The grand opening of White Oak Music Hall, Pegstar’s mighty new live-music fortress going up now on White Oak Bayou, is still months away. But Houston got its first, tantalizing taste of how the new construction might alter its Near Northside neighborhood — for better and for worse — last night. The ribbon was cut on the Raven Tower, a new bar and music venue opened in conjunction with W2 Development Partners next door to the much larger WOMH. Tuesday was the city’s first chance to grab a drink, examine the new spot and determine whether or not it might be suitable place to chill.
Houstonians have always loved a good grand opening, and the young and curious showed up in force to check out this new musical outpost. There was no cover charge, and parking was at a premium. There’s a lot between Raven Tower and the rising WOMH, but it was full by the time I arrived. Cars and trucks crammed into every available inch of street parking for blocks in each direction. There was no question where everyone was headed, either. Raven Tower seemed to be the only business open in the area.
Inside — sort of — Grand Old Grizzly was playing to a nice, big crowd of people. They were only sort of inside because Raven Tower’s main stage has been built inside of a warehouse with most of its walls cut away. A versatile space to be sure, it kind of had the feel of a covered basketball court in some suburban park. It was most definitely an outdoor stage, and on hot summer nights, it’s easy to imagine a pleasant breeze blowing through its big arches. In January, it was a little chilly. Nobody seemed to mind.
Around back, there was a full bar in full swing. Laid out in the style of a modern ice house — think Moon Tower Inn or D&T Drive Inn — it had all the upscale, outdoor drinking amenities people look for in this town: TVs playing sports, cornhole equipment, picnic tables and craft beer. There’s a small stage back there, too, and all of it overlooks the bayou. The 13th Floor Elevators were playing when I sidled up to the bar. It was packed, but well-staffed. The bartenders had plenty of room to bounce around from patron to patron back there. A St. Arnold Santo set me back $5. Two food trucks, La Macro and the Burger Joint, were on hand if I got hungry.
I briefly became deeply concerned about the line for the bathroom until I realized that people were actually queueing up for the Raven Tower itself — a strange, high-rise apartment that the site’s original owner must have custom-built for himself in the ‘70s. It was never designed for a crowd, and if there was a toilet up there, I didn’t see it. Accordingly, only small groups were allowed up there at a time. The interior of the tower, perched above a long, spiral staircase, was pretty damn swank, decorated with antique radios and offering a terrific view of the downtown skyline. It’ll be a great space for private parties. The roof was even better, offering tremendous open-air views of skyscrapers to the south, I-45 to the West, and a massive McDonald’s sign to the south. Doesn’t get much more Houston than that.
Things ran remarkably smoothly for a high-profile bar opening, but there were still a few points of concern. Parking was a big one. The Raven Tower probably won’t be quite so crowded on your average Tuesday night, but when it does fill up, there are going to be a lot of cars on those narrow neighborhood streets. The WOMH complex is on a bit of an island up there on the Near Northside, and I didn’t see anybody walking, biking or railing home. Parking seems as though it’s going to be an issue, especially when a big show is going down next door.
Then there’s the open-air nature of the place. Raven Tower’s design is putting a lot of faith in Houston’s weather. We have our share of beautiful days here, but there’s a possibility that the music shed could become miserably hot, wet, cold or stinky, depending on Chita’s forecast — and it’s awfully close to the banks of the bayou. With a big PA and no walls, the live music had to be cut at 10 p.m. on Tuesday due to sound ordinance. I imagine that hour will be midnight on the weekends, but Raven Tower is nearby to a lot of houses and apartments. Noise complaints could become common, depending on the residents’ attitudes about the whole thing.
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But hell, it’s nice to have something over there to complain about. The Raven Tower is probably the nicest, coolest joint on that side of town already, and WOMH is still just a steel skeleton. It’s going to be quite a compound on North Street once the big room opens up. Scene-changing. Neighborhood-changing. The Raven Tower will be a versatile little hangout right next door. Should be an equally fun place to watch a local band or the local football team. What sort of regulars will define the place — hipsters, musicians, sports fans, alcoholics or all of the above — remains to be seen.