So you've got out-of-towners coming in -- old friends, relatives, business prospects from Minneapolis, Titans fans in for a hit-and-run NFL weekend, or whatever. Now the burden is upon you, the local-scene guru, to show them the town. You've told them how great Houston is, how much you enjoy living here, and recently every national publication on the planet has supported you in this assertion.
So it's put up or shut up time. Whether they're sophisticates from Boston, San Francisco or L.A.; denizens of uber-cool bike-friendly enclaves like Seattle, Portland, Santa Fe or Brooklyn; or just your long-lost cousins from farms in Iowa or Kentucky or oilfield burgs like Midland or Tulsa, the pressure is on to show your guests that Houston isn't a swampy version of Sodom and Gomorrah or some sizzling, humid, un-zoned urban hellhole where we drive down Main Street firing semi-automatic assault rifles on the way to our oil wells and cattle ranches.
So here are some tips. First of all, unless they are the straightest, most boring, megachurch-attending Stepford people ever or here with an unlimited expense-account/"business promotion" boondoggle, don't take them to trendy new upscale places where the ice in the drinks costs more than valet parking, and valet is the only kind of parking you'll find. Your money would be better spent drinking a can of cheap Sofia Coppola champagne out of a hooker's high-heel shoe on Irvington Blvd. at 4:30 a.m.
C'mon, where do you want to go when you're in an unknown city? Where will you see the fabric of a town, meet its characters instead of its clones, and experience its true ambiance rather than some manufactured supposed perfection? You know as well as we do that when you visit an unknown city and you want to get into it, you find the dive bars with some history, eccentricities, attractive peculiarities and colorful regulars. These ten places (one of them more of a "district," true) should do the trick nicely.
10. THE HAY MERCHANT This is the place to take your guests who really love beer. After gazing upon the long wall of taps behind the bar and perusing the huge selection of craft brews on the menu, your visitors will be astounded and impressed that you took them to such a heavenly place. Just politely inform them not to ask for some generic domestic beer, because they don't sell it and might not be shy of informing them why they consider it to be "watered-down crap."
But no need to worry, the staff here is very friendly and informative and will help anyone pick out the right beer, regardless of their level of beer expertise or lack thereof. The food at the Merchant is impressive as well, and some of the items are unusual; it should be quite a surprise for your guests to see sweet spicy pig ears on the menu. They are quite tasty. (1110 Westheimer)
9. NOTSUOH Here, show your guests the weird side of Houston and, depending on their temperament, either delight them, freak them 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, dozens of old women's shoes attached to a wall, 1940s-era bookkeeping ledger papers turned into wallpaper, and many other oddities, your guests might feel like they stepped into a David Lynch movie.
After having a few drinks and chatting with some of the other patrons, your visitors will soon find that some really cool, artistic and friendly people from every conceivable background call Notsuoh home. Furthermore, while here they can absorb some of the most interesting poetry readings, musical performances, or comedy shows they are likely to ever encounter. (314 Main)
8. BIG TOP LOUNGE With a wide-ranging lineup of live music almost every night, tourists can sample what Big Top regulars really love: honky-tonk, zydeco, soul, oldies, ska, and more. But if your guests aren't in the mood for music, the gigantic backyard area shared by the Continental Club offers plenty of room for another favorite Houston activity: sitting outside and bullshitting while enjoying a few drinks. Bonus: the outdoor tiki bar is generally playing some kind of retro golden nugget on its wall-mounted television.
Still, the best part about Big Top is its total lack of the pretentious attitude. With all the makings of a bar that could easily be dubbed as a hipster heaven -- such as defunct Chuck E. Cheese band members, kitschy décor and bumper cars on the front porch -- the Big Top instead maintains an easygoing vibe that attracts Houstonians from all walks of life. Try finding that elsewhere. (3714 Main)
7. WEST ALABAMA ICE HOUSE Open since 1928, this place is truly a Houston institution and a great introduction for out-of-town guests to Texas ice-house culture; fellow Texans from other cities will feel right at home. 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.
Outside scattered weekend live performances, music here comes from the Internet jukebox; fortunately the customers have good taste. Your guests might be treated to some barbecue if employees or customers are cooking out on the grill when you drop in, otherwise you must introduce them to the Tacos Tierra Caliente food truck across the street. When you're finished eating, challenge your guests to a game of basketball, ping-pong, or horseshoes. (1919 W. Alabama)
6. DAN ELECTRO'S GUITAR BAR A ramshackle two-story building not far from Loop 610 and North Main, Dan Electro's is headquarters of an older segment of the Houston music scene, and oozes authentic Bayou City character. Acts here lean toward classic rock, outlaw country, lots of blues and the occasional jam band, but not so much pop, hip-hop or anything "indie." (Shudder.)
Dan's is as disinterested in being fashionable as it is invested in making its patrons feel comfortable. And with an interior done in Early Dive, tiny luminescent stars all over the walls, and one of the best small-venue sound systems in town, that's exactly what it does. Its sprawling outdoor patio is so lush it could almost pass for New Orleans, too. (1031 E. 24th St.)
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5. MARKET SQUARE AREA Choosing a single bar for out-of-towners was no easy task. Instead, why not demonstrate the walkability of downtown Houston? After parking at Market Square and grabbing a bite at Niko Niko's or Fusion Taco, walk over to La Carafe (813 Congress) and show your friend Houston's oldest commercial building. "See?" you could say, "Houston doesn't tear down all of its history." Rumor has it the place is haunted, so feel free to scare your guest with ghost stories.
Cross the street and visit Warren's (307 Travis) for liberal pours and friendly service. Round the corner and make your way to The Original OKRA Charity Saloon (924 Congress), the upside-down ark with a heart of gold. Once you've deliberated over which nonprofit deserves your drink tickets, head on down to The Pastry War (310 Main) for some tequila or a Habanero Serrano margarita, sure to give both you and your guest a second wind. Finish the evening at Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar, (308 Main, Floor 2) overlooking the MetroRail as you gaze up at the skyline and sip delicious craft cocktails.
4. THE BIG EASY SOCIAL AND PLEASURE CLUB The Big Sleazy hasn't changed much in the two decades since Tom McLendon took over space on Kirby next to Domino's Pizza, although we have noticed some plumbing upgrades lately. With live entertainment seven nights a week - including the best of the blues world on weekends - plenty of reasonably priced craft beers for the hopheads in your crowd, as well as the usual Texas beers and mixed drinks, the club is easy on the pocketbook and has beaucoup H-Town ambiance.
There's plenty of free parking, plenty of room for dancing, and a strict policy of no cover charge over $5, no matter who is playing. On the right night, you can catch Houston legends like Grady Gaines, Milton Hopkins, Ezra Charles, or Miss Trudy Lynn, plus free early zydeco shows every Sunday. We've never had any out-of-towners not dig the Big E. (5731 Kirby)
3. ALICE'S TALL TEXAN The pickup trucks ringing the Tall Texan and spilling over onto the side streets are the first clue that this tiny North Heights bar is the real deal; you won't see a whole lot of smart cars or hybrids around, or even bicycles parked outside. Places like this are why the term "beer joint" still exists, because that's pretty much all Alice's has got (Lone Star and Shiner), and it comes in frosted goblets that might weigh as much as a bowling ball.
Conceivably, those goblets would make handy weapons if a brawl ever broke out here, but the Tall Texan's crowd is a peaceful lot, content to talk about the Texans, munch on peanuts, play the occasional game of pool, and dial up some Eagles, Loretta Lynn or classic conjunto on the jukebox. This place rules. (4904 N. Main)
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2. POISON GIRL Maybe the quintessential modern Houston dive bar - it's only been around ten years - Poison Girl is a scene unto itself, a mixture of artists, musicians, writers, actors, artisans, bartenders, chefs and waiters mixed in with Montrose locals and suburban date-nighters who found the place via some app for "cool bars" and look as out of place as cats in a dog show. Prices are low, but the big attraction other than people-watching is the 250-plus bottles of American whiskey that may constitute the best selection in the state.
Serious whiskey snobs eventually end up in Poison Girl if they are searching for the rarest bottles, and those in the know like chefs, waiters and bartenders, this is often their first stop after a shift. Poison Girl is jammed on the weekends with non-regulars, so the best nights are Sunday through Thursday. (1641 Westheimer)
1. LOLA'S DEPOT No way will your guests find Lola's, Houston's ultimate dive bar, on their own; there is no sign, and it just looks like a dilapidated purple house. They might feel a little intimidated at first, because the bar is as dark as a dungeon, but after a few of the super-strong, equally cheap drinks and meeting the friendly regulars they will lighten up very quickly.
Lola's has an authenticity and history that simply can't be duplicated, and both the bartenders and patrons are about as real as it gets. Let your guests take in the atmosphere - stickers all over the mirrors, rock-star portraits and tribal-mask art on the walls, crazy knick-knacks behind the bar and attached to the ceiling, and some of the funniest graffiti they will ever read (on the men's room walls, at least). Showing them the back patio and the shenanigans going on out there is also a must. (2327 Grant)
HONORABLE MENTION Bar Boheme D&T Drive Inn Dirt Bar Last Concert Cafe Leon's Lounge Lone Star Saloon Richmond Arms The Rose Garden Rudyard's Under the Volcano
Written by Selena Dieringer, Chris Gray, Matthew Keever, David Rozycki and William Michael Smith
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