The Most Important Bars in Houston

The Hay Merchant

The Most Important Bars in Houston
The Most Important Bars in Houston


Houston is a city made up almost entirely of bars. You can walk down nearly any street with your eyes closed, throw a penny in the air, and hit a watering hole to have a drink in (a bizarre way to spend the day, but to each his own). We’ll save you the effort by narrowing the playing field to the most key players in the city’s beverage scene. With a lineup spanning classic dives and lovably sketchy icehouses, craft brewpubs and high-class drinkeries, these 16 Houston bars are worth saving up those pennies.

13 Celsius | VJ ARIZPE
13 Celsius (info and address)

This European-style enoteca, housed in a swanky '20s-era building, prides itself on storing wines at a temperature that you would never, ever guess by the name of the place. The extensive library of over 450 eclectic, global selections is curated and cared for by co-owner Mike Sammons and grape goddess Adele Corrigan, and offers drinks by the bottle, glass, half-glass, and taste. As if that’s not cool enough, damn fine charcuterie and bar snacks, wine-centric dinners, pop-up tastings and art installations, and a special list of Sunday bottles help raise your enjoyment levels that much higher.

Anvil Bar & Refuge | Julie Soefer Photography
Anvil Bar & Refuge (info and address)

Anvil will forever be the bar that changed how Houstonians drink. Many of its highly-skilled alums have gone to open some of the most exciting bars in town. The industrial refuge keeps things fresh with seasonal menus and a collection of house-made bitters, sodas, and infusions to round out the seriously heavy-handed drinks. Cocktail fiends won’t want to miss the alluring “100 list,” a bucket list of the bar’s take on iconic classics. Those looking for something a little extra should go for “The Brave,” made with Bobby Heugel-approved mezcal and blanco tequila -- plus amaro, spiced liqueur, bitters, and a flaming orange peel -- a daring and stiff-as-hell cocktail that is not for the timid.

Camerata at Paulie’s | Kirsten Gilliam
Camerata at Paulie's (info and address)

This wine bar has some serious pedigree in beverage director David Keck and restaurateur Paul Petronella, who value serving unusual wines without the pretense. The user-friendly "DAMNED WINE LIST" is broken down by flavor instead of origin, making it easier for EVEN YOU to find the perfect glass or bottle (though the staff is also well-equipped to assist). There’s also a nice selection of beers, ciders, salumis & cheeses, and even Lone Star tallboys, making it quite possibly the coolest wine bar ever.

Grand Prize Bar (info and address)

Museum District
Ample rooftop for smokers? Check. Pool table for losing some money? Check. Kickass jukebox for dirty dancing or just tapping your foot awkwardly while you stare at that hot girl across the bar? Check. All of the above make this gritty two-story bar a popular industry hangout, or a place to go if you’re just plain cool. Stiff, expertly-crafted cocktails are the poison of choice, but you’ll have just as easy a time finding cheap beer and shots, if you’re into that thing (and why wouldn't you be?).

La Carafe | Flickr/Sean Davis
La Carafe (info and address)

Housed in Downtown’s oldest building, this dark-and-dingy-in-a-good-way wine bar feels like a time warp to the 1800s. Candelabras and antiques line every nook and cranny, creating a sexy vibe along with the exposed brick, dim lighting, and intimate seating. If this place doesn’t help you get laid, we don’t know what will. Just make sure to bring cash, you’ll need it to pay for the classy selection of beer and wine that you’re about to house.

Little Woodrow’s (info and address)

Midtown (and multiple other locations)
If we told you there was a huge indoor/outdoor sports bar that held turtle races every Thursday night, all Summer long, and was known to shut down the entire street for block parties or whenever the guys over at Extreme Midget Wrestling came into town, and that despite all of that, it was still an incredibly chill hangout -- would you be interested? Okay, because all of this happens at the Midtown Little Woodrow’s. So does cheap beer by the pint and bucket, plenty of fun, and just general debauchery. Other locations, like the one on Shepherd, may not have the same patio, but they have just as much of the good stuff.

OKRA Charity Saloon | Julie Soefer
OKRA Charity Saloon (info and address)

Every proper gentlemen knows that drinking for a cause is the new drinking just for the hell of it. The first charity bar in town, this airy saloon with a speakeasy vibe donates 100% of its proceeds to one of four non-profit organizations each month. Every drink you buy earns you a vote -- so you should probably buy lots of drinks, right?

Petrol Station
Petrol Station (info and address)

Garden Oaks/Oak Forest
This no-frills watering hole was one of the first full-fledged craft beer bars in Houston, entering the scene way back in the harrowing days of 2007. But thanks to a solid rotation of interesting, hard-to-find brews, it remains one of today’s finest. Beer geeks flock to the converted gas station to fill up their tanks -- and by tanks we mean guts -- by the pint, or if they’re really getting after the day, by the growler. But be warned: no one’s looking to hold your hand here. You’ll have to make your way through the list of "Younglings," "Padawans," and "Jedis" all by yourself.

The Hay Merchant (info and address)

Brew aficionados flock to this Montrose wunderkind for beer done right... nay, done flawlessly, because Kevin Floyd, co-owner and CEO of all-things-barley, hand-selects the bar’s rotating list of 80 taps and five casks himself. Even your light beer-guzzling buddy will be turned on by the bar’s dynamic selection of fine-as-hell brews, broken down into categories like “Sociable & Refreshing,” “Hop-a-licious” and “Not for the Faint of Heart.” At the very least, he’ll be impressed to find out he likes crispy pig ears.

The Pastry War | Julie Soefer Photography
The Pastry War (info and address)

Agave is the name of the game at this Downtown mezcalería named after the French/Mexican conflict that began when… just look it up. Come for the most top-notch small-batch tequila and mezcal in town, as the bar pays serious attention to the spirits it houses, only selecting those from family-owned distilleries that heavy-hitters Bobby Heugel and Alba Huerta have personally visited. You’ll always find a crowd packed around the colorful, backlit bar, but it’s worth waiting your turn to get a taste of sneaky good cócteles and margaritas, nearly 20 different kinds of Mexican beer, and absolutely no pastries.

West Alabama Ice House (info and address)

You won’t find any beer snobs at this throwback to better days, just fellow Texans looking to take down a few cold ones. A strong roster of brews and a sprawling patio full of bikers, hipsters playing horseshoes, or just people getting drunk help to make sure you never want to leave. And considering what may be the best taco truck in the world is parked right next door, you’ll never need to.

Julep | Julie Soefer Photography
Julep (info and address)

This 2014 Southern charmer isn’t just one of the best cocktail bars in Houston; it also earned its stripes as one of the best cocktail bars in America. Bourbon boss Alba Huerta is constantly upping the game with a flourish of seasonal back-porch inspirations that read like a history book of the South. Housed in an industrial 1880s uniform factory, the bar's space is just as stunning as the lineup of refreshing juleps, bold Sazeracs, and hot & sour creole rums, with a gorgeous copper bar and sophisticated details that give you all kinds of feels.

Axelrad (info and address)

With a sea of hammocks and an eclectic collection of craft beers pulled from hand-carved taps housed inside a restored century-old building, it’s clear that Axelrad gets Houston, and Houston gets Axelrad. Hit the yard of the totally chill brew garden for good times, local suds, and slices and knots from the always trusty Luigi’s Pizzeria, which shares the yard and will bring the slices straight to your picnic table. Or to your hammock, if you can balance all that while Snapchatting.

Leon's Lounge
Leon's Lounge (info and address)

Good fortune has shone down upon us, because one of Houston’s oldest and most iconic dive bars has been brought back to life after shuttering to a public outcry in 2015. The new owners, which include Davenport’s Duane Bradley, have kept the character of the original by making only a few well-received structural changes. Who doesn’t like more open space and a stage for live lounge acts? Reacquaint yourself to an old friend through a nice lineup of American whiskeys and drink specials like the Citywide, in which you get the completely classy combination of a bottle of Lone Star and a shot of Jameson or Fireball.

Quy Tran/Canard
Canard (info and address)

Powerhouse craft cocktail queen Leslie Ross has been killing it as the beverage director for Treadsack, so it’s absolutely no surprise that her first very own concept is killing it as well. With only 50 or so seats, the vibe is intimate and lush, with French-smooched accents, and the tincture queen herself impresses with impossibly good concoctions, from a beautifully done Old Fashioned to seasonal drinks backed with Chartreuse, vermouths, ports, bubbly, and special touches like essential oils, delicate adornments, and house-made sodas. With neighbors like Treadsack’s Foreign Correspondents and the new coffee spot Morningstar, this newly developed strip is hands down one of the coolest destinations in the Heights.

Moving Sidewalk | Courtesy of Flickr/Moving Sidewalk
Moving Sidewalk (info and address)

Hand-carved ice, liquid nitrogen-chilled glassware, and homemade bitters and syrups are just a few of the delicious things at this cocktailery helmed by beverage director Alex Gregg. The program is constantly evolving with freakout-worthy cocktails, but all the cool kids know to start with the reliably great and perfectly poised house Old Fashioned. The drink comes complete with a hand-chiseled, crystal-clear cube of ice that adds just the right amount of chill.

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Brooke Viggiano is a Houston writer who thinks all bars are important ones, but has no problem ranking the best because she grew up in a time before participation awards. Find out more about her dated ways @BrookeViggiano

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1. 13 Celsius 3000 Caroline St, Houston, TX 77004 (Midtown)

When this bar took over this shambled Midtown spot in the mid-2000s, they opted not to polish it off in the style of other wine bars. Rather, they opted to keep its steely warehouse appearance and add a sleek white marble bar to class it up just enough. The 100+ wines, hand-selected from all over the world, are kept at 13 degrees celsius (hence ... well, you get it) in the cellar until you order a glass, bottle, or flight with your cheese plate or Italian panini sandwich.

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2. Anvil Bar & Refuge 1424 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77006 (Montrose)

This ever-evolving, cool-as-hell industrial Montrose space offers up expertly crafted, spirit-forward cocktails made with house-made sodas, infusions, liqueurs, and even flames. Make your way through the bar’s “100 list,” a refreshed library of classic drinks the barkeeps think everyone should try at least once in their lifetime. Speaking of the bartenders, all of them are highly trained and skilled, and many Anvil alums have gone on to open their own bars.

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3. Camerata at Paulie's 1830 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77098 (Montrose)

Named for social gathering chambers from the Italian Renaissance, Camerata in Montrose's Paulie's lives up to its name with a delightfully unpretentious, brick-and-black-leather bar, known for drawing friendly, laid-back crowds with its impressive drink and snack selection. Groups roll in at the end of night to lounge on comfy couches, share a plate of imported meats and cheeses while attempting to pick from more than 150 European wines, beers, and ciders.

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4. Grand Prize Bar 1010 Banks St, Houston, TX 77006 (Montrose)

This grungy two-story bar in the Museum District features rooftop access, a pool table, jukebox tunes and whatever sneakily strong drink is churning in the mixer at the moment. It's got a Jekyll and Hyde-like personality that’s half serious cocktailery, half low-key dive bar, and the happy hour deals are always great.

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5. La Carafe 813 Congress St, Houston, TX 77002 (Downtown)

Settled inside Houston's oldest building, La Carafe looks as if it's about to fall to pieces on the outside, but is rife wth history on the inside. Miraculously still level and smattered with antiqued photos and mementos, La Carafe's been close to shut down on the basis of broken fire codes many times since the '80s, but its jazz-bumping jukebox, impossible to imitate ambiance, and massive wine selection have kept it alive.

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6. Little Woodrow's 2019 Walker St, Houston, TX 77003 (Downtown)

Beer, beer, beer -- from light to dark and floral to bitter, you'll find 'em at the EaDo branch of this beloved Texas chain of bars. Rotating 35 taps of craft beers from Texas breweries and a lucky sampling of other states (and dozens of cans and bottles if you still can't find something up your alley), Little Woodrow's is the ultimate spot for a pint -- or two, or three, who's counting -- on game night with big flatscreen TVs, games like cornhole and (no joke) turtle races and a menu of quick bar bites.

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7. OKRA Charity Saloon 924 Congress St, Houston, TX 77002 (Downtown)

Named not for the beloved Southern side dish, but an acronym for "Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs," OKRA uses its simple American fare for the forces of good and not profit. When you order a classic cocktail and round of waffles fries or avocado fritters, you're gifted a a ticket (like the ones you get at the carnival) that grant you a vote. Every customer's vote deems which charity get all -- all -- of the restaurant's profits for the month.

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8. Petrol Station 985 Wakefield Dr, Houston, TX 77018

Petrol Station used to be exactly that: a gas station. Now, this refurbished counter-service spot is dishing up of the tastiest burgers in Houston. You'll also find a fantastic craft beer list that's divided into beginner, intermediate, and expert levels. Once you've made your burger and beer picks (a favorite is The Rancor, a 10-napkin burger topped with cheddar, smoked bacon, and a fried egg), you can enjoy your meal out on the patio.

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9. The Hay Merchant / Underbelly 1100 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77006 (Montrose)

A joint venture, The Hay Merchant and Underbelly operate separately but are attached via a butchering room that’s fit to hold a whole hog, a cow, and other large, meat-bearing animals. Hay Merchant, a craft beer bar, boasts 75 draft beers that range in style from cask-conditioned American porters to sour and funky wild ales. Underbelly, the more upscale of the two, is a restaurant and wine bar serving up juicy burgers and meats, like roasted pig’s head and smoked brisket. No matter how adventurous your palette, consider pairing your dish with one of the aged barleywines on tap.

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10. The Pastry War 310 Main St, Houston, TX 77002 (Downtown)

Seventeen Mexican beers join vintage tequila on the menu at this cantina, named after the French and Mexican war. While you won't find any pastries, you will find flavored agave spirits and spirits with worms, scorpions, or other insects. Strings of tea lights, colorful stained glass, and vibrant murals line the wood-paneled ceilings and walls and you'll always find a crowd packed around the colorful backlit bar.

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11. West Alabama Ice House 1919 W Alabama St, Houston, TX 77098 (Montrose)

To a non-native Houstonian, West Alabama Ice House doesn't look like all that much, given that it's just a covered bar and patio in West Montrose. But this iconic bar has seen Houston through history since 1928, when it operated as a literal ice house, just shilling the cold stuff to neighborhood homes. Now, of course, it's a regular haunt for Houston's most in-the-know, who come, humidity be damned, for a frosty Lone Star Beer, a taco from whatever truck is parked across the street, and some love from the regular influx of dogs that appear with their owners.

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12. Julep 1919 Washington Ave, Houston, TX 77007 (Washington)

Julep's got an old-school, punky Southern charm that's soaked in bourbon, just like you'll be after a few masterfully crafted cocktails and cold seafood dishes from former Pass & Provisions Chef Adam Garcia. Housed in an industrial 1880s uniform factory, the space features a gorgeous copper bar and a sophisticated back porch. There are masterful odes to the bar’s namesake drink, but the list runs on into a boozy Southern history book with classics born in the region and a seasonal lineup that plays with Southern inspirations.

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13. Axelrad Beer Garden 1517 Alabama St, Houston, TX 77004 (Midtown)

This is one of Houston's hidden gems -- like, really hidden -- a daytime drive past its storefront on Alabama would have you thinking it was an abandoned brick house that's more than likely haunted. But at night time, once the strings lights and heat lamps go on, the patio and back yard full of picnic tables and zany, colored hammocks really start to fill up, because this is without a doubt one of the best places in Midtown, no, Houston, to sample domestic craft beers and pizza from next door neighbors Luigi's.

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14. Leon's Lounge 1006 McGowen St, Houston, TX 77002 (Midtown)

Let the faux London telephone booth outside this Midtown joint's front door be a word of warning: Leon's Lounge delivers old-school English class and wealth in spades with luxe chandeliers and plush velvet seating. While the night's live music act plays anything from jazz to alt-rock in the back room, Houston's most stylish crowd around the bar for whiskey smashes and glasses of white to accompany their chicken curry- or beef-stuffed empanadas.

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15. Canard 4721 N Main St Ste B, Houston, TX 77009

Canard in Heights is the first concept from Treadsack’s bar director, Leslie Ross, so it should surprise exactly no one that it boasts an extensive lineup of incredible cocktails. The vibe is intimate, with only 50 or so seats, lush, French-smooched accents, and the tincture queen herself impressing with impossibly good concoctions, from a beautifully done Old Fashioned to seasonal drinks backed with chartreuse, vermouths, ports, bubbly, and special touches like essential oils, delicate adornments, and house-made sodas. With neighbors like Treadsack’s Foreign Correspondents and Morningstar, this newly developed strip is one of the coolest new destinations in the Heights.

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16. Moving Sidewalk 306 Main St, Houston, TX 77002 (Downtown)

The late Goro & Gun was transformed into this sexy cocktailery that flaunts liquid-nitrogen-chilled glassware and an "emotional beverage guide" for the indecisive. Are you happy and perhaps overly optimistic about your new lady friend? A French 75 should do the trick. Something on your mind? Looks like you’re taking a beer and a shot to get you out of your funk!