Houston has dozens of bars that are not also something else (restaurants, coffeehouses, etc.), just places designed for people to who want to shirk their responsibilities while someone else plots to take over the world at the next stool, and the couple at the table in the back is on their first date of a lifelong love affair. Or something like that.
As the year draws to a close, Rocks Off grew curious about which of this city's multitude of watering holes could really be called the best, so recently we asked our regular contributors (some 15 people in all) to give us the handful of places they most enjoyed spending a night out drinking. They didn't even have to tell us why, but these are the ten places whose names came up most often.
10. MOON TOWER INN Deep in the heart of Second Ward, Moon Tower Inn serves as a reminder that some of the best ideas are the simplest: What if someone served grade-A hotdogs alongside craft beer in a nonsense-free, unpretentious environment? And voila! You're welcome, Houston. Have a duck sausage in a pretzel bun drizzled in black-pepper ketchup, pair it with a local brew and enjoy the perfect come-down after a long day.
Or, since the patio seating is ample, bring a bunch friends and have yourself a lively evening. Either way, come hungry and thirsty, and you'll leave happy.
3004 Canal, 832-266-0105, facebook.com/bigweeniestyles
9. DARKHORSE TAVERN What's not to like about Darkhorse Tavern? I guarantee it's only ten minutes away from anywhere you are in the loop, with ample parking off the street. The staff is the perfect combination of friendly and cool, service is quick and drink pours are fair. The patrons are low-key and nonconfrontational, and don't look as though they all belong to the same club. The jukebox is stacked and eclectic, the patio out back is intimate and never overcrowded, and the dartboards are legit. Darkhorse is a great bar for meeting up or making a night of it.
2207 Washington, 713-426-2442, dhtavern.com
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8. UNDER THE VOLCANO With not one but two patios, which are perfect for downing the justly famous basil margaritas or frozen screwdrivers, Volcano also features a killer jukebox and live music Wednesday nights with some of the most compelling Gulf Coast talent going. (The reasonable cover charge is totally worth it.) And if for some reason you're indifferent to all that, Volcano also has a pretty legit steak night (Mondays) and unique Day of the Dead-inspired décor that's definitely worth a look or three.
2349 Bissonnet, 713-526-5282, facebook.com/underthevolcanohouston
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7. NOTSUOH Austin may try to sell you on some boring, played-out idea of what "weird" is. Blah. Downtown dive Notsuoh features some of the oddest décor in the world. From old blues records to strange dolls to antiques that look like they were pulled out of a curio shop from the 1860s, its atmosphere is unparalleled. Of course that wouldn't mean anything without great service, and luckily the bartending staff here is made up of some of the nicest people in the world.
On any given night you come in here, you're going to be exposed to music or other live entertainment that never fails to be something new and bizarre. Even if it's just playing over the speakers, you'll be jamming to an oddity. Notsuoh is hidden in plain sight but mostly ignored by the general public, which is the way we like it -- but feel free to wander in.
314 Main, 713-409-4750, notsuoh.com
6. LEON'S LOUNGE The line on Leon's is that no other Houston establishment has been continuously operating as a bar in the same place as Leon's, but oh how far it's come. Originally opened in 1947, Leon's retains some of its original postwar accents like the gorgeous stained-glass windows, but has been buffed to a high gloss since Under the Volcano owner Pete Mitchell bought and refurbished it a few years back.
Before then Leon's had slowly gone to seed along with its Midtown surroundings, becoming one of Houston's more beloved true dive bars in the process, but Mitchell's renovation did not come at the expense of the bar's character. Today both the patio and the menu have expanded (try the empanadas), the drinks are tastier than ever, and an all-vinyl policy is strictly enforced. More and more, Leon's feels like a perfect front porch -- a great spot to stop in before visiting one of its many neighbors, or just park yourself and watch Midtown come to you.
1006 McGowen, 713-659-5366, twitter.com/leonslounge
5. WEST ALABAMA ICE HOUSE There's a reason West Alabama Ice House has won the Houston Press' "Best Of" award year after year. It's part icehouse, part backyard BBQ, and an indispensable part of living in Montrose. On the massive back patio, which comes complete with picnic benches and pickup basketball games, there's plenty to keep you occupied while downing some seriously cold beer. You can even bring ol' Rover along to keep you company. Really, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more chill vibe anywhere else in Houston.
1919 W. Alabama, 713-528-6874
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4. D&T DRIVE INN Tucked away in a tiny corner of north Houston, just out of reach of Montrose and the Heights, lies recently refurbished icehouse D&T Drive Inn. While the name and the building have been around since the late '50s, D&T reopened its doors just last summer. Its main feature is the bar itself, made from a giant oak tree cut down during the rebuilding process, set in a narrow room and housing a vast selection of local, regional and national craft beers.
The back patio is the main seating area, a great place to go for a quiet afternoon conversation or to start a night out with a big group of friends. As soon as you enter, the service is nothing but a smile, which translates to the crowd and lends a rather relaxed vibe to the place.
1307 Enid, 713-868-6165, treadsack.com/dtdriveinn/
3. POISON GIRL There's a reason Poison Girl is a perennial favorite and one of the most successful dives in Montrose: it has everything an old-school drinking bar needs and not much else. Start with ice-cold $2 Lone Star longnecks -- all the time -- add some 260 bottles of American whiskeys at rock-bottom prices and don't stop until you reach the top shelf where, staring down like Confederate generals, sits the entire lineup of Old Rip van Winkle whiskeys (the expensive stuff).
The cocktails are Anvil-quality but half the price, happy-hour pints of Texas craft beer go for a measly $2.50, and a wall of pinball machines accents the décor of little more than deliciously average nude paintings. The bartenders brook no bullshit, and a great mix of old country, punk, soul, R&B, and post-punk sprinkled with Houston stalwarts like Horseshoe and the Hollisters plays through speakers especially designed for the room; As for the crowd, an eclectic assortment of bohemians mixes with young professionals of all stripes, but trash-talk Houston and you'll probably hear a chorus of "Fuck you, Houston's awesome."
1641 Westheimer, 713-527-9929, twitter.com/poisongirlbar
2. BIG TOP LOUNGE Why run away and join the circus when you can just spend an evening there? Long, long ago, the Big Top was a toy shop, and that whimsical atmosphere has been preserved in the Continental Club's cozier younger sibling. Sadly you can't play with the toys behind the bar, but with the friendly, efficient service and comfy seating you won't need to; the potent cocktails are plenty entertaining all by themselves.
As well-lit as your average cave or coal mine, the Big Top makes an ideal date spot, particularly if the two of you enjoy live music. There's never a cover for '70s soft-rock piano/guitar duo Peter & James (try playing "stump the band") Wednesdays, Nick Gaitan's Tex-Mex boogie-soul outfit the Umbrella Man Thursdays, the monthly obscure-R&B dance riot A Fistful of Soul, or the weekend assortment of rootsy locals such as Mitch Jacobs and Allison Fisher.
3714 Main, 713-529-9666, bigtoplounge.com
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1. MONGOOSE VS. COBRA The perfect bar in Houston can be hard to find. As much as you may love that dive or sports bar, sometimes you want a joint that's a bit classier but still friendly and welcoming. Oh, and a large selection of draft beer and cocktails is so, so necessary. Enter the interestingly named Mongoose versus Cobra.
As you sit at the bar, you're fascinated by the futuristic KeyKeg system that houses the more than 40 beers on offer. Bring a friend and enjoy the utterly delicious pretzel that's the size of a small life preserver, served with a side of homemade mustard. Above all, the atmosphere of the place is nice but not uppity, comfortable without sacrificing service. Cheers!
1011 McGowen, 713-650-6872, mongooseversuscobra.com
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