Menil Collection

Franklin Sirmans left New York for Houston, and NY's loss is Houston's gain. With his exhibition, "NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith," Sirmans, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Menil Collection, has brought the de Menils' legacy of spirituality in art into the 21st century. No staid, meditative Rothko Chapel experience, "NeoHooDoo" was diverse, funky and polytheistic. It also had a lot of women in it. (The late Mrs. de Menil, for all her progressive stances in politics, art and civil rights, was quite dismissive of her own sex and all but ignored work by women artists.) Sirmans is also reinvigorating the permanent collection. His "Everyday People," an exhibition of photographs drawn from The Menil Collection, was a nod to "The Family of Man" exhibition that originally inspired the de Menils to begin collecting photography. But whereas "The Family of Man" was humanistic in a simplistic, idealistic and hokey manner, Sirmans's selections of images presented a blunt, quirky, realistic and nonetheless moving view of the world.

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