Crafty Cocktails at Anvil Bar & Refuge

Anvil Bar & Refuge opened quietly last week, without fanfare.  It's fitting for a bar that prides itself less on pomp and fuss and more on the simple art of the cocktail.

The bar represents the life's work of 25-year-old Bobby Heugel, the former wunderkind bartender at Beaver's Ice House, and his crew of like-minded spirit aficionados. Anvil's focus lies almost exclusively in Prohibition-era cocktails made from scratch with homemade infusions; freshy-squeezed juices; fruits, vegetables and herbs from local farmers' markets; and hundreds of different liquors, some of which have never been available in Houston before.

Anvil also offers a compact selection of beers (primarily Belgians and microbrews) and limited-production wines.  Their kitchen, whose menu is being created by Dax McAnear (also formerly of Beaver's and currently at Textile), will feature cheeses from the Houston Dairymaids, house-cured meats and an array of other fresh savories.

I caught up with Bobby last week, just as the paper was coming down from Anvil's windows and sun streamed into the bar for the very first time since they'd signed the lease eight months ago.

Tell me a little bit about the space.

It used to be an old Firestone tire shop, dating back to the 1950s. It was kind of like this leftover retail space and so we kinda tried to open the whole space up so we would have a longer bar. We love long bars. It means more people get to sit at the bar. We want people to watch and see what's different about the cocktails and have that experience. We don't have cocktail waitresses; just bartenders. We try to come out and see people, but really we'd like people to order at the bar.

The items throughout the space are old, vintage items to some degree to mirror the cocktails. We tried to create a space where you have to interact with those items. I think in a lot of places, you see things that are old and vintage hanging up on walls. There's the footrail right here, which used to run from downtown Houston to Eagle Lake. You can even see the date on it from when it was forged: 1952.

The bar top is weathered steel. It's been treated with salt and acid and then sealed. The purse hooks are rail ties. The shelving came out of a store we used to work at when we were kids; it's just been sitting outside forever. Our glassware is vintage glassware that we found in thrift shops around Montrose. Those are two cooler doors over there from butcher shops. One came out of a ghost town in central Texas. The other we bought from an antique door dealer.

And so what happens is that you have to touch the stuff, you have to engage some element of history that you don't really have the chance to in other places. And I think that's what's kind of cool about what we did here.

Why is that important to you?

I think it's important because it reinforces the difference in our cocktails: That they come from an older time and that they come from an older style. We're really big on interaction. Again, having the longer bar...we don't want you to sit at the table and order something and have somebody bring something to you. We want you to order it, see how it's made, witness what goes into the cocktail so you have a better experience. It's not just about the taste. If people wanted to drink something good, they could just order a really nice wine or beer or they could have that at their house. I think that people come to bars to meet other people and talk to people and have an experience. So as much as we like the products that we put out, we like the experience just as much and so the space was really important for that.

You have to admit in a city like Houston, we're generally not as focused on our past or our history, so it's unusual for an establishment to put that much emphasis on it.

We're all from Houston. I love the city and I think everybody here really likes different elements of the city and everybody really loves this area of Houston.

So you were all born and raised here?

Yes. I actually grew up in Rosenberg, but I worked on Kirby and 59 at the piano store -- Brook Mays -- and me and Kevin worked over there together. We're all from Houston.

What encouraged you to get into an older style of cocktails? How did that come about?

It's a better way to do things, we think. Not to say that other bars aren't making good drinks or doing something that's quality. Prior to Prohibition, bartending was a respected profession. And when Prohibition happened, most bartenders went to Europe or they started bartending in speakeasys where they were seen as part of a criminal world.

I like bartending. It's something I've done for a really long time, and I think everybody here feels the same way. It's kind of nice to transform that into something a little more professional again. If you want to do fresh ingredients or if you want to use the proper spirits for cocktails, it really is taking you back to an older style because after Prohibition, there were some people doing that stuff but it kind of began to deteriorate. Older style really just is synonymous in cocktails with doing something that's higher quality with fresher ingredients and involves more consideration with balancing cocktails. And we think a cocktail should be spirit-forward, so it tastes like a drink.

I have to tell you, your Sazerac definitely tastes like a drink.

Yes, yes, and that's what it should taste like! But nowadays you see cocktails in ten ounce martini glasses and unless you want to serve somebody six ounces of alchohol, you can't make a drink taste the right way in that type of glass. It all kind of works together to create an expression of the way that we think bartending should be done.

I've noticed an emphasis on that in a couple of different establishments around town (i.e. Beaver's and Textile), and I think it's an interesting movement back towards quality and that it mirrors the food movement right now.

Yeah, it does mirror the food movement and you see that happening in certain places across the country: Seattle, San Francisco, New York, New Orleans, Chicago, Cleveland...and I guess it's time for Houston.

I think wine has done a lot in Houston to pave the way for us. It makes people look at bars in a manner that's more professional and more elevated and not just emphasizing intoxication, but emphasizing flavor and taste. I think we were able to come in on the tail end of that and do something that caters to those types of individuals.

How many years in the making has Anvil been?

I guess everybody dreams of opening a bar with their friends. Everybody thinks like that if they've ever worked in the industry or been remotely interested in the industry or food or cocktails or wine. For me, I guess, it started when I was getting my master's degree in Illinois and I was filling out my PhD applications and I hated the thought of going to school again. I'd been managing a bar sixty hours a week, teaching classes, getting my master's and I had worked so much that I was exhausted by the end of it all. It was a preview of what my life would be like in both worlds: Teaching and doing the school thing and also working in a bar. And I loved working in the bar, and I hated teaching and I hated going to school. And I thought, if it was that simple, why not just make the choice easier.

So me and Kevin [Floyd] started talking about it at that point. We met Morgan and Steve, who are our general partners here. Then we met Justin and Libby over at Beaver's and we just created a really great team that made it all happen. Everybody here has supported the project; we just have a bunch of cocktail fans, which is cool. A lot of people who decided to be a part of the project, it was their first time to do anything like this. We got really lucky and just had a lot of people who were excited about it.

I think what you put together at Beaver's was a nice preface, because it really got people interested in the concept and talking about it.

Yeah, that was a great way for us to start because Beaver's was so casual and unexpected. It created a situation where people would come in and order a drink, and we'd offer them something different. Very casual glassware -- we only had two types of glassware when I was there -- and I think that made people say, "Oh, okay. I'll try this." There was just no pretention to it at all and it worked in that concept and just paved the way for what we're doing here. And I like to think that we're not pretentious here, either. But it is a little more elevated and a little more true to the classic style of things.

Now, you're careful to mention that you don't want to be perceived as pretentious. Do you think that's a perception that people are drawing?

I think you have to be concerned about it. It's the first concept like this in Houston, and whenever you do something that's new and is slightly more quality-focused and elevated beyond what a basic gin and tonic would be -- I mean, we do in-house tonics and we have three other small-batch tonics for people to choose from -- when that happens, I think that people are quick to throw out terms like "pretentious."

But I don't think that really applies to us. I ask people to come in and sit at the bar and talk to us. We engage everybody the same way. There's no dress code here. I loved when I was working in bars and getting wet behind the bar and I smelled like beer because somebody blew a keg on me, to be able to go out to my favorite bar and I want the same thing here.

We do cap the occupancy at a certain point, but only so we can maintain the quality of the cocktails, and then it's one-in-one-out. There's no list, there's no people getting in before other people. I think we do a lot of things that actively fight against a pretentious element that you might find in other bars. It's just that our cocktails are a little more quality-focused and high-maintenance.

The occupancy in here, what is it?

We have sixty seats. And we'll let a few more in, but our occupancy is 85.

So, your fire code occupancy and what you perceive as the best occupancy are two different things?

Absolutely. And we have a lot of people behind the bar for so few seats.

Define "a lot of people."

We have four bartenders, two barbacks and a kitchen manager. That's seven people for sixty guests, which I think is just an unheard of ratio for Houston. You will never find that many people giving that much attention to the guests.

So tell me a little bit about the team you've put together.

Well, it's me and Kevin Floyd.  We've been best friends since we were 13 years old.  And then Justin Burrow, who left his job to help build this place for nothing; he helped us the whole time.  And then Libby Perkins, who did the same thing later on.  We worked with Libby at Beaver's.

How long have you been tending bar?

I've been tending bar since I was 18, and I'm 25.

You have to admit, this is a massive undertaking for someone as young as you are.

You just gotta do it.  We probably got in way over our heads.  And somehow, we managed to get a bar open.

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