When you publish a list like this, it's bound to draw discussions from both those who agree and those who disagree with it; we do feel confident that these are essential bars in Houston for everyone to visit at least once, as the title states. Anyone going to these places for the first time won’t be bored by them, and in fact may very likely add them to their list of favorite spots in town. Note: Here we stuck to places that are mostly known as straight-up drinking establishments, so we did not include any of the great music venues and clubs in our city like Fitzgerald’s, Rudyard’s, Numbers, etc.
(Note: This list is in reverse alphabetical order.)
WEST ALABAMA ICE HOUSE
Open since 1928, this place is truly a Houston institution and the ultimate example of Texas icehouse culture in our city. West Alabama is a big, backyard-party place where people come to grab some cold beers, sit on shaded picnic tables and enjoy good conversation with friendly and approachable patrons and their dogs. Outside of scattered weekend live performances, music here comes from the Internet jukebox; fortunately, the customers have good taste. Employees or customers might be cooking out on the grill when you drop in; otherwise, try the food at Tacos Tierra Caliente food truck across the street. (Better yet, try the tacos whether anyone is cooking or not. They are that good.) When you're finished eating, challenge your friends or strangers to a game of basketball, ping-pong or bean-bag toss out back. (1919 W. Alabama, facebook.com/WALABAMA)
Warren's is a Houston institution with a cozy, welcoming atmosphere, a nice place to escape to if you work downtown and need a little break afterwards and don’t feel up to dealing with the rush-hour hell again just yet. You don’t have to work downtown to love the place, though; located in a historical building, the club's features include chandeliers, large mirrors, a catbird-seat gazebo and low lighting with a few Christmas lights strewn about for good measure. It's just a cool, casual place to hang out, and it has an authenticity about it; the martinis served here have a reputation for being quite potent. Be sure and check out the bar's eclectic jukebox and let some of the old tunes available take you on a journey back in time. (307 Travis, warrensinn.biz)
UNDER THE VOLCANO
Taking its name from a 1947 novel by English writer Malcolm Lowry that was made into a film by legendary director John Huston in 1984, Under the Volcano is an eccentric bar with a unique style and atmosphere about it. The features include elements from the novel, such as a shrine for the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead); Central and South American tribal masks hanging on a wall; candles of various spiritual and religious traditions on the tables; crosses; and more. In addition to the interesting decor, owner Pete Mitchell has put together one of the best and most diverse jukeboxes in the city, featuring classic rock along with cutting-edge new material. Equally impressive are the local and visiting musicians who play live here each Wednesday night and during select special events. (2349 Bissonnet, facebook.com/underthevolcanohouston)
Winner of the Houston Press's Best Bar Atmosphere in 2014, a big part of the cool Poison Girl atmosphere, in addition to the spacious patio out back with the giant Kool-Aid Man and the R-rated velvet paintings inside, is the row of pinball machines on the back wall. Sure, a lot of bars have a pinball machine or two, but a whole row of them is pretty rare these days outside of full-fledged arcades. Speaking of arcades, it is always fun playing pinball while listening to loud rock and roll music, and for those of us of a certain age, it's a nice flashback to days gone past to do so here, though the tunes here are more likely to be trendy indie-rock than the music from our high-school days. Poison Girl can get crowded on weekend nights; that can be fun, but do yourself a favor and stop in during the week sometime when the place is slower and you can really look around and absorb the style and mood of the space. (1641 Westheimer, facebook.com/Poison-Girl)
Notsuoh is the place to visit when you want to experience the weird side of Houston, and depending upon your temperament, it will either delight you, freak you out a bit or hopefully both. Upon entering into the darkness and seeing the strange sights, like nude female mannequins turned into works of art, a bird cage hanging from the ceiling containing candle-like bulbs, 1940s-era bookkeeping ledger papers turned into wallpaper, a knight's armor, an old piano encrusted with assorted trinkets and many other oddities, you might feel as if you've stepped into The Twilight Zone or a David Lynch movie. After having a few drinks and chatting with some of the other patrons, you'll soon find that some really cool, artistic and friendly people from every conceivable background call Notsuoh home. Visit on a night when you can take in one of the more interesting poetry readings, musical performances or comedy shows you are likely to ever encounter, or just come out and take in the vibe anytime. (314 Main, notsuoh.com)
LONE STAR SALOON
One of Houston's legendary dive bars, Lone Star Saloon downtown is located across the street from a large Metro bus terminal and in close proximity to the city's Greyhound station; you meet some interesting characters in here, some who have just arrived in town and are either a little road-weary or who are genuinely infected with wanderlust and enjoy rambling across our nation. Not exactly the type of place you want to take someone on a first date, it reminds us of the kind of gritty urban bars you might see in a Martin Scorsese movie set in New York City during the '70s, with a Texas twist. Don't visit here expecting a large craft-beer selection or inventive martinis; stick to domestic beers and well whiskey and you'll do just fine. (1900 Travis, facebook.com/Lone-Star-Saloon)
Opened in 1982, Lola's Depot, Houston's ultimate dive bar, still counts among its loyal regulars people who've been hanging out here since the '80s; in recent years the bar has had a resurgence as a whole new generation of thrill-seekers has discovered the place thanks to social media and funny reviews on Yelp. The appeal of Lola's is the authenticity and realness of its staff and patrons; there is no other bar quite like it that we have run across in Houston — or any other city, for that matter. The atmosphere is that of a dirty punk-rock bar, yet at the same time Lola's is truly a neighborhood place that appeals to a whole cross-section of the larger population in Montrose, those who live there and those who'd like to. It's hard not to have a good time here under the influence of heavily poured drinks or cheap Lone Stars and PBRs in the company of friendly faces. (2327 Grant, facebook.com/Lolas-Depot)
Located in Houston's oldest commercial building, which dates back to 1847, La Carafe is a nice bar to visit if you're looking to experience a bit of the city’s history; check out the old Houston photos, newspaper clippings and paintings from bygone years hanging on the walls. Or just sit back and relax in the candlelight with a nice wine or beer while you listen to music selections from the bar’s eclectic jukebox; La Carafe offers up Nat King Cole, Etta James, Peggy Lee, Bob Marley and many more for your listening pleasure. This is a romantic, dark bar, and some folks claim the place is haunted. We have not experienced any of this reported phenomenon; we just enjoy our downtime here.
(813 Congress, facebook.com/La-Carafe)
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ANVIL BAR & REFUGE
Anvil Bar & Refuge opened in 2009 and became a trend-setting place almost immediately; it achieved this status by offering a menu of 100 classic cocktails made with high-quality spirits and ingredients, as well as its own original tasty craft cocktail creations. This is the place to be adventurous and try stuff that you may have never even heard of before; the bartenders here are very knowledgeable and can help you make the right selection for you and your friends. Anvil also offers up meat and cheese plates and other high-quality items to snack on while you're enjoying your cocktails; a fine selection of craft beers, wines and champagnes are also available. Since Anvil opened, many bars throughout the city have been influenced by its drink menu and have attempted to re-create it in part or best it, and overall this has been a good thing for craft cocktail-loving consumers. (1424 Westheimer, anvilhouston.com)
ALICE'S TALL TEXAN DRIVE INN
Contrary to popular belief, Alice's Tall Texan sells more than just cheap 18-ounce Shiner and Lone Star beers in giant fishbowl-shaped goblets, although those two drinks are popular choices among many patrons, no doubt. The Tall Texan is a must-visit place in Houston for any dive-bar aficionado or Texas beer-joint fan; the old jukebox packed with classic country favorites for many years has been replaced with an Internet model, but have no fear, many of the regulars still play those old-time favorites. This neighborhood dive bar is a very friendly, welcoming place no matter your background or age; don't be surprised if strangers offer to buy you beers all night. Alice still runs the place and is very nice; just don't upset her by putting your feet up on her tables or cursing loudly. And guys, she does not permit sleeveless shirts; it's not that kind of dive. (4904 N. Main, facebook.com/Alices-Tall-Texan)