Note: List is in alphabetical order.
AVANTGARDEN A converted turn-of-the-20th-century house, AvantGarden is a bar, community venue and gathering point where creative and artistic people throughout the city come for poetry readings, live music, theatrical productions, independent-film premieres, art exhibits, improv comedy, cabaret, and more. The patrons here are sometimes described as hipsters, but the mostly friendly, non-pretentious people we have encountered here do not exhibit the more negative stereotypes of that sometimes pejorative label.
However, many customers here indeed have a flair for style and can dress pretty flamboyantly. For some serious people-watching, the best times to come are the customer-appreciation nights on Thursdays, when cheap drink specials bring in large and diverse crowds who gather in the patio/courtyard out back, which is illuminated overhead with sparkling lights, putting out a festival vibe.
411 Westheimer, avantgardenhouston.com
BARBARELLA Houston's newest dance mecca is Barbarella in Midtown. The come-as-you-are attitude makes for an eye-opening parade of every subset of the city's population, excluding the bros and sorority girls who stick to the other side of Midtown. The club is illuminated by a colorful center bar, where Lone Stars and whiskey shots are used as the lubricant to get patrons into full dance mode.
From hipsters to drag queens, everyone is invited and accepted, as long as you dance the night way. The elevated dance floor is the popular spot to see and be seen, with lighted floor panels and mirrors for your viewing pleasure.
2404 San Jacinto, facebook.com/BarbarellaHTX
BIG STAR BAR Motorcycles and classic cars are often parked just outside the front door of Big Star Bar in the Heights, so it might come as a surprise to see so many regulars performing karaoke as soon as you walk inside. Like Houston itself, Big Star is an eclectic place, one that is perfect for people-watchers from all walks of life. Roughnecks, hipsters and everyone in between are all welcome below the camouflage mosquito nets out back, where it's pretty much a given that you'll hear and see some pretty interesting stuff.
1005 W. 19th St., facebook.com/bigstarbar
CLUTCH CITY SQUIRE The best people-watching bars aren't the ones teeming with imbibers. It's a chore keeping track when people spill over like Guinness poured by a novice barkeep. Surely the owners of Clutch City Squire would prefer wall-to-wall crowds at all hours, but every time we've been there it's been a relaxed vibe with just enough drinkers on hand to go NSA without getting exposed by the Edward Snowdens of Margaritaville. Aside from questions about Christian Slater or millenials fawning over the bar's action-figure collection, there's a photo booth that couples can squirrel off to. That'll give us something to talk about. The bartenders are friendly and know how to start the kind of conversations that make you want to eavesdrop like you're Gene Hackman on a park bench.
410 Main, facebook.com/clutchcitysquire
THE FLAT This Montrose establishment has always been a beacon of cool, attracting the city's artists, musicians and social butterflies. From DJs to photographers, beer drinkers to wine sippers, The Flat is the place to be for the coolest of the cool. The laid-back environment is evident as you walk into the darkened, cozy main room; from the couches, you can watch a steady stream of lovely people walk in on their way to the bar or the outdoor patio.
Once outside, you will find a pleasant spot to chill with friends, drink a cold one, or grab a smoke. You will never have to worry about the music, as general manager DJ Sun has enlisted an all-star roster of some of Houston's most talented selectors who on any given night will play hip-hop, Latin, dance or Caribbean sounds.
1701 Commonwealth, theflathouston.com
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FOX HOLLOW This popular bar is very schizophrenic, in the most flattering of ways. Whether hosting Bombón, "Houston's Ultimate Tropical Dance Party," or the weekly hip-hop vinyl night hosted by The Waxaholics, you will find a steady stream of stunning ladies and chill dudes to admire, dance, and drink with. Friday nights features La Orquesta Salmerum, whose sensual salsa rhythms are famous for attracting the most beautiful Latina women to the dance floor.
For the best people-watching, try the unisex restrooms -- just try not to be too creepy; a simple smile or "hello" should do. When the dance floor gets too crowded, try the patio for nice conversation and a cool breeze.
4617 Nett, facebook.com/FoxHollow
HONEYMOON CAFE & BAR Downtown Houston hosts a large variety of Houston's people, making it inevitable for people-watching. You'll see all kinds of people from the sharpest-dressed swells to hobos curled up in blankets so sweetly you'll want to tuck them in. (Sad, we know.) Anyway, Main Street now hosts a large chunk of Downtown Houston's nightlife, and the Honeymoon is a recent favorite bar on that street, the adjacent to the Little Dipper bar.
300 Main, thehoneymoonhtx.com
LAST CONCERT CAFE When your journey to Last Concert Café, through one of downtown's shadier-looking areas, ends, you will enter a backyard that feels like you have been transplanted back to some 1960s jam-band session. Everywhere you look, you'll usually see what appears to be hippies and bohemians of all ages, and their style is authentic and organic; these are obviously not people who went out and bought Woodstock-themed costumes at their local Halloween shop.
Gaze upon the people dancing earnestly, barefoot in the beach sand out in front of the stage, some with hula-hoops, others spin-dancing with tethered glow-in-the-dark objects. Self-proclaimed modern-day pagans and gypsies are among the friendly people you meet here, as well as folks who dress year-round like they're attending the Renaissance Festival. Last Concert serves tasty Tex-Mex cuisine, but hanging with the free-spirited, good-natured patrons and staff is the real reason to come.
1403 Nance, lastconcert.com
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MOON TOWER INN Moon Tower's clientele is hungry, thirsty and chatty. Put your butt in one of the seats and look around. From the weeknight happy hour to hungry twentysomethings on a Saturday afternoon, patrons at the East End staple are varied and oftentimes loud after a few premium lagers.
3004 Canal, facebook.com/bigweeniestyles
NUMBERS A Houston institution for 36 years now, Numbers has hosted an impressive list of alternative, industrial and punk acts throughout the years, plus other genres too numerous to mention. The Lower Westheimer venue soldiers on with Houston's longest-running weekly dance event, Classic Numbers, with DJ Wes Wallace spinning '80s music and videos with some modern goth, techno, electronica and more mixed in.
The large-capacity dance floor is packed weekly with the usual mix of scenesters from various subcultures: emo kids, punks, goths, mods, club kids, indie-rockers, vampires, etc. You will also run into fortysomething folks reliving the '80s (some never left), curious suburbanites, fabulous drag queens, and rugged individuals who refuse to be pigeonholed. There is no dress code here (as you can probably gather), and sitting on the black bleachers downstairs checking out people's fashion choices and dance moves under the laser lights is a favorite pastime of ours.
300 Westheimer, numbersnightclub.com
HONORABLE MENTION: YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD BAR If you live in the suburbs, your neighborhood bars are great people-watching places because they contain one ingredient many of the in-town bars don't: your neighbors. For instance, my neighborhood bar is a quaint spot called The Grove Tavern, where the bartenders have almost exclusively been flirty, attractive blondes, and the patronage has almost exclusively been flirtatious older men I've seen with their families at Kroger. Scandalous!
Trust me, the faint curiosity given to the most interesting of unknown drunkards becomes a prime-time 20/20 expose when that drunkard is your kid's grade-school teacher or some guy in the community's volunteer fire department. Really, is there anything better than seeing the neighborhood watch leader, whom you've pegged as a churchgoing teetotaler, swaying like a tall, thin branch in the high winds after a half-dozen shots of Fireball? Beat that, hipster with handlebar mustache droning on about vegan food.
Written by Alexa Crenshaw, Matthew Keever, David Rozycki, Jesse Sendejas Jr. and Marco Torres
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