There are distinct advantages to drinking in hotel bars, even at hotels in the city where you live. There is always wi-fi available. The bartender doesn't care if you nurse or linger over your drink; most people are just biding time between meetings or flights anyway. You'll meet interesting people from all over the world, especially at the larger or posher bars in town. And you'll never encounter hordes of young twentysomethings doing Red Bull bombs or shots of Jäger to the throbbing sounds of Pitbull over the speakers.
Hotel bars are one of the last sane refuges of the civilized adult imbiber. In fact, the only real shame to drinking in a hotel bar in your hometown is if you're drinking alone -- that's a right reserved for travelers. Go drink alone at the Lone Star Saloon like a proper Houstonian and bring a friend with you to have a classy cocktail when you head out to a hotel bar. (Bonus: It's also an impressive option for a date.)
Until very recently, I was only a regular at a small handful of Houston hotel bars: Line & Lariat -- which used to be Voice -- in the Hotel Icon, where the Manhattans have always been top-notch. And the Monarch at Hotel ZaZa, where you can have a dignified yet laid-back lunch or drinks right across the street from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
Yesterday, however, I decided to familiarize myself with a dozen more Houston hotel bars after being given this assignment -- I can't very well write about bars I've never set foot inside of, after all. So I packed a bunch of dollar bills for the valets and headed out to visit some of the city's finest hotel bars. Nearly 11 hours later, far poorer than when I started out, and down at least one-fifth of my liver, here's how the list of Top 10 hotel bars shook out.
10. Hilton Americas
Hours: 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday, noon to 2 a.m. Sunday Valet: $30 (you can find parking downtown for free after 6 p.m. and all day on Sundays)
The big draw of the bar in the lobby of the massive Hilton Americas is evident from the moment you walk in: a massive, gold-and-blue topographical map of the world that is hard to tear your eyes away from, even as you drink. True to most lobby bars, there's plenty of diverse, comfortable seating in the form of couches, chairs and barstools. The long bar itself is well-stocked, and it's an impressive spot to meet for a drink or catch up on e-mails over a beer downtown.
Unfortunately, the service can be lukewarm, and most of the cocktails are pretty dire. I'd advise sticking with a beer or glass of wine here, as even the pours of neat liquor -- seriously, stay away from the cocktails -- are minuscule and heavily overpriced. You're better off heading to Spencer's for Steaks and Chops right down the hallway.
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to midnight Happy hour: Valet: Free with validation
In its cheery, modern tones of red, white and black, the Vin Bar at this Galleria-area hotel is more than welcoming. There's a big, horseshoe-shaped bar that more or less encourages discussion among your fellow barmates and a kind, keen bartender or two to keep you in beer or wine while you're there. I would, however, advise sticking only to beer or wine, even if the beer selection is your standard Silver Eagle starter kit stuff, as the cocktails here lean to the saccharine side. (On the other hand, if you're a young thing out on the town for the night, they're probably perfect. Go forth and woo.)
The best thing about Vin Bar isn't the attentive service or the inviting atmosphere, however. It's being able to get chef Cunninghame West's food from the neighboring Valentino restaurant at the bar. The dinner and tapas menu is served from 4:30 to 10 p.m. every day, but you can get lunch and bar bites all day long.
Hours: 4 p.m. to midnight Happy hour: 4 to 7 p.m. Valet: Free with validation
This is the newest hotel bar on the list, although the 024 rebranding is simply a takeover of the lounge's previous incarnation. I prefer this new bar, though, with its clean Miami Beach color palette and tall, airy ceilings. A cerulean blue water feature takes up the entire rear wall, making 024 Lounge seem miles away from the traffic-ridden intersection it occupies in the ground floor of the Westin at Gessner and I-10.
True to Westin's spirit, the service here is absolutely impeccable and classic cocktails abound on the menu. However, many of the other drinks are on the sweet side and the beer selection is downright depressing. 024 Lounge goes from calm and relaxing before sunset to downright sultry at night.
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight, Monday through Friday, noon to 2 a.m. Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. Sunday Happy hour: 4 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday Valet: Free with validation (or you can park for free downtown after 6 p.m. and all day on Sundays)
Everything about the Sam Bar just feels like an authentic hotel bar of old, minus the fancy new crystals that are hanging from the ceiling and the recently reupholstered lounge chairs (something about the slightly grizzled bar had to match the swanky, colorful Alden Hotel in which it's housed). It even serves great old classic cocktails like the Pegu Club, as well as a very good selection of beer (local craft brews and otherwise).
It also plays the most depressing music known to man, a blend of the types of mournful '60s and '70s songs you listen to with gun in hand, weeping as you mount the barrel to your temple. If you're in the mood to drown your sorrows with a friend (or alone, I guess), this is absolutely the place to do it. You can drown them even harder in a creamy bowl of Sam Bar's macaroni and cheese. But if you're looking for a livelier experience, ask the bartender to kindly change the mix or just pull up a chair outside on the busy street -- you'll feel like you're living it up in a truly vibrant downtown setting.
Hours: 4 p.m to midnight Sunday through Thursday, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday through Saturday Valet: Free with validation (the parking garage at CityCentre is also free and handy)
Although it's smack dab in the middle of the suburbs, the Monnalisa feels immediately urban and sophisticated. Part of that is the cavernous, well-appointed bar itself that's centered around a massive fire pit and lined with semiprivate seating areas, all of which are supplied by a surprisingly excellent selection of beers (in bottle and on draft), wines and booze at the main bar. And part of that feel is the diverse blend of guests it draws at night -- true to the Energy Corridor setting, you won't find an all-white country club crowd here.
On the weekends, the Monnalisa flings open its heavy wrought-iron doors to the cabana-lined pool of the Hotel Sorella, which overlooks the green lawn and busy shopping promenade of CityCentre below. This is when the Monnalisa really shines (and, coincidentally, when you can find sopping wet women in bikinis sidling up to the bar for a drink), especially if you're into a more South Beach vibe in your hotel bars. More dignified drinking can be accomplished during the week, of course, when the bar features great live music from the likes of David Beebe and Yvonne Washington.
Hours: 2 p.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday; 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday though Saturday Valet: Free with validation
Although it's not subterranean (this is Houston, after all), the lack of windows and the low, wood-beamed ceilings inside the St. Regis's gorgeous bar make it seem as if you're in an underground tavern in New York City. And true to its name, the Remington does feature a Remington bronze right in the middle of the green marble and mahogany bar. But other than that sculpture and a few Western-themed drinks such as the St. Germain-and-gin-based Western Dreams, this beautiful space is pure NYC elegance.
I challenge you to remember you're still in Houston after enjoying a few Manhattans on one of the plush leather stools while taking in the stunning art that drips off the walls all around you (and at this ultra-posh Galleria-area hotel, it's the real stuff -- no prints here). Remember what I said about impressing a date? This is the place to do it. The valet even offers you bottles of water while you wait for your car to be brought back around.
Hours: 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Saturday through Sunday Happy hour: 5 to 7 p.m. Valet: Free with validation (or you can park for free downtown after 6 p.m. and all day on Sundays)
There are no signs pointing you to the bar in this downtown boutique hotel. You have to take the elevators to the second floor, which makes it feel like a bit of a hidden gem. Once upstairs, you're greeted with a plush yet modern industrial space that has an expanse of comfortable seating tucked under low ceilings.
The main bar is a bright swoop of white across one whole side of the room and offers an array of house-specialty cocktails that range from sweet and silly (homemade cocoa with marshmallow-flavored vodka) to studied and serious (Tiger's Tears, with Don Julio blanco, Chandon Brut and orange bitters). Prices aren't listed on the menu -- a minus -- but they're reasonable anyway: A glass of neat Bulleit Rye and a Shiner Bock only cost $14.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Happy hour: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday Valet: Free with validation
Do you remember what the old Warwick Hotel looked like? Nothing like the ultra-chic, fiercely fabulous Hotel ZaZa, that's for certain. The remodel extends into the Monarch Restaurant and Lounge, where the hotel's signature sleek black color scheme makes for what it calls a "sensual and dignified" experience. The Monarch isn't always sensual or dignified -- especially during its raucous Sunday Funday brunches -- but it's always fun.
The bar itself is long and comfortable, although men looking for sporting events on the flat-screen TVs will be disappointed; they usually show a loop of various runway shows, in keeping with the ZaZa's fashion/couture theme. The beer list is average, but the ample selection of wines by the glass is well-priced. Liquor by itself is a bit pricey, but the cocktails are on point -- and there's something for everyone, whether it be a classic Vesper or a Skinny Berry Mojito for those on a diet. Chef Adam West's lovely food is available at the bar all day and the bar bites, like the ahi tuna tower and the fancy grilled ham and cheese, provide the same diversity as the cocktails do.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Valet: Free with validation (or you can park for free downtown after 6 p.m. and all day on Sundays)
Although I'm not completely in love with the new remodel here (gone are the sweeping floor-to-ceiling curtains that made the Hotel Icon's lobby so lush, and in their place are tacky Texas flag-covered chairs in certain areas), I'm still as in love with Line & Lariat's bar as ever -- and the Hotel Icon still has one of the prettiest dining rooms in town. The big central bar tower is surrounded by a nearly full circle of seating at a softly glowing bar, which draws guests to it like moths to a flame. And once you've sat down, you don't want to leave.
The service here is always friendly and accommodating and -- more importantly -- they make a mean cocktail. Its "Iconic Manhattan" series is a fun, refreshing twist on the old standby, with special blends that include Rittenhouse rye with campari or Weller 107 with rosato vermouth and rhubarb bitters. Its beers include plenty of Texas brews and its wine list features nearly 20 selections by the glass. And the food -- oh, the food. Chef David Luna creates amazing bar bites and full dinners that you can eat at the bar, including my personal favorite: a Karbach Sympathy for the Lager-braised wild boar tostada topped with avocado, pico de gallo, crema and queso fresco.
Hours: 5 p.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday through Saturday Happy hour: 4 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday Valet: $4 with validation (or you can park for free downtown after 6 p.m. and all day on Sundays)
Welcome to adulthood. Step right this way. No paper BevNaps here, just impeccably ironed cloth napkins and cloth coasters. No cocktail waitresses in low-cut blouses, just highly trained and professional servers tending to your every need. No cheesy cocktails with Red Bull or whipped cream-flavored vodka, just a massive whiskey selection and a definitively good wine list. This is the Four Seasons, after all.
But if you're expecting the plush lobby bar at the Four Seasons to be prohibitively expensive, think again. Bar bites like crabcakes, crispy Southwestern eggrolls and pulled pork sliders are only $5. Excellent draft beer like the hard-to-come-by Lazy Magnolia Deep South Pale Ale is only $6. And a flight of whiskey -- you read that right: a flight of whiskey -- starts at $13 and features very generous pours of three different bourbons, Scotches, Irish whiskys and more, depending on the flight you've ordered. And on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings, look for terrific live music from local artists such as Ira Perez and Adam & Sanjay.
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Sure, the valet parking costs you $4 -- but it's a small price for sitting in the lap of luxury for an evening and paying what you would at any other bar in town. Plus, they'll deliver your car right back to you at the end of the night, no walking necessary.