We present to you here a list of what we feel are the best theme bars in our beloved city of Houston. When creating this list, we avoided listing places that have a national and international presence — Hard Rock Cafe, for example — and we also tried to avoid themes that are common, like blues bars, Irish pubs and sports bars, though we have numerous bars located throughout our city in those categories that are very cool. This list directs you to places that have unique themes and are worth a visit.
10. BROOKLYN ATHLETIC CLUB
Brooklyn Athletic Club has a unique theme: It’s based upon an actual country club that used to exist in Brooklyn, New York, hence the name. This Montrose-area restaurant and bar has an interesting mix of gourmet and comfort food, and the huge outside patio includes a beer bar and bocce ball courts, as well as areas for playing croquet, ping-pong, badminton and pétanque (a French game similar to horseshoes). A good plan is to arrive early with friends for lunch and try some of the favorites like the Baked Mac N' Cheese or the Clubhouse Burger, then make a day of it drinking beer or cocktails and playing games out back. (601 Richmond, thebrooklynathleticclub.com)
9. DOC'S BAR & GRILL
The original Doc’s opened in 2005 on South Congress Avenue in Austin, housed in a former auto-repair shop that was owned by a guy nicknamed Doc, hence the name and the automotive theme. The bar expanded to two more locations in Austin and now has ventured into Houston with this location in Montrose. Craft-beer lovers will appreciate the selection of more than 50 beers on tap; Doc’s serves upscale bar food such as burgers, sliders, wings, nachos, tacos and more. Features include garage doors that can be opened up when the weather is nice, old gas-station signs and even an old rusted-out truck parked under the sign out front. The front patio allows for good people-watching along this busy stretch of Westheimer. (1303 Westheimer, eatdrinkdocs.com)
8. CEDAR CREEK CAFE
Cedar Creek Cafe was indeed built next to a little creek that flows out in front of it; the large outdoor patio is inspired by Austin's Hill Country, and Cedar Creek's scenic patio is a pretty cool spot for afternoon drinking and into the evening and night as well. It’s not too hard to imagine you are in Austin while drinking a few craft beers with your meal here, whether you're inside or out. The "Bad Ass Burgers" and "Big Ol' Wangs" (that's chicken wings) are among the popular dishes, and Cedar opens up early, at 7 a.m. on Saturday and Sundays for breakfast items like chicken and waffles and frozen mimosas. Live music is played out on the patio on Saturdays from 4 to 8 p.m. for your listening pleasure this time of year as well. (1034 West 20th, cedarcreekcafe.com)
7. BOMBSHELLS RESTAURANT & BAR
Bombshells has three new locations in the Houston area, and seems to be going for the Hooters/Twin Peaks formula: scantily clad, attractive young women serving up American food like burgers, pizza and wings, with beer. Bombshells does have a military-themed twist on the concept; the young ladies wear Army green tops, short black skirts, black boots, faux bullet belts and the occasional military dog tags. Following the theme even further, Bombshells has military airplane wings over the top of the bar, and missiles, army helmets and sandbags scattered throughout the place. With tons of HD TVs up on the walls showing sports, Bombshells brings in lots of couples and families, in addition to single dudes. Live music is performed occasionally on the giant patio out front. (12810 Gulf Freeway, 4bombshells.com)
6. BIG TOP LOUNGE
The full name of this circus-themed bar next door to the Continental Club is Shoeshine Charley's Big Top Lounge; everyone just calls it the Big Top, though. In addition to the kitschy circus-themed knick-knacks on display such as an elephant lamp, mice mannequins and a red velvet throne, the Elvis wall and Christmas lights add to the Big Top’s unique dive-bar ambience. Like the Continental next door, Big Top features live music as well DJs, most notably the collective known as A Fistful of Soul, who play old soul and R&B 45s on the third Friday of every month. The event has gotten so popular that it actually has been moved to the Continental's huge backyard patio, which the Big Top's back door opens onto as well. Be sure and check out the Pachinko Hut bar while you're out there, too. (3714 Main, bigtoplounge.com)
5. ETRO LOUNGE
Etro Lounge in Montrose is an '80s bar, but it's not over the top and never feels like a gimmick or tourist trap. The main attraction for '80s fans here is the music from that decade, mainly stuff like The Cure, Depeche Mode and Erasure; the club hasn't played anything too obscure the times we have visited, and you are sure to hear Men Without Hats’ “The Safety Dance” sometime during the night. The upstairs lounge has a very '80s vibe, like something you would see on an old episode of Miami Vice; music videos from the heyday of MTV are played along with the music via a projector onto a wall. It’s almost impossible not to be dragged out onto the dance floor here since everyone is in such a good mood; if you really hate to dance, then play a few games on the vintage Atari video game system instead. (1424 Westheimer, etrolounge.com)
4. MAPLE LEAF PUB
The Maple Leaf Pub is the only place in Houston that shows all NHL hockey games all the time; husband-and-wife team Sean and Olivia Blair opened the place in 2006 after getting frustrated at not being able to find a cool place in town to watch their favorite hockey team, the Calgary Flames. In addition to a small penalty box just like you’d find at a hockey rink, hockey jerseys and signed memorabilia are on display; if hockey is not your thing, Maple Leaf is still a cool neighborhood bar with special events like Texas Hold 'Em Poker, a steak night and “gonzo” karaoke to keep you coming back. (514 Elgin, themapleleafpub.com)
3. VOODOO QUEEN
Brought to you by the team behind Moon Tower Inn, Voodoo Queen has a combination tiki bar/New Orleans theme and the look and feel of a dive bar, but the quality and creativity of its food and drinks far exceeds what you might find in most dives. Some of the drink names here are comical, like the Penus Coladus, Wench's Titty Punch and the Whale's Vagina a.k.a. the San Diego; obviously this place does not take itself too seriously. If you arrive hungry, try the “3 Big Ass Chicken Strips” or “The Dead Elvis,” which consists of lots of peanut butter, six bacon strips and two bananas, all griddled on Texas Toast and smothered in rum-raisin maple syrup. Check out the painting on the side of the bar of Marie Laveau, a.k.a. the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, holding a rooster while in a swamp, looking as if she's about to practice some magic. (322 Milby, facebook.com/pages/Voodoo-Queen)
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2. NEIL'S BAHR
Still recovering from the big crowds at their Comicpalooza afterparties that were held last weekend, Neil’s Bahr is ground zero for all things geek in Houston. With a library of comic books customers can browse and read for free, classic sci-fi movies and Simpsons reruns on the TV, vintage arcade consoles, a classic Nintendo system, and card and board games, there are always plenty of fun things to keep you occupied at Neil’s. On Monday nights, patrons have the added option of participating in "Geeks Who Drink" trivia starting at 8 p.m., and the competition is pretty fierce, since, as we all know from watching The Big Bang Theory, geeks are pretty smart. (2006 Walker, neils bahr.com)
1. LEI LOW BAR
Lei Low Tiki bar in The Heights provides a cool, calm atmosphere with tropical decor and elaborate rum-based mixed drinks that will make you feel like you're on vacation. Created by the staff, these drinks look like works of art and taste good, too, with colorful names to match like Polynesian Rainbow and Shipwrecked on Tiki Island. The owner says he has been fascinated with tiki bars since childhood, so he created a fantasy world of his own here. A small patio out back keeps the escapism going. The music played here includes exotica, Hawaiian and reggae; on some nights, a local musician plays Hawaiian lap steel guitar for your listening pleasure.
(6412 N. Main, leilowhtx.com)