Local Spotlight

How Houston Cooks: Anvil Bar & Refuge Mixes Things Up

Every other week, we'll be bringing you videos that take a behind-the-scenes look at restaurants, breweries, marketplaces, bars and any other spots that define Houston food and drink. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

"We're gonna find the drink that's right for you," Anvil general manager Terry Williams says confidently. With more than 100 drinks on the menu, his certainty probably isn't misguided.

Since it opened in 2009, Anvil has set the standard in Houston for craft cocktails. Now that it has been open for five years, Anvil sometimes draws the ire of readers who complain that local publications focus too much on the innovative craft cocktail bar. Houstonians claim to be tired of reading about it, calling the bar old news. But the fact is the place is packed every night, because in the five years since it introduced Houston to a new way of drinking, Anvil's high standards have remained intact.

When Anvil opened, the owner, Bobby Heugel, was instantly on everyone's radar. He was doing something that New Yorkers and folks in other, potentially more hip cities had been doing for a while--making Prohibition-era cocktails from quality ingredients infused with history.

The focus on quality ingredients (which leads, of course, to higher prices) has led some to call Anvil pretentious, but hang out there on a weeknight and chat with a bartender, and you'll find that though the cocktails are carefully crafted, the mood is just like any other neighborhood bar.

Heugel addressed this in an interview with Katharine Shilcutt in 2009, saying: "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.'"

Houstonians have gotten accustomed to the Anvil-style bar since then, and the whole Houston bar scene has become richer because of it. Subpar ingredients and a severely limited cocktail menu of club staples are no longer the norm at most bars in Houston, who now seem to compete for who has the most unique, artisan drinks. Mongoose versus Cobra now makes its own tonic water, as do all the Cordúa restaurants. The hip, new bars popping up on Main Street near Market Square owe a debt of gratitude to Anvil in more ways than mere concept--many of the people who own or operate those bars are former Anvil employees.

So if it's been a while since you checked out Anvil, we suggest you revisit it. Find Williams and tell him you want a drink. Chances are he'll have the perfect poison.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kaitlin Steinberg