Sometimes we all need a break from the rat race and just need to go out and get a nice stiff drink; these Houston bars have got you covered in that department, no doubt about it. As always, please drink responsibly and even more so when consuming heavily poured drinks; designate a driver or get a ride home from a local cab company, Uber or better yet, a trusted friend. Plan ahead and have a good, safe time.
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(Note: This list is in reverse alphabetical order.)
Warren's Inn is a Houston institution, with a cozy, welcoming atmosphere that makes it a surefire bet for a good time with friends. Be sure and check out the bar's eclectic jukebox; playing some of the old tunes available amounts to an inexpensive journey back in time. Located in a historical downtown building, Warren’s features include chandeliers, large mirrors, a catbird-seat gazebo and low lighting, with a few Christmas lights strewn about for good measure. Warren’s is just a cool, casual place to hang out with an awesome atmosphere; the cocktails and especially the martinis served here are quite potent. You have been warned. (307 Travis, warrensinn.biz)
When you are drinking beer at West Alabama Ice House and it closes at midnight because of some archaic Texas law that requires all ice houses to shut down early, head across the street to T.K. Bitterman’s for a stiff liquor drink, as they are open until 2 a.m. Actually, this hidden dive that has no sign and does not advertise is a cool place to visit all on its own as a destination spot; it is a no-frills neighborhood sports bar owned by folks from Chicago and is filled with Cubs sports memorabilia. Now seems to be the perfect time to visit, with the Cubs hoping to make it to the World Series and win it this year for the first time since 1908 as predicted in Back to the Future Part II (which will be back in theaters on October 21, by the way). But you don’t have to like sports or classic '80s movies to have a decent time at T.K. Bitterman’s; the front patio and aforementioned stiff drinks, including the giant martinis sold here, are worth coming out for. (2010 West Alabama, facebook.com/t.k.bittermans)
There is a lot of history behind Marquis II in Rice Village. The original River Oaks location opened up in 1945 and was called Marquis, then in the late '60s two waitresses who worked at the original location bought it and changed the name to Marquis II and moved the bar. After a few more owners and locations, Marquis II settled in at its current spot back in 1985 in a building that was constructed back in the 1950s and was the former home of both The Big Donut and The Bunny Club. The place has gained a reputation over the years as a frat-boy/college-hookup bar (the crowd is actually more diverse these days) and, most importantly for the subject at hand, for its strong varieties of Texas Tea flavors: drinks derived from the famous Long Island Iced Tea and served in giant Texas-sized glasses. Marquis II underwent renovations in 2011 that gave the place some much-needed improvements while retaining its coolness factor and status as a seminal Rice Village neighborhood bar. (2631 Bissonnet, marquis2.com)
Open at its current location since 1976, Marfreless is located near the River Oaks movie theater at 2006 Peden; it's never had a sign out front, just an iconic blue door to mark its entrance. Marfreless is known as a lover's makeout bar, a fact that the bar has never been shy about; after the bar closed in March 2013 and reopened in late January of 2014 after some much-needed renovations, curtains that can be closed for privacy were added in the upstairs seating area. The atmosphere here is dark, sleek and sexy; making out is not a requirement upon entrance. To ease any self-consciousness first-time couples may feel here, the drinks are strong. If you are a guy and come here by yourself you’ll probably feel like a creep; if you are a woman and you come by yourself you will probably receive a lot of attention, whether you want it or not. (2006 Peden, marfrelesshouston.com)
Lola’s is Houston's ultimate dive bar, and it can be kind of hard to find the first time; there is no sign, and it just looks like an old dilapidated purple house from the outside. Newcomers might feel a little intimidated at first, because the bar is as dark as a dungeon upon entrance and there are no windows, but after having a few of the super-strong, cheap drinks and meeting the friendly regulars they will lighten up very quickly. Lola’s has an interesting history and a loyal following among longtime patrons; it has also made quite a resurgence over the past few years and has become popular with a whole new generation of young people thanks to social media and humorous Yelp reviews. Lola's has an authenticity about it that simply can't be duplicated, and both the bartenders and patrons are about as real as it gets. Checking out the “Home of Reality” and its back patio, with all of its shenanigans, is a must for all dive-bar/stiff-drink enthusiasts. (2327 Grant, facebook.com/Lolas-Depot)
This relaxing lounge has a variety of more than 70 specialty martinis to choose from; in addition, the drink menu includes a lengthy list of cocktails and shots with colorful names like “Jonestown Kool-Aid” and “Alien Secretion” made from vodkas, whiskeys, and other spirits from around the world. The staff here creates new custom flavors as well, by infusing some pineapple into vodka or bacon into bourbon, for example; the bar also has an impressive collection of single malt and blended Scotches. The Davenport is located in the historic Sandman building that was constructed back in 1957 and is an example of early modernist commercial architecture; the look and feel of the place adds to its coolness factor. The dark and cozy interior along with the stiff, double drinks will provide you a nice escape from your everyday realities if you are so inclined. (2117 Richmond, thedavenportlounge.com)
Catbirds is a no-frills hipster dive bar with stiff drinks; many of the regular neighborhood patrons are covered with tats and sport long, thick beards. Oddly enough, a sign out front advises that no sleeveless shirts are allowed. Catbirds sets itself apart from other dive bars in that only jazz music is played, along with the occasional slow swing; it also distinguishes itself by being a full-time trivia bar. The spot is small but rarely crowded; the narrow, long patio is good for people-watching. If you stick around long enough and drink a few cocktails here, the bartender on duty will give you some free popcorn to eat; you can also buy cigarettes here if you need some. (1336 Westheimer, catbirds.com)
CAPTAIN FOXHEART'S BAD NEWS BAR & SPIRIT LOUNGE
This upstairs lounge offers up a nice balcony view of Main Street and the METRORail down below and has one of the coolest bar names in Houston: Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar & Spirit Lodge is not very big inside, but the handcrafted specialty cocktails like the Darth Bitterman and the Pile of Pink keep the regulars happy and coming back for more. Vinyl records and a player are behind the bar for your listening pleasure and a small menu of craft beers are on sale as well but, since we are on the subject, you might as well indulge in some of the stiff classic mixed drinks when you visit here; it is a bit of an adventure finding the place the first time, as there is no sign and the hidden aspect of the place makes it feel like you are visiting an old speakeasy. (308 Main, facebook.com/BadNewsBar)
Not to be confused with the 1980 Brooke Shields coming-of-age film set on a tropical island paradise, the Blue Lagoon in Spring Branch is a drinking establishment that is considered a dive-bar paradise by many regulars and newcomers alike. Power-drinkers and barflies are not an endangered species in this place, and there is space to move about and even dance if the mood strikes during Friday-night karaoke; sometimes the bar provides free food for the customers, like pizza or hot dogs, at least they did the last few times we dropped in. Blue Lagoon has one of the great patios in Houston; it is not huge but has a nice big oak tree along with some covered picnic tables. This is the kind of place where you meet some fascinating characters, though not always the kind you want to sit and chat with all night long, especially after they have had their fill of the strong drinks served here. (1248 Witte, facebook.com/Blue-Lagoon)
When you grow tired of bars full of loud and rowdy folks, head over to the unmarked doors of Absinthe and enter into a quiet, dimly lit cozy room where you can try absinthe, the drink, which was embraced by famous artists and writers including Pablo Picasso, James Joyce Vincent van Gogh and other romantic figures. Made with an extract of wormwood, absinthe is an emerald-green drink that was once banned because of the false belief that it caused madness and hallucinations. Its namesake bar offer plenty of other drink choices besides the absinthe, of course: craft cocktails, wine and martinis, as well as some food selections like appetizers, pizza and Paninis. The craft cocktails are nice and strong, as you probably like them if you’ve read down this far. (609 Richmond, absinthelounge.com)