Houston Ballet

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.

Lone Star Saloon

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

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.

Domy Books

Movie Nights at Domy Books are a varied affair. Films are screened as many as five nights a week and include classics (The Third Man), anime (Akira), horror (Let Sleeping Corpses Lie) and even industrial shorts (The Steel Reef). There are even foreign-language gems (Lemonade Joe) and pop-culture standards (Space Is the Place). The strength of the series is its variety. Curated by a group of film buffs, arty types and well-meaning hipsters, each installment is unexpected and fresh. Selections range from the sophisticated, if somewhat snarky, to the outlandishly inane, to the riotously funny. Whatever your taste, Domy Books Movie Nights offers something you won't find anywhere else.

Montrose Mining Company

In the shadow of massive, irreverent South Beach and its sparkling, Christmas light-coated palm trees sits the unassuming entrance to the Montrose Mining Company. Inside, there are studly table-dancing cowboys to rival any club in the city, along with pool tables and a long, inviting bar. The chilled out, spacious patio out back makes this a prime spot for dates and conversation, as do the very reasonable drink prices and specials. The Mining Company caters to a mixed crowd — from older men in flannel shirts to hipsters and young professionals — that grooves to a decidedly more mature (but still fun-as-hell) beat than its more adolescent cousin across the street.

Oishii Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar

"Happy Hour," in this case, is a misnomer. It should be "Freakin' Ecstatic Hour." From 3-7 p.m. on weekdays and 3-6 p.m. on Saturdays, domestic beer is a mere $1.25, and imports (Asahi Dry, Kirin, Kirin Lite) are only 50 cents more. Or if you prefer alcohol of the rice variety, you can get a large hot sake for $3. Red and white wines are $4 — same with the awesome apps, which are buy one get one free. This includes edamame, tempura, sushi, fried pork dumplings, onion rings and French fries, among others. So what the hell are you doing still reading? Get over to Oishii and stuff your face while giving your wallet a healthy break.

Sheffield's Ice House

We've all been to West Alabama Icehouse and Jimmie's, and fine icehouses they are. But here we're suggesting one that harks back to the days of the fatally hard-drinking Eagle Pennell's cult 1983 movie Last Night at the Alamo. Sheffield's Ice House was founded in 1942 and has been standing guard on the same Telephone Road corner in the Golfcrest subdivision ever since. Inside, you'll find the usual icehouse staples — a jukebox stocked with plenty of country, blues and Southern and classic rock, a table piled high with potluck ribs and potato salad and such, and beer, lots and lots of ice cold beer.

Red Cat Jazz Cafe

Even if you don't know Miles Davis from Buddy Miles or John Coltrane from John Legend (or jazz fusion from fusion cooking, for that matter), there's something about being in a jazz club that automatically makes you feel more, well, sophisticated. The Red Cat Jazz Café, though, offers uptown sophistication with a down-home Southern twist and spacious brick-wall acoustics that ensure you never miss a (blue) note. Several of the Red Cat's resident artists — elder-statesman vocalist Ardis Turner and New Orleans native/Patti LaBelle duet partner Mary Griffin — play jazz that, like Houston itself, has been heavily infiltrated by blues, R&B and soul. And don't forget to eat — the Red Cat's Louisiana-flavored menu (pricey, but worth it) and full bar will fill your belly as satisfyingly as the music fills your ears.

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