The first problem I had with this drinking man’s guide was to get your macro-picture, to generate a universe of tips on joints. I know a lot of people who should have been able to help me with this—bar owners and bartenders and inveterate drunks—but for some reason the old memory retrieval system doesn’t work too well when it comes to bars. Barely three calls into my survey, I noticed that I was getting a lot of “Oh, yeah, there’s this place right outside Rockport… Damn, what was the name of it?” When they did remember, it was invariably a place I already knew about, one that was closed, or one that I knew didn’t fit my criteria.
I fretted over this for a while, and then one evening, deep in the throes of a self-pitying stupor, the answer suddenly dawned on me. Forget the bartenders and bar owners. Forget the inveterate drunks. You want the real skinny on bars? Go to the real authority. So I staggered over to the nearest pay phone and called my favorite state senator.
It worked like a charm. In 24 hours I had more tips than I could handle, not to mention a generous offer of assistance anytime I needed a drinking buddy. “Serving my constituents is what I’m all about,” he said. “This is off the record, isn’t it?”
Bars and objectivity have never gone well together. I’ve listed in no particular order the places I liked and the places I could remember. The criteria for what I call a bar bar are fundamental: no ferns and no froufrou, an adequate degree of darkness, stiff drinks, engaging bartenders, no-nonsense waitresses, and that most elusive quality of a great bar (see “ The Bar Bar, ” for more on this), the sense of not being there.
Marfreless, 2006 Peden. I knew this was a bar bar before I even entered. Two reasons: the place displayed no sign announcing itself, and it had that frequently ignored bar bar essential, a door door. No kidding. There’s just this door, like to someone’s office. Inside, it’s not dark, it’s subterranean. There’s a loft if you want to get semicozy and a room off the loft if you want to get paranoid. Nice group of regulars at the bar and passable drinks—though the place did serve a Scotch and water in a stemmed glass, which is troubling, and it did offer a two-for-one happy hour, which is unforgivable.
Kay’s, 2324 Bissonnet. Rice University beer bar with marvelous deco crapola and a daytime bartender who calls you neighbor. He also gives directions willingly and well—a must for a bar bartender. Arguably the best beer bar I visited.
Nick’s Fish Market, First City Tower, 1001 Fannin. Talk about unlikely locales. Nick’s is not only downtown in a big bank building that looks like a Ronson lighter, it’s also a restaurant. And as if that isn’t bad enough, it’s an expensive fish restaurant. Despite all that, it’s the best Manhattan-style lounge I found. It’s all corner booths and tiny, intimate cocktail tables, with a huge, snaking bar. All-male help wearing those waiter’s uniforms, and (get this) they pour everything—soda, juice, even water—from pitchers or bottles. It’s clearly a power bar, with lots of lawyers and pols, but Nick doesn’t take himself too seriously. Among other things, he’s got complimentary Visine in the men’s room. Nice touch. The place might seem stuffy, but don’t let that fool you: Nick’s is the real thing.
The Last Concert, 1403 Nance. This is a Mexican restaurant near the Elysian Street viaduct north of Buffalo Bayou. I bring it up for three reasons. First, a good friend of mine, who definitely knows her bar bars, drinks here. Second, it has one of the niftiest bars I’ve ever seen, a curved, multicolored, decobrick affair. Third, it has an interesting rest-room setup: two little cubicles out back across a courtyard, one labeled “Man’s,” the other “Ladies.” You figure it out.
Park Lane, 2010 W. Alabama. Best bar in the Montrose area. It’s a little too deco, but you still get that all-important feeling of being in someone’s living room. Last time I was there it had a great lady bartender and two guys playing power darts—meaning they threw the suckers as hard as they could and watched what happened. The couple next to me at the bar couldn’t remember the rules to backgammon—a good sign in several ways.
The Jockey Club, 4714 Richmond. I had a feeling this might be good when I saw where it was located—in a small strip shopping center at the intersection of Richmond and Loop 610; good bar bars tend to be located nowhere. Deluxe sports bar here, with big tube, ESPN, all the essentials. The thing that impressed me most was the rowdy table at 1 a.m.
The Remington Bar & Grill, 4608 Westheimer. Okay, it is a fern bar. Besides that, it’s a fern bar that has live jazz, munchies, and some other things that don’t have anything to do with a good bar. But it has great regulars in the afternoon, and at happy hour there’s a bartender so slick and so fast that he kept my ashtray clean, and that’s a little like trying to keep the floor of the big top clean at circus time.
The Backroom, Hyatt Regency, 1200 Louisiana. The Hyatt? You bet. Houston has a strong tradition of solid hotel bars, and this unpretentious little place just off the atrium on the main floor is no exception. Leave the Spindletop to the tourists; the Backroom (a) has a door door, (b) is dark enough to accommodate the lighting needs of, say, a sea cucumber, and (c) features the only workable variation on that silly two-for-one happy hour business: it serves the drinks, which are only moderately stiff, one at a time.
White Horse Cellar, 1211 Fannin. I knew that serious drinking must go on in this tattered old downtown steakhouse-bar the minute I saw