Anvil Bar and Refuge (1424 Westheimer) seems like the type of place that, if it were empty (which so far it never is) and you wandered in alone on a rainy afternoon, the bartender would instinctively know to play John Coltrane's "In a Sentimental Mood" and then start talking about how women are impossible to understand. It's all part of the ownership's plan to provide an ambience as authentic as the handcrafted drinks.
Anvil is about a month old, and already very popular — it built up a nice little buzz because the opening date kept getting pushed back. Its proprietors are Robert Heugel, Kevin Floyd, Justin Burrow, Steve Flippo and Morgan Webber, all admitted drink hounds who have worked at too many local bars to keep track of.
Weekend nights, it's surprisingly loud inside — but people-loud, not music-loud. You know the way the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange sounds in the movies? That's what Anvil sounds like. Charlie Sheen in Wall Street would be totally comfortable here.
Any new Westheimer bar — especially one within easy walking distance of Catbirds, Etro, Boondocks and Poison Girl — will automatically become the flavor of the month. Anvil is, and has, but it's built to last. That's why it's called Anvil — the owners wanted a name that invokes labor, sweat and durability.
The bar's decor is typical but tasteful: a high, exposed brick ceiling, concrete floors, several leather lounge sectionals and those tall tables that make anyone under six-foot-two standing by them look ridiculous.
There are also a few unexpected touches. The foot rail underneath the 60-foot weathered-steel bar top, for example, is a piece of railroad track that used to run from downtown Houston to Eagle Lake. All the cocktail glasses were plucked from Montrose thrift stores. And the doors to the bathrooms are from a 1920s butcher-shop cooler.
Anvil's focus is squarely on its drinks — there are no TVs, pool tables or video games, and the background music is barely discernible. Between them, the people who run it have 35-plus years in the beverage-pouring business, and their drinks are phenomenal. Also, they're eager to share their impressive knowledge.
Ask Robert Heugel for a vodka tonic, and he automatically calculates that you might be interested in other carbonated drinks that are light, refreshing and not too boldly flavored, so he might offer a Pimm's Cup (gin, lemon, soda, tea, botanicals) or a Southside (a gin sour with mint) instead. It's like watching Snoop Dogg's "Who Am I (What's My Name)" video on YouTube, and afterwards it suggests "Murda Was Tha Case."
But some people aren't interested in that. Some people just want to watch "Who Am I (What's My Name)" over and over again. And those people think it's kind of jerky to propose otherwise.
"It can be a little pretentious," says Jeremy Jones, a neighborhood resident who says some Anvil bartenders were the same way when they worked at Beaver's (2310 Decatur) in the Heights. "It stems from the quality of the drinks, you know — they make great drinks. But I think they can be kind of assholes about it if you don't know about that kind of stuff."
Jones says "assholes" only half-seriously,but it's clear what he means. Several other patrons made similar statements, though about as many said they didn't mind the staff's mixological guidance at all. The staff is knowledgeable. But is it necessary to throw that knowledge around?
"We actually engage people in conversation about why they're choosing the drinks they're drinking," explains Heugel. "What we're trying to say is, 'I know you're used to drinking this, but give this a shot for me.' We really try and show people something new. And I think that's what a good bar should do."
It makes sense. After all, Anvil wants to serve a growing crowd of cocktail enthusiasts, not Lone Star enthusiasts. And it's nice to be in a place where the bartenders aren't pumping Flaming Dr Peppers, or whatever other pseudo-sophisticated drink is on special for the next 15 minutes, down everyone's throat.
While everyone of late has been going all bonkers over the "H-pop" ways of the Wild Moccasins and Tontons, and new-age indie-western champs News on the March — and rightfully so; they're all great — we need to plug Giant Princess after we accidentally caught the band's Westheimer Block Party set. The singer screams and cackles, his hair gets all messed up because he jerks his head goofily around, and it's just great. They very much reminded us of a more spastic Beck — although, from afar, GP seems like the type of band that might hate that comparison. Give 'em a shot. It's good stuff. www.myspace.com/giantprincess.