Welcome to the first part of a series where we showcase the noteworthy food and drink experiences of a very weird year. In the spirit of the holidays, it's also a very special collaboration between the food writers of the Houston Press and Houston Food Finder, the online publication founded by former Houston Press restaurant critic and food editor Phaedra Cook. This first edition highlights some of the businesses hardest-hit by the COVID-19 situation: bars. Part 2 will cover some of our writers' favorites in Houston food.
Introduction: The Favorites List of 2020
To riff on Charles Dickens, 2020 was the worst of times, and it was the worst of times. There’s not much good to say about the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, a year that decimated independent bars and restaurants across the country. There’s nothing positive about an impotent Congress that seemed unable to pass any meaningful help to sustain independent bars and restaurants, while the so-called “Small Business Administration” handed out limited Payroll Protection Program funds and Economic Industry Disaster Funds to multimillion-dollar restaurant chains, some of which actually returned the loans after crushing levels of negative publicity.
In a normal December, local food writers and critics would be rushing to compile their annual “Best” accolades. In 2020, a year where restaurant dining rooms and bars were shut down completely in mid-March to reduce social gatherings and then reopened at limited capacity; a year where it took months to allow bars to offer pre-mixed drinks to go; a year when the saving grace for some bars was to convert to “restaurants,” while those without kitchens or space for food trucks to park had no such option; a year when cautious diners predominantly turned to to-go and delivery services: how does one fairly determine “best”— which is difficult, and sometimes dubious, even during good years?
The pleasure of dining-in (or, drinking-in) is inextricably linked to restaurants and bars. Exemplary food and drink is glorious, but it’s experiencing the atmosphere and hospitality that creates the total package. That’s what compels the broad, contemporary fascination with bars and restaurants.
Can anyone really knight one of these businesses with the moniker of “Best” in a year when many diners experienced their food after it sat in a plastic box for 15 minutes? How does one declare a “Best New Bar” when so many have been shut down for months?
Yet, the hope, inspiration and creativity displayed by bar and restaurant owners and staff not only brought us comfort when we needed it most, but also deserves recognition. To riff on another famous saying, “Necessity is a mother,” and owners all across the Greater Houston area rose to the pandemic challenge by reinventing their businesses. They had to learn how to make takeout and delivery food and drink compelling to customers, both loyal and new. They created virtual experiences and had to figure out how to lead an interesting, informative and interactive Zoom presentations. Tables had to be spaced out, Plexiglass dividers had to be installed and patio dining became as much a necessity as a feature. All of these restaurant and beverage professionals deserve recognition for their efforts. To that end, writers of the Houston Press and Houston Food Finder joined forces on this list of their favorite experiences of the year.
In 2020, there is no “best.” There are only survivors. As noted in a recent essay by chef Edward Lee, “The options for restaurants right now are to go further into debt or to close.” In order to preserve some of the great strides Houston made toward being one of the world’s best food cities, this month — December — is the most important time for diners to spend holiday dollars at the places they treasure the most, whether it’s on dining in (socially distanced, of course), ordering takeout or buying gift cards as presents.
January and February are always some of the slowest months for restaurants. These are difficult to survive in normal years; in 2021, the drop in business could be devastating. Unless Congress approves emergency funds, such as the RESTAURANTS Act, instead of this being a list of accolades, it might become a list of memories.
Thank you to the Houston food and drink businesses that gave our writers joy in a year that contained so much sadness. In addition, thank you to all of those we couldn’t patronize because of this “damn coronavirus” (to quote the proprietor of Alice’s Tall Texan, which was among the treasured bars that closed this year). — Phaedra Cook, editor & publisher Houston Food Finder (and former Houston Press restaurant critic/editor)
Favorite Bar Transformations
In Harris County, for most of the pandemic, bars have been forced to close in order to help fight the spread of COVID-19. However, TABC loosened some regulations, making it easier for a bar to reopen as a restaurant if food sales represent over 50 percent of its revenue. Many area bars pursued this option. Here are a couple of our favorites.
Better Luck Tomorrow, 544 Yale: With a full kitchen and a menu developed by Justin Yu, Better Luck Tomorrow already had some of the best-regarded bar food in the city. However, for its recent reopening, the majority of the food menu was overhauled. Some favorites such as Not A Pizza were eighty-sixed, while new items like Tejeda-style tamales and a mortadella sandwich were added. (Don't fret; you can still order The Party Melt.) Other food changes include a few daily lunch items like The BLT BLT and Pasta A La Anna (spaghetti with harissa and a fried egg), along with a new Wednesday steak night. For the sake of social distancing, Better Luck Tomorrow drastically limited indoor seating, removed most of the bar seats and revamped the outdoor space with canopy tents, aesthetically pleasing turf and Topo Chico table umbrellas. The bar also lowered drink prices and started a weekday happy hour, featuring half off all drinks from noon to 5 p.m.
Ready Room, 2626 White Oak: Owners of smaller bars without kitchens face significant challenges if they want to reopen under current TABC guidelines. Prior to the shutdowns, Ready Room often catered to high-energy crowds, but in returning to business, the craft cocktail specialists have created an entirely new atmosphere. The owners have been vigilant with new capacity and distance standards, even taking guest temperatures at the door. Many of the tables and seats have been removed, along with all bar seating. The remaining tables have been rearranged to create individual sections, creating a more relaxed lounge environment. Lacking a place to cook, the cocktail bar is keeping it simple in the food department with cheese boards and housemade gumbo. To make up for months of lost revenue, the staff reinvented the cocktail list featuring spirits, liqueurs and more already in stock, giving guests an entirely new experience each week. Recent menus have experimented with side-dish-sized garnishes and inventive non-alcoholic beverages. Ryan Kasey Baker, contributing writer, Houston Food Finder
Favorite To-Go Cocktails
Favorite To-Go Cocktails
With COVID-19 restrictions shutting down watering holes across Texas, Houston bars needed to get creative in finding ways to stay afloat. To-go cocktails were one way to do that. While we absolutely cannot wait for our favorite bars to return to full capacity, we’re happy to support them by sipping their drink kits and mixed, sealed creations and at home.
Eight Row Flint, 1039 Yale: This whiskey-and-taco joint is once again open for service (with ample patio space, to boot), but those who prefer to imbibe at home can still do so via excellent takeout cocktails. Order online and pick up a refreshing Ranchwater, spot-on Old Fashioneds and DIY kits featuring cocktails such as Mint Juleps and classic Margaritas.
The Toasted Coconut, 1617 Richmond: This quirky island-inspired bar and restaurant's Pina Colada kits — complete with tropical garnishes and add-ons such crushed ice and Jamaican rum — are a good time. As are its premixed tiki drinks, such as Mai Tais, Hurricanes, Palomas and the house signature, the Toasted Coconut (rum, toasted coconut, lime, coconut water and coco aminos). You can snag all of them to-go alongside eats such as pork dumplings and crispy rice salad. — Brooke Viggiano, contributing writer, Houston Press
Favorite Bars That Are Still Closed
While the TABC opening up the opportunity for bars — designated as such because 51 percent of revenue comes from alcohol sales — to recertify as restaurants and make changes so that more money comes from food sales — for many, it's no help at all. Most are in downtown Houston, such as beloved favorites Bad News Bar, One Armed Scissor and The Cottonmouth Club, just to name a few. These have no parking available for a food truck, nor kitchen facilities. So for nine months this year, there's been no revenue and unless some type of financial help is coming, it's going to be a miracle if any of these businesses can survive long enough to reopen. As it is, this situation has already claimed Public Services Wine & Whisky. How many more will we lose?
It also begs the question of why bars with patios — which some in downtown Houston have — have not been allowed to seat guests in a socially distanced fashion. One bright spot: the city of Houston is closing Main Street to cars, which will at least allow the food and drink businesses alongside it to seat guests outside. — Phaedra Cook, editor & publisher, Houston Food Finder
R.I.P.: Favorite Bars That Closed In 2020
This has been a rough year for Houston bar owners. First, they were forced to close in March due to the pandemic. Then, changes in TABC regulations allowed bars to start offering to-go options. In the summer, these businesses were temporarily allowed to reopen at limited capacity — before being shut down again when COVID-19 cases surged. Some managed to reopen as restaurants, some are still closed, and others, sadly, have closed permanently. Here are a few of our favorites that have made the final last call. Pour one out for the bars where the neon no longer shines.
Alice's Tall Texan Drive Inn, 4904 North Main: In business for 36 years, this watering hole was the definition of a Houston icon. Known for serving frozen chalices — often pulled from the freezer by Alice herself — of Lone Star and Shiner Bock, it wasn't able to survive the "damn coronavirus," as she put it in a Facebook post. Its neon signs lining the walls, Crock-Pot of chili or hotdogs sitting on a table pushed against one wall and jukebox often playing Tejano music will be missed by many Houstonians. — David Leftwich, associate editor, Houston Food Finder
Penny Quarter, 1424 Westheimer: Penny Quarter was Bobby Heugel and Justin Yu's attempt at creating an all-day cafe and wine bar featuring selections by Theodore Rex's beverage director, Justin Vann. Opened in August 2019, the sleekly designed space offered morning visitors a coffee program that featured several roasters, both local and from around the nation. Guests visiting later in the day could enjoy a small but thoughtful spirits and cocktail selection and an expansive and expertly crafted wine list. The food changed throughout the day, with separate breakfast and dinner menus. Unfortunately, this unique concept wasn't able to weather the ups and downs of the COVID-19 bar and restaurant economy. The space is now hosting Heugel's suave speakeasy Tongue Cut Sparrow, while its permanent home downtown is temporarily closed. — Ryan Kasey Baker, contributing writer, Houston Food Finder
Public Services Wine & Whisky, 202 Travis: This downtown wine and cocktail bar opened in 2014, and quickly become an instant classic. A concept by Justin Vann and Justin Yu, it was more than just a bar. Public Services was a retreat that had unique bar food and a diverse selection of wine and spirits. Over the years the spot's personality shined with holiday events, tasting classes and a great staff. Public Services was closed permanently in late November, decades too soon. — Ryan Kasey Baker, contributing writer, Houston Food Finder