Darkhorse Tavern

The bathrooms of Washington Avenue's Darkhorse Tavern are museums to both male and female sexual exploits and skullduggery, if only in literary form. It's as if they were decorated by a schizophrenic with a bag of axes to grind. The girls' room looks like an NC-17 burn book from the movie Mean Girls, while the boys' scrawls take shots at the sexual mores of Kermit the Frog and longtime gal pal Miss Piggy, among other characters. One thing is clear: Whoever Katie is, she really needs to back up off Trent.

Alice's Tall Texan Drive Inn
David Rozycki

Given the generally negative connotations surrounding the word "redneck," we hesitate to hang the tag on any establishment where we enjoy raising a glass and would like to continue doing so. But if there's any bar within the Loop we imagine wouldn't mind the designation — sorry, Blanco's — it's got to be the Tall Texan. The sea of pickup trucks parked outside the Airline Drive institution is a pretty major tip-off, as are the abundance of Texana and Houston sports paraphernalia on the walls and a jukebox Country Legends 97.1 can't match on its best day. All that and the dirt-cheap goblets of Lone Star make the Tall Texan a beer joint in the best possible sense, so if that equals "redneck bar," somebody call Jeff Foxworthy.

Unexpectedly and improbably, Robert Ellis & the Boys became the talk of Houston's Inner Loop hipster crowd over their yearlong Whiskey Wednesdays residency at Mango's, impressing the two-stepping twentysomethings with a long list of honky-tonk standards from Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Johnny Paycheck, Dwight Yoakam and many more. But the band also slipped in originals from time to time, and one of the best is "Comin' Home," a fast-paced train-beat shuffle that expresses the swelling sense of pride both Houston musicians and music fans feel about their city. Ellis says the song, written as he was returning from a gig in Austin, may be included on the album he is working on now for a fall or winter release. It's his way of debunking some of the myths surrounding the so-called "Live Music Capital of the World": "I like Austin fine enough," he says, "but I'm there enough that on the way home, I'm just thinking about how I'd rather be in Houston than Austin." He's not alone.

The best kind of "there's a moral to this story" storytelling is the kind that doesn't flash a neon sign reading, "Hey, here's the moral! Pay attention!" Grown-ups find such hammer-over-the-head tactics off-putting, and children, who can spot a moral a mile away, are instantly bored. So Bocón, the Talento Bilingüe bilingual stage play for children, gets a big woop-woop for so smoothly integrating action, comedy, drama, music and message into one seamless story. The play, written by Lisa Loomer and directed by Ángeles Romero, follows the magical adventures of a little boy with a big mouth — a bocón. After a family tragedy, Bocón is so traumatized he stops speaking. As he struggles to regain his place in the world, his voice slowly returns. The beauty of the performance is that it allows the children in the audience to gradually make the connection between Bocón's loss of security and his lost voice on their own.

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's dramatic love story The Phantom of the Opera, presented here by Broadway Across America, was nothing short of breathtaking during its Houston stop. Directed by Harold Prince, Phantom showed us why it's one of the most musically thrilling, visually lavish Broadway musicals ever — and why it's the longest-running show in Broadway history. There is, of course, the music ("Think of Me," "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Music of the Night"), with lovely melodies that become intertwined and then break free of each other. And who can forget the startling fall of the opera house's chandelier as it went swooshing over the audience's heads?

Molly's Pub (Clear Lake)

Molly's is Clear Lake's social ground zero, with only some dartboards and an Internet jukebox to distract you from good, old-fashioned boozing. Wednesdays are Big Ass Beer nights, when the haunt gets so packed it's almost stifling. Sure, there may be bigger and more upscale bars in the Bay Area district, but there's a feeling of home at Molly's that you can't find at the alterna-rocking Scout Bar or the boot-scooting Big Texas a few miles away. Get your cash in the jukebox early or suffer the consequences of an hour of Staind and Nickelback. We recommend Miles Davis's Kind of Blue.

Arts fans around the city hold a special place in their hearts for BooTown's Houston Fringe Festival. This year the little festival that could included a lineup of cutting-edge artists in theater, music, dance, film, performance art, puppetry and work that defies categorization. Spread out over several venues in the Montrose/Museum District, the week-long festival featured appearances by local favorites Mildred's Umbrella Theatre Company, Pandora Theatre, The 48-Hour Film Project: Houston, and Houston Metropolitan Dance Company, among others. Also on the program were Raleigh's Code F.A.D. Company (a group that mixes film, art and dance onstage) and San Antonio's ChinaCat (a dance/design/fire show production company — oooh, a fire show!). While well produced and steadily growing in scope and size, the festival still has an endearing "Hey, let's get together and put on a show!" feel.

Graffiti guru GONZO247 is equal parts artist, entrepreneur, organizer, curator, activist, teacher and all-around good guy. Working in the field for more than 20 years, GONZO247 has had his edgy, powerful work on walls around the country, as well as in galleries — including his own Aerosol Warfare Gallery, part of a store-front gallery/shop/studio he founded to promote graffiti and urban art. As a curator, he's presented a number of shows, including one recently that brought attention to the issue of battered women. He's also organized a video series to document graffiti artists' lives and work. Coming up he's got "Graffiti Gala 2010 Houston," a large-scale show and fundraiser benefiting the CKC StART Street & Graffiti Art Workshops, where he teaches others, from kids to seniors, how to create urban art. Those are his work credentials; as far as the good guy part, you'll just have to take our word for it.

Main Street Theater

Any theater group that can produce such a robust mounting of Tom Stoppard's dense and rich Arcadia is number one in our view. That it also imbues such a magical play with clarity, intelligence and a bit of self-serving charm is pure icing. Throughout the season, Main Street has produced all its shows with a lustrous dexterity that belies its pint-size venue, keeping us close and thoroughly enthralled. What a joy to experience (probably for the only time) Sophie Treadwell's rarely performed Machinal (1928), a chilling — and classic — indictment of faceless 1920s society. Alfred Uhry's The Last Night of Ballyhoo, a heartfelt comic tale of upwardly mobile Jews in pre-WW II Atlanta, was brilliantly detailed. Magical realism was laid on hot and heavy for Caridad Svich's world-premiere English adaptation of Isabel Allende's sprawling South American family saga The House of the Spirits, while the diva of all divas, Maria Callas, was conjured up for us, warts and all, in Terrence McNally's Master Class. Even Lans Traverse's clunker of an American premiere, Driftwood (whose fragrant title promised so much more), couldn't dampen the season. Main Street's abiding professionalism — its ability to do so much within a space that's so little — is the essence of great theater. It creates worlds where none exist.

The Mezzanine Lounge

Unfortunately, in Houston, if you want to play poker against actual people and not computer avatars, and you don't want to go to an "underground" room where there's always the possibility of participating in a police raid or having a gun pointed at your face, you'll have to settle for the bar leagues. None are better than the Snowman Poker League hosted by Mezzanine Lounge, usually three nights a week. The entire downstairs fills up with poker tables and players, and at Mezzanine, if you want to get away from that scene, you can simply walk upstairs to the bar's sprawling second floor, where the bartenders are great and the booze is cheap.

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