They say write what you know, and John Gard is a dork from Houston, so he jokes about Star Wars and the ever-present thick Texas accent of his hecklers. His unique perspective allows him to find an inappropriate angle for any situation, such as why it's not the best idea to engage in sexual role-play with a trained method actor, and he never shies away from his material. It's outsider comedy from an outsider, and usually winds up being very, very funny. We aren't the only ones who have noticed, either — Gard was also named Houston's Funniest Person 2009 at the annual Laff Stop competition.

If they even offer food at all, most Houston music venues couldn't care less about how that food actually tastes. And true, most people who need something to snack on while watching a band are more interested in soaking up all that booze than in any kind of fine-dining experience. But anyone who's sampled the fare at Adam and Lena Fisher's barbecue stand in the Continental Club knows the two need not be mutually exclusive. Always on weekends, and usually during the Continental's bigger weekday shows, the Fishers' array of tender brisket, spicy links, rib-sticking red beans and rice and scrumptious hot dogs has headed off many a hangover, and deliciously so, for not much more than the price of a drink. Since the Continental opened its Pachinko Room patio bar this spring, the Fishers have also been serving it up every Saturday afternoon.

Photo by Katya Horner

Out-of-towners from northern metropolises like Chicago and New York like to scoff at the idea of Houston as a "real city." Their claim — which is sadly not without some justification — is that ours is a city of endless concrete, infinite strip mall-sprawl, insipid suburbs, and choked freeways. They claim we lack the public spaces that make great cities great. Those people have not been to Discovery Green, especially not on a Thursday night in the summertime. There, while seated on a blanket in the very shadow of the skyscrapers — some of them still being built, a testimony to Houston's global recession-defying dynamism — you can take in some of the city's and the region's most sizzling sounds. As you take in the indigenous H-Town sounds — often blues, country and zydeco — you'll feel strongly in the presence of the very soul of a city that is alleged by some not to have one at all.

The people at this gay dance hall like line dancing so much, they'll teach you for free. Lessons on the spacious wood dance floor (with disco ball overhead) are on the house from 8 until 10:30 every Thursday night, and on the second and fourth Fridays of the month. The instructors try to bring it back to basics for the newbies, and they've been reintroducing classic dances like Chase the Matador, Earthquake and maybe even Hanky Panky in the near future. The real show comes on weekends, when you can test your skill with the regulars. (For group dances like Wild Wild West, amateurs are wise to stick to the middle and let the pros lead the way.) The place has as classic a country feel as can be had in Midtown, with a big bar (lined with cutouts of studly cowboys in their underwear) near the dance floor, two pool tables and video poker. Bring your boots.

Innovative and daring, the Dominic Walsh Dance Theater rests on the broad shoulders of its founder and namesake, Dominic Walsh. Formerly a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet, Walsh struck out on his own, founding his own company and becoming a highly respected choreographer of contemporary ballets by expanding not only the repertoire but also the vocabulary of his classically trained dancers. Over the last season, DWDT presented the world premiere of Titus Andronicus (a retelling of Shakespeare's tale of bloody revenge and politics), the Houston premiere of The Trilogy: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (a collaboration with the Sarasota Ballet of Florida) and Sleeping Beauty (in a 21st-century setting peopled with club kids and office workers). Each brought something fresh and new to the stage, adding depth and substance to Houston's ever-growing pool of talented dance companies.

Every once in a while, audiences witness a performance that goes beyond being excellent, but that actually moves the art form forward. Such was the case for this year's Marie, presented by the Houston Ballet. Based on the life of French queen Marie Antoinette, Marie is not the stuff that fairy tales are made of: A young queen embroiled in court politics has a fractious relationship with her husband — and her countrymen — and is eventually beheaded during a bloody revolution. Finding the tender side of the woman who supposedly said, "Let them eat cake" wasn't easy. But in the hands of Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch, Marie is a beautifully danced, moving story showing Marie as a vulnerable young woman thrown into high-stake politics, ill-prepared for the cruelty and loneliness that awaited her but who nonetheless faces her fate with dignity. The world-premiere performance enthralled the crowd, earning a lengthy standing ovation for prima ballerina Melody Herrera and company. The production was even more notable considering that very few American ballet companies are mounting new narrative ballets with original scenarios.

Whenever we're at Lone Star, we feel the need to pick at least one song from Bob Seger's Night Moves, on the juke. Bob's soulful croon, alternating between tender and downright raunchy, seems like the perfect soundtrack for this downtown watering hole. And we don't mean "dive" in a bad way, mind you. We mean it in a sort of classic, old-school, not-too-many-of-these-around-anymore way. It's small, dark, minimalist — a few cramped booths, a pool table and a new patio that sort of looks out of place compared to the down-and-out decor inside. But on your second time there, there's a good chance the bartender will remember what you're drinking, and the service is never slow because there's hardly ever anyone there. Some of the clientele might look a little rough, but the vibe is never less than friendly. One of our friends messed up his shirt while helping a customer who brought over a grill (things like that happen there), so one dude literally gave him the shirt off his back. Super-sketchy? Maybe. But awesome? For sure.

La Carafe or Warren's, Warren's or La Carafe? That is the question. That anything other than one of Carolyn Wenglar's two venerable Market Square bars is the downtown's best is a fool's proposition. Right now we are in a La Carafe mood. We love the candlelight and the stalagmite-like wax formations, the amazing lore accreted on the brick walls, the wine and the beer. We love it that it is housed in the oldest public building in Houston, an edifice in which merchants once traded with local Native Americans and Confederate soldiers once bought biscuits. We love the jukebox, which epitomizes jazzy, classic big-city sophistication and romantic nostalgia. And we really love the table on the sidewalk, where you can kick back with a pitcher and smoke to your heart's content, all while the entire city of Houston seems to unfold right in front of you.

Think of it as the little festival that could. Compared to local mega-events like the Houston International Festival and the Bayou City Arts Festival, the Japan Festival is small fry. So why is it our choice for Best Festival? Because, despite its size, Japan Festival delivers a big dose of fun. It's an excellent mix of entertainment, people watching and food. On the entertainment front, visitors take in Taiko drummers, martial artists, folk dancers, bonsai displays and kids' carnival games. For people watchers, the crowd always includes dozens of visitors decked out in colorful kimonos and martial arts outfits. The festival offers sushi and other Japanese dishes prepared by master chefs. Then, of course, there's the setting. More than 20,000 visitors attended this year's festival, but the crowds easily move through the lovely Japanese Garden and around the newly refurbished Mary Gibbs and Jesse H. Jones Reflection Pool, making for hassle-free fun.

The Houston Palestine Film Festival focuses on cinema that fights against what organizers call "reductively politicized depictions." Festival organizers, including the two founders, Houston-based Palestinian-Americans Iman Saqr and Hadeel Assali, present a slate of complicated, often surprising films about their motherland. Dramas, comedies and documentaries are all part of the annual screenings, which are often accompanied by visiting actors and directors. But HPFF is more than just a once-a-year event. The festival recently partnered with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to bring films with a Middle Eastern flavor to Houston year round. This summer, filmgoers saw Laila's Birthday, accompanied by a podcast interview with the director, and Amreeka, with director Cherien Davis in attendance.

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