La Carafe

Said to be the oldest commercial building in Houston, La Carafe is encrusted with history, its walls brimming with old photographs, newspaper clippings and other artifacts. The same is true of its jukebox, whose leaves preserve near-forgotten corners of 20th-century pop music like doo-wop (the Platters, the Ink Spots) and European chanteuses (Edith Piaf) all the way up until the Cowboy Junkies' 1988 album The Trinity Session. Within its leaves, Bob Seger's Beautiful Loser sits next to Ella Fitzgerald singing the Cole Porter songbook, and crooners Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett and Bobby Darin jockey for position with rowdier neighbors such as the Stooges and the Jam. Weighted with local anchors like Lightnin' Hopkins, Townes Van Zandt and Archie Bell & the Drells, it really is a jukebox for any mood, where Carole King's Tapestry or Peggy Lee's Greatest Hits might be easy-listening appetizer for a blues-funk meal of Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Albert Collins. Or just play Springsteen, Creedence and Hank Williams all night long.

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston - Brown Auditorium Theater

Some 3,000 years after his death at the age of 19, King Tutankhamun still fascinates people around the world, including thousands of fans who visited the "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs" exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (The museum had to open seven days a week to accommodate the crowds.) Priceless riches, including more than 100 impressive relics from the 30 Egyptian royal dynasties, were on display. But the most anticipated treasures were the relics from Tutankhamun's tomb, most of which had never been seen by the public. Among the highlights was the impressive statue of Tut, which stood over nine feet tall and showed the young king as he might have appeared just before his death. His solid-gold sandals also got a lot of attention, as did the block statue of Hetep, an Egyptian version of abstract art that revolutionized statuary, and the breathtakingly beautiful colossal statue of Tut's father Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten.

Colorado Bar & Grill
Photos courtesy of The Colorado

Do you like a good Philly cheesesteak or pollo poblano with your boobs? What we're saying here is that, besides the lovely ladies gracing the club's three main stages, there's a bountiful menu. And if for some reason you need a break from looking at half-naked gyrating young females, the Colorado offers billiards, tabletop video games and Golden Tee. From its old-school-Vegas-style sign to its super-friendly staff, the Colorado has a look and feel quite unlike that at other places where ladies twirl on poles in clear high heels for strangers. Some gentlemen's clubs tend to go overboard on creating an illusion of exclusivity; the Colorado is laid-back and lacks pretense. Who knows? You might even become a regular.

Big Top Lounge

The Big Top's circus-themed decor always makes it seem a little like a Fellini movie. First of all, it's dark enough that you almost need to strike a match to see your drink, like every great lounge should be. There's also something a little surreal about nursing a cold one or cocktail surrounded by multiple Elvis portraits, Christmas lights, tabletop video games, an ancient beer-can collection, an old shoeshine stand (once used by the late Shoeshine Charley himself) and all kinds of other kitschy memorabilia. But besides the decor — yes, and the drinks — the Big Top is also home to some of the coolest recurring musical events in town, from the Reverberation and Fistful of Soul DJ nights to Gulf Coast soul quartet Umbrella Man's Thursday-night residency.

Houston Grand Opera

Under the deft direction of Sandra Bernhard and program director Evan Wilderstein, the community outreach arm of Houston Grand Opera takes opera far beyond the confines of the Wortham Theater Center — to the streets, to schools and to the diverse ethnic communities that make up Houston. It is an effort apparently unparalleled in the opera world. As part of its Song of Houston: East + West project, HGOCo has commissioned several operettas involving the lives of immigrants to the Houston community, from Mexico to Azerbaijan to Cambodia, combining not only the different cultures' stories but their musical instruments and methods of singing as well. For its Home + Place program, HGOco and its partners go to schools and community centers in each of three areas — the Gulfton/Sharpstown area, Hobby and Northside/Second Ward — and work with students and adults. Kids are introduced to opera through Opera to Go! and Story Book Opera. The risk is enormous — opera for the masses, opera blended with other forms of music — but somehow with great goodwill and carefully crafted programs, HGOCo has soared along with its arias while persuading hundreds to drop the notion that opera is stodgy and something only consumed by the tuxedo and ballroom set.

Nestled between Crawford Elementary School and the Eastex Freeway's Lyons Avenue off-ramp, the "Fruits of Fifth Ward" mural is an impressive tribute to both the Fifth Ward dwellers enshrined on it and the neighborhood they all helped to blossom. Seeded by a $10,000 grant from the History Channel and composed of more than 1,500 mosaic tiles, the 50-foot mural was constructed by students at nearby Wheatley High School under the auspices of Museum of Cultural Arts Houston co-founder and Executive Director Reginald Adams. It honors 21 former residents, an array of famous musicians (Lightnin' Hopkins, Joe Sample, Illinois Jacquet), politicians (Barbara Jordan, Mickey Leland), local educators (Nat Q. Henderson, Phillis Wheatley herself) and many more who took what they learned here to achievements in all walks of life. "It tells you that you matter, where you live matters," Adams told KUHF's Laurie Johnson when the mural was dedicated in October 2006. "What we hope is that the mural becomes a landmark." Indeed it has.

Walter's Downtown
David Rozycki

At this point Walter's seems almost invulnerable. Pam Robinson's club spent the last half of 2011 in limbo as Robinson had difficulty moving into her new quarters near UH-Downtown. But now that it's all smoothed over, the newly rechristened Walters Houston (no more apostrophe) is even more of a melting pot of music that's beloved but not popular, an array of subgenres from thrash and hardcore to shoegaze and emo. The former auto showroom is bigger, but with the same open-door booking policy and endearing "don't be a dick" attitude. DIY to the last, Walters still doesn't have a Web site, but updates its Facebook page often enough to keep up with what's going on. One of the most fun events is turning out to be Walters Bazaar, a combination concert/swap meet on the last Sunday of the month, where people are welcome to bring old records, clothes and anything else they want to sell for a sort of flea market while enjoying some late-afternoon live music.

Houston Dance Factory

We don't know what we want to learn first — swing? Salsa? Bachata? Ballroom? A bunch of others? Well, whenever we decide, we're going to bachata over to the Houston Dance Factory, whose top-notch instructors teach everyone from toddlers to seniors. They offer private and group classes, and they can also help even the most uncoordinated klutz with a wedding first dance, quinceañera, sweet 16 or whatever other special events might be coming your way. If we see you there, don't be surprised if we ask if we can have the next dance.

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston - Brown Auditorium Theater

Like the New York Yankees, the only word to really describe the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is "powerhouse." True, it has the kind of deep-pocketed endowment that attracts top-dollar traveling exhibits like the recent "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs," but it concurrently showed its annual collection of Third Ward photography taken by Jack Yates High School students. Besides the two architectural marvels of the Caroline Wiess Law and Audrey Jones Beck buildings, the other buildings scattered around the MFAH campus are themselves models of styles ranging from neoclassical to Southern antebellum to postmodern contemporary. Their contents are equally spectacular, with permanent collections of art and artifacts from every continent except Antarctica and rotating exhibits that could include war photography, Dutch masters or Scandinavian design. MFAH also conducts a renowned art-education program through the Glassell School, contains one of the area's few true art-house movie theaters and includes works by Rodin and Matisse in the sculpture garden out back. It's a lot to take in.

The Usual

Since the demise of Lower Westheimer mainstay Chances, the Usual has been Houston's only lesbian bar, so luckily it's a good one. Not exclusively for ladies who love ladies, the Usual sports an inviting front porch with a sweet view of some nearby train tracks, great deals on wine, and frequent raucous karaoke nights. After an evening so close and yet so far from the Usual, in the vast valet-bedeviled douchatoria of the Washington Avenue strip, the Usual's laid-back neighborhood vibe will restore your faith in the human race.

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