Houston’s original city center is benefiting from a renewed liveliness thanks to a rolling influx of bars and restaurants near Market Square Park, a community-minded micro-oasis that got its own face-lift in 2010. Though hardly the first, the current revival—which I’ve written about for the December 2013 issue—seems poised to stick. As I discovered, it’s a fine place to find a good drink, have a picnic in the park, or otherwise enjoy urban life inside the Loop. Here are a few of my favorites to give you a head start on your own visit.
SEE + DO
Buffalo Bayou “Looking Back” History Tour // Local historian and author Louis Aulbach will serve as your narrator on this 90-minute cruise along Buffalo Bayou. As he points out nineteenth-century pilings and crumbling warehouses, you’ll begin to appreciate the Allen brothers’ ambitious foresight in 1836 to buy up more than six thousand surrounding acres and build up a great capital city. I managed to snag a spot on the pontoon boat just a day in advance, but luck was on my side. Don’t risk it: Call or email in advance for reservations. Also available: Second Saturday boat rides, twilight tours, and bat tours, as well as tours by kayak, bus, Segway, and foot. 713-752-0314, ext 4; [email protected].
Market Square Park // Now a 1.43-acre micro-oasis with red-brick paths, a crescent-shaped dog run, a Niko Niko’s Greek restaurant, and art installations, this humble patch was Houston’s original city center back in the mid-1800’s, the eventual home to four city hall buildings and then a parking lot. Since undergoing a major face-lift in 2010, it’s become a gathering spot for downtown dwellers, commuters, and visitors, and now hosts movie nights, concerts, festivals, and monthly Blanket Bingo. 301 Milam, 713-223-2003.
EAT + DRINK
Bitterman’s Market Square Grill // A not-new kid on the block, this neighborhood bar and grill is of the mindset that “it’s every Texan’s right to hold a burger in one hand and a beer in the other.” My shrimp po’boy was fried-to-order and football was on the TV, so I felt right at home chatting with my fellow late-lunchers at the long bar one Saturday afternoon. The patio out back looked like a prime resting spot too. 311 Travis, 713-224-6133.
La Carafe // Housed in what is considered the oldest commercial building in Houston, this may be the city’s best loved bar. The two-story structure (it dates to the 1860’s) is narrow, candle-lit, and has a distinctive slant, and the bartenders still use the 1914 brass push-button cash register (it’s cash only). As one longtime fan put it, “You gotta love a place that has Edith Piaf on the jukebox.” 813 Congress Ave, 713-229-9399.
The Original OKRA Charity Saloon // Largely credited with helping (re)reinvigorate Market Square’s social scene when it opened in December 2012, the Charity Saloon is run by a coterie of competitors, including the Houstonians behind such beloved Montrose spots as Anvil, Poison Girl, and Paulie’s. Another twist: Every drink buys you a vote for a local charity. At the end of the month, the charity with the most votes gets all of the next month’s proceeds. 924 Congress Ave, 713-237-8828.
The Pastry War // An 1838 conflict between Mexico and France inspired the name of this mezcaleria. A shopping spree in San Miguel de Allende is responsible for most of the colorful Día de los Muertos décor. And Bobby Heugel and Alba Huerta, of Anvil renown, are behind the extensive but focused menu: More than fifty agave spirits are listed (pace yourself with ¾-ounce and 1.5-ounce pours), as are margaritas made with fresh-squeezed Persian and key limes, and homemade tepache (a beverage made from fermented pineapple skins). 310 Main, @ThePastryWar.
Warren’s Inn // Like its sister bar, La Carafe (both are owned by Carolyn Wenglar, downtown Houston’s septuagenarian matriarch), this perfectly underlit dive is open 365 days and is known for its generous pours and jukebox selections (Morrissey to Muddy Waters). Ask to see the framed photo of the original Warren’s, which opened across the street in 1978; with its gilded mirrors and opulent chandeliers, it’s no wonder Liberace was once a fan. 307 Travis, 713-247-9207.
Plus . . .
Captain Foxheart’s Bad News Bar and Spirit Lounge // A second-story speakeasy with an unmarked entrance.
Little Dipper // The newest chill hangout from the folks behind Poison Girl, Antidote, and Black Hole.
Notsuoh // Opened as a counterculture coffee shop in 1996 and morphed into a bohemian bar a decade later.
Treebeards // Has been serving laissez-faire Southern lunches on Market Square since 1978.
Hotel Icon // Built in 1911 as the Union National Bank, this twelve-story neoclassical building with the red awnings has been a hotel since 2004, but a $5 million renovation in 2012 has kept things fresh, including the urban cowboy–themed Line & Lariat restaurant on the ground floor. 220 Main, 800-627-7468.
BEFORE YOU GO
Read David Theis’s 2010 article “Back To The Future”; Ephemeral City: Cite Looks At Houston, an anthology of articles from the Rice Design Alliance’s journal; and local historian Louis Albach’s Buffalo Bayou: An Echo of Houston’s Wilderness Beginnings. And from the Texas Monthly archives: “This Is Texas,” in which John Nova Lomax argues that Houston should be Texas’s rightful capital city, and “The Accidental City,” Michael Ennis’s review of Ephemeral City.
Download The Historic District and Market Square Park pocket map.
Bookmark MarketSquarePark.com to check the park’s events calendar and read more about the artworks on view.
Follow @downtownHouston (on Instagram).
Watch The Gulf Coast Food Project’s short documentary “Glass Half Full,” which tells the story of the Original OKRA Charity Saloon, Houston’s first charity bar.
Pack A picnic blanket and/or lawn chairs for Blanket Bingo and other events in Market Square Park.