Anvil Bar & Refuge

If you are a regular at Anvil in Montrose, you no doubt know Mindy Kucan's bright, smiling face well. The brassy brunette has been slinging drinks at the Westheimer haunt for close to a year now, and she has a devoted following. An eight-year vet of the bartending scene, Kucan got into the more crafty side of things four years ago for a competition. She won the grand prize and fell in love with a more intricate art of drink-making. Now you can give her any set of ingredients and make magic happen in a glass. Next time you come into Anvil, ask her to make you a Hot Summer Night. As for her own favorite drink, that depends on her mood and company, but you can't go wrong with Fernet.

Art Palace

Only three shows into its new Houston residency, Art Palace had shattered expectations. From its first exhibit, Jonathan Marshall's sophisticated sci-fi/psychedelic "Doubled Vision," it felt as if the originally Austin-based gallery had landed intact from a SoHo storefront rather than from country-crafty Central Texas. By the time Emilie Halpern and Eric Zimmerman's mind-bending "Cosmos" arrived in May, Art Palace had challenged its two longstanding and respected commercial neighbors, Inman and CTRL, in depth of concept and relevance. At a time when the majority of Houston galleries present straightforward solo exhibitions and haphazard group shows, Art Palace is thinking deep, pushing boundaries and keeping it fun. Credit director Arturo Palacios for maintaining a light touch and a comfortable, approachable atmosphere. We look forward to many future visits.

For his solo exhibition "Holy Ghosts!" at Moody Gallery, Bise, an atheist, delivered an apocalyptic series of drawings based on his own experiences growing up in a radically religious family. It might have been easy to interpret some sort of political agenda or bitterly judgmental attack lurking in Bise's subject matter, but rather than exorcising childhood demons, Bise's confessional tone revealed a benevolence and tolerant acceptance of the belief system he would eventually discard. In all of Bise's drawings, the detail is unbelievable — the textures and patterns on clothing, the hairstyles, the jewelry. The most impressive work, Revival, depicted an ecstatic tent-revival scene of 100women engulfed in an evangelical frenzy. And Bise gave us personal sketches of childhood rites, both disturbing and compassionate. At one moment, we felt sympathy for Bise's cartoon-nightmare doomsday visions and the corporal punishment he received in religion's name. At others, we empathized with the disappointment parents feel when their children engage in repulsive acts. Bise's brave series of drawings opened a childhood rabbit hole and dared us to fall in with him.

Grand Prize Bar

The news that Ernie's on Banks had closed down barely even had time to register before Grand Prize arose to take its place, and Big Star Bar's Brad Moore's latest watering hole has definitely helped alleviate some of the pain of losing the beloved Montrose/Museum District sports bar. Sleeker than Big Star and homier than Poison Girl, Grand Prize has booths and couches downstairs for your lounging pleasure and an upstairs room that looks like your uncle's den if he had been AC/DC's manager back in the '80s, plus a porch-like downstairs patio and rooftop deck for all you smokers. With a jukebox loaded with fist-flailing hard rock (Guns N' Roses, Motörhead), cutting-edge 21st-century dance-pop (Goldfrapp, MGMT) and a whole lotta Texas (ZZ Top, Lightnin' Hopkins, George Jones), Grand Prize is a winner. One cautionary note: Downing one or two of the bar's frozen absinthe-flavored Aviators might tempt you to fly off that upstairs deck, but please don't.

Lawndale Art Center

In late 2009, Lawndale Art Center presented a group show that transformed the place into a dimension-shifting sci-fi world. It was a thrill to explore the building's three floors feeling like an invisible spy or an investigator of strange phenomena. Monica Vidal and Jasmyne Graybill fused the organic and synthetic to Cronenbergian heights of freakiness. Shawn Smith forcefully evolved (or devolved) nature into a two-room horror show in which time-traveling, pixilated vultures feasted on obsolete technology. Linking it all together was Kia Neill's second-floor "Grotto," a dark, tight cave with hanging stalactites and blinking crystals overgrown with Spanish moss — one of the most otherworldly things we've experienced in Houston in a while. It was genuinely disorienting, weird and hilarious, and it transported us out of Lawndale in a really cool way. But perhaps the best part of the journey was stepping out of Neill's "Grotto" onto the elevator, pushing the button to the first floor, turning around and watching the curtain close on that otherworldly realm.

Nouveau Antique Art Bar

With more than 100 vintage, always-lit Tiffany-style lamps, Midtown's Nouveau Antique Art Bar is both an aesthete's refuge and a stoner's paradise. The bar's surreal glow makes it a perfect spot for networking at one of the many corporate-underwritten happy hours — which, be aware, can get pretty crowded — that have come to roost there, or just soaking up the $1 Lone Star cans one by one. (With a happy hour that stretches until 9 p.m., that can be a lot of Lone Star.) The atmosphere and clientele vary from night to night — expect a steady diet of Mazzy Star and Cat Power at the Tuesday ladies' night; Wednesday's all-Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald evenings are ideal for unwinding with a tasty Tito's martini; and both the volume and mingling-singles factor get way turned up on weekends — but whenever you go, expect your fellow patrons to be gainfully employed and well versed in the arts. Nouveau offers a free drink for any ticket stub from a local symphony, theater, ballet or opera production.

Located between the Arts and Wellness sections on the second floor, the bathroom at the Borders bookstore at the corner of Kirby and Alabama is an oasis of tranquility. Unlike many stores, even other Borders, this shop does not lock its loo or require any sort of staff permission to use it. There are two sinks, a hands-free dryer, plenty of toilet paper and toilet seat covers, and even a baby-changing collapsible table. It offers enough privacy and room — as we have witnessed — for two grown men to bathe in the sinks, do a bit of grooming and then put on fresh outfits. An oversized poster of Thelonious Monk adds to the literate atmosphere.

There's no doubt that at least some of the deals that shaped the modern oil and gas industry were hatched at the bar and at dinner tables in Houston's Petroleum Club. It's been referenced, for example, as a favorite spot of the former President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, and has an elite subgroup called Don't Mess with Oil. The club opened in 1947 and moved to its current location at the top of the ExxonMobil building in 1963. But don't think the Petroleum Club is reserved for the old and über-rich. The club's Young Professionals Association hosts poker and cigar nights, as well as monthly happy hours.

Early this year, The Menil Collection's high-profile curator of modern and contemporary art, Franklin Sirmans, became head curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It's seemed like a natural path for Sirmans, who worked with LACMA director Michael Govan at New York's Dia Center before relocating to Houston. While here, Sirmans delivered some knockout exhibitions that re-energized the Menil and shone a distinct light on the permanent collection, most recently the exhilarating building-wide Maurizio Cattelan art-scavenger-hunt. In collaboration with Cattelan, Sirmans cherry-picked works from the collection that juxtaposed well with Cattelan's absurdist sculpture and mixed-media works, and also installed the Italian artist's work within the museum's permanent exhibits, resulting in the most interesting gush of interpretations we've had the pleasure of considering. L.A.'s gain, Houston's loss.

Warren's Inn

The walls of Warren's Inn are already covered in plaques commemorating the bar's previous Best of Houston® wins for everything from Best Jukebox to Best Bar, period, so we just hope there's room for one more. But until we find a better place to relax with an after-work cocktail or two, or lube up for a show at Jones Hall or Verizon Wireless Theater, we'll keep throwing the awards Warren's way. (We're not holding our breath.) Besides the ritzy decor, jukebox that squeezes in college-rock heroes R.E.M. and Morrissey among generous helpings of jazz, blues and soul, and liberal pours — watch those martinis — Warren's fosters an atmosphere that's much more down-home than those fancy chandeliers might lead you to believe; the off-duty bartenders can often be found carrying on animated conversations with the dependable crew of regulars on the other side of the bar. And if you do find yourself a little tipsy after a couple of those martinis, we recommend the tasty egg salad or tuna sandwiches with a side of deliciously salty potato chips.

Best Of Houston®

Best Of