Rose Garden
It's tucked away in that confusing little welter of diagonal streets near where North Main and Airline Drive snake under Loop 610, and it's tiny, so the Rose Garden is literally hard to find. Also concealed is the culture it represents: that of the Polish Texans who came to this city from rural Texas in the years just before and after World War II. That's why the bar is red and white, just like the Polish flag, and that's why (if you're lucky) you'll eat some of the finest homemade kielbasa there this side of Chicago. That's also why the jukebox is a unique blend of hardcore C&W and Fayette County-style Texas polka. Czechs weren't the only Slavs in Texas, and the Rose Garden stands as living proof.
Neither trendy nor gimmicky, Joe Mancuso consistently produces solid, stunning work. Floral forms are his stock in trade — a red flag in the case of a lesser artist. But instead of making hokey or insipidly decorative work, Mancuso makes flowery paintings and wall-based constructions with poetry and elegance. From attenuated linear flower sculptures made with white-painted sticks, to lushly colored encaustic paintings, to large, flat blooms made from wooden petals, the artist is endlessly inventive. Mancuso's work is a lesson to those of us who have rolled our eyes at the thought of yet another flower painting.
Catalina Coffee
Here's our exhaustive criterion when it comes to drinking coffee: It has to be good. Annnndddd that's about it. All of the bells and whistles in terms of decor and iPod playlists are fine, but if the warm liquid that fills our barely awake beings tastes like brown water, our caffeine-deprived benchmark will never be met. It's true that Catalina boasts an inviting and chic space in the Sixth Ward, but they're nailing the most important part — the coffee — thanks to creative yet not too fancy takes on goods from Amaya Roasting Company, which harvests coffee beans from countries such as Brazil, Costa Rica and Ethiopia.
Big Star Bar
We love the black-and-white-tiled floor and the raggedy old couches in their little nooks scattered about. We love the jukebox in all its soul, rap, classic rock and new wave glory. We love the wintertime fire pits out back, and the huge net tent in the way back of the building that recalls some haven where Hawkeye and Trapper John would swill martinis and flirt with nurses at the 4077th, and we also love the $2 Lone Stars, the crawfish boils, the karaoke nights, the bags of just-plucked-from-the-Gulf oysters occasionally there for the shucking. Big Star is arty but not pretentious, just like its owner Brad Moore.
This year's winner for composer, Dominick DiOrio, spends a lot of time in school, both as a student and a teacher. He's on track to receive his doctorate from the Yale University School of Music next May, and he's an associate professor of music at Lone Star College in Conroe. But it's not just his educational credentials that caught our eye. DiOrio takes this year's nod for composer because of his recent work with the Divergence Vocal Theater. He wrote the opera Klytemnestra, working with librettist and DVT Artistic Director Misha Penton. Based on the Greek legend of Clytemnestra, the murderous wife of King Agamemnon, Klytemnestra was well-received and cemented DiOrio's reputation as a forward-thinking young composer filled with new ideas, ready to tackle anything.

Best Place to Laisser Les Bons Temps Rouler

The Big Easy

The Big Easy Social and Pleasure Club
For NOLA-philes, there's nothing quite like the Big Easy in Houston. This little dive sits on otherwise swanky Kirby Drive, and though it's not much to look at, it's a treat for the ears. With live music every night of the week, the good times never stop rolling here. For just $5 on Fridays and Saturdays — and for free the rest of the week — you'll hear Houston's best cry out the blues. Don't miss zydeco night every Sunday, where Texans somehow adapt the two-step to the raucous fun of Cajun music.
DiverseWorks
There's a good chance that Emily Johnson's The Thank You Bar would have been just "eh" if it had taken place in a space less awesome than the DiverseWorks Theater. Same goes for Kristina Wong's Cat Lady and Catastrophic Theater's Paradise Hotel, which graced the simple yet fantastic space during the art collective's 2010-2011 season. For Johnson's performance, there was a heavy premium on sound, which was partially created, in loop format, by a live duo. Thanks to the space's acoustically conscious design, the subtle low-end whirls and high-end buzzes helped Johnson's performance art piece transcend from the really good to the super-freaking amazing.
Don Sam is everything a radio DJ used to be and still should be. He has a silky-smooth baritone voice. His knowledge of the vintage R&B, soul, funk and zydeco he spins every weekday afternoon stretches the limits of the word "encyclopedic." And best of all, he has fun doing it and makes sure his listeners do, too. Often the 38-year veteran's shows are themed — everything from weekly fare like "More Memory Mondays" and the Creole good times of "Two-Steppin' Tuesdays" to more specialized occasional shows like "B-Sides Only" and the always-fascinating exploration of white music that black people like that Sam calls something on the order of "Non-Blacks Who Have Made a Contribution to Our Music." On Fridays, Sam loves to pit musicians against each other in caller-decided showdowns of soul legends — so you can help settle the question of who really was better — Marvin or Stevie; Sam or Jackie; the Temptations or the O'Jays . It's the most fun you'll ever have getting a thorough education on any subject.
Inman Gallery
Inman Gallery is well respected for consistently presenting quality contemporary art. Owner Kerry Inman and director Patrick Reynolds encourage artists to take risks and try new things, making the space feel more Kunsthalle than commercial gallery. And now Inman is better than ever in a newly refurbished and expanded exhibition space. Last December, reddish-brown drilling mud bizarrely oozed up through and flooded the gallery floor, causing the gallery to relocate to the other end of the block for six months. (An electrical contractor boring underneath the 1928 Isabella Court Building was the culprit.) Inman's stable of artists is impressive and includes Houston greats like David Aylsworth, Amy Blakemore, Dario Robleto, Bill Davenport, Katrina Moorhead and Beth Secor. The gallery represents a number of Texas artists and has snapped up a variety of strong talents as they pass through the Houston area.
During the past few years, Washington Avenue has been getting all the drunk love in Houston from the mostly Anglo crowds with money to burn and brain cells to kill. But as of late, Midtown has been making a comeback of sorts as Houston's other drinking destination for the well-healed and pearly-toothed. With well-established haunts Community Bar and Pub Fiction, old-school video game-oriented upstart Barcadia, and the gimmicky Wonder Bar, the area is steadfastly holding its own in the neighborhood against the party bus-lined Washington. Now, if the parking situation could only get a bit better...

Best Of Houston®

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