Food & Drink

The Most Underrated Bars in Houston, According to Local Bartenders

Published On 01/12/2017 Published On 01/12/2017
underrated bars in houston, according to bartenders
Houston Watch Co. | Ashley McLaughlin
Marco Gutierrez

Rosewater

Clear Lake

Picked by: Kristine Nguyen, Captain Foxheart’s Bad News Bar & Spirits Lodge

“I've been bartending at Bad News Bar for almost two years now. I'm usually behind the bar here, but if I'm not, you can find me at Rosewater. It's a bit of a trip, but well worth the drive. It's a great cocktail bar located in a shopping center down in Clear Lake with one of the better, well curated back bars. For the space they have, they work the bejesus out of it. The bartenders there are genuine and humble, which I can appreciate. The owner is also usually in, and it's fun to pick his brain when it comes to whiskey, or anything new he's picked up. It's refreshing to be in a bar, in the suburbs, that can balance making drinks that can compete with bars in the city, but also fit the clientele they have there.”

Favorite feature/drink: “I really enjoy what they're bringing to that part of Houston, and the fact that they're very open to having conversations and educating the guests they have there. You can catch me dancing in my seat to their kickass playlist on Martini Mondays, and any day really. Maybe with a little help from their barrel of Cask Strength Brandy from Copper & Kings, too.”

Joy Zhang

Ninja Ramen

Washington

Picked by: Sarah Troxell, Nobie's

“Besides being primarily a ramen spot, it easily gets lost in the slew of bars that run along Washington Ave. Most people don't realize they have a great back-bar. Not only do they have a good range of standard spirits, they have an insane Japanese whiskey selection, plus all of the fernets.”

Favorite feature/drink: “The Ninja Ramen cocktail menu is full of jokes, inventive ingredients, and whimsical flavor combinations. Sarah Ip, one of Ninja's bartenders, makes a perfectly balanced Plantation Pineapple daiquiri, and it is all I crave with my bowl of noodles after a busy night at work.”

Ashley McLaughlin

Houston Watch Co.

Downtown

Picked by: Justin Ware, Johnny's Gold Brick

“I think Houston Watch Co. is underrated because of the historical significance of the name and building. The space was originally a jewelry store and was reopened as a bar. The interior is one of my favorite in the city. The building has safes that could not be removed during construction and make for great decorative pieces.”

Favorite feature/drink: “The back bar has a solid selection of spirits and beers. Cocktails are great and bar staff always friendly to me. Great little place to feel like part of history while enjoying a nice drink.”

Under the Volcano

Rice Village

Picked by: Robin Berwick, Double Trouble Caffeine & Cocktails

Berwick loves the “laid-back vibe with terrific covered patios to soak up and/or seek cover from Houston's alternating bright sun and frequent downpours” and the fact that there are “lots of corner tables to disappear into for an intimate conversation but also plenty of room to dance (or watch the people who are more gifted in that department) on the nights when live bands play in the main room.” The “friendly bartenders with skills, patience, smiles and quality booze, fresh citrus juice, and cold beer behind the bar,” help matters, too.

Favorite feature/drink: “Margaritas are always perfectly tart and strong. My favorite time to visit is mid-afternoon, on a hot day, before the bands begin and when the jukebox is all mine! I get a margarita with half-salt rim and request a little bowl of their homemade mystery curry bar snack mix. Shout out to Pete and 'G' (Geneva). Volcano rules!”

Lei Low Bar

Lei Low

Heights

Picked by: Chris Morris, Hunky-Dory Tavern

“It's just a fun bar, and we just kind of take it for granted. Like, it's impossible to NOT have fun there. They've got friendly, talented bartenders, great (and strong) drinks, and a huge selection of rum. What's not to love?”

Favorite feature/drink: “Almost nothing beats a classic Mai Tai. Or going (read: Ubering) with a group of friends for a Scorpion Bowl.”

Chris' runner-up: Ninja Ramen

“If parking on Washington wasn't its own circle of hell, we'd been talking a lot more about this spot. It's got a killer ambience, and you won't meet a more genuine guy than Chris Huang. Dude is an absolute nutjob in all the right ways. So many great bartenders are alumni of this spot, and no one really talks about it. Not to mention their Asian whisky selection is top notch.”

Favorite feature/drink: “Spicy ramen with extra egg and pork belly, paired with an ice cold Sapporo.”

Char Bar

Downtown

Picked by: Chieko and Robby Cook, Barringer Bar

“A few of our favorite underrated bars are Char Bar (Downtown) and Nick's Sports Bar (Wilcrest outside the Beltway). Both of these bars are family owned (like us!), no pretense, and [have] fantastic people watching! These 'hole in the wall' type bars are the places that you will find us on our days off getting some much needed R&R.”

Favorite feature/drink: “No features, no special drinks, just a bar!”

Flickr/bruthanick

Grand Prize Bar

Museum District

Picked by: Mo Rahman, Kata Robata

“Not only for its location (hidden on a side street in the Museum District) or that it is an old converted house in an otherwise calm neighborhood or that it is great for people watching and well, last but not least, for the people slinging drinks behind the bar. Grand Prize is perfect for that much needed drink after a long 8-hour arduous shift. The vibe is usually a calm undercurrent during the week and picks up to a gushing roar during the weekends. The crowd, a hodgepodge of denizens of Houston ranging from hipsters to grunge metal enthusiast and everything in between. The dark decor is quite inviting with two patios and an upstairs bar that can be used for a bit of privacy on the weekdays and conversely a more partyish vibe on the weekends.”

Favorite feature/drink: “You can opt for a Lone Star and Jameson, make a selection from their ever evolving cocktail menu or in my case, put your trust in the whimsy of the bartender and let them serve you something they fancy at the moment. Also they have a small kitchen in the back, usually hosting an eclectic circle of chefs and bakers who offer their goods to hunger stricken patrons.”

Sam Davenport

Poison Girl

Montrose

Picked by: Jay Rios (J.R.), The Khaki Club at Ouisie’s Table

“They have a great extended happy hour that lasts till 7pm with drinks below $3. You just can’t get drinks at that low of a price at any of the other surrounding bars. They also have a great whiskey selection and knowledgeable bartenders who can educate you on what’s behind them on the wall (wall of whiskey).”

Favorite feature/drink: “There is no particular signature drink I like there. If anything I like to try something different every time I go. My favorite feature of the bar is the Jurassic Park pinball machine. They keep plenty of quarters up at the bar to break dollar bills so I can keep playing for hours.”

Double Trouble Caffeine & Cocktails

Midtown

Picked by: Jamie Garza, Part & Parcel

“Double Trouble is one of those bars that has no fancy sound system, no spinning DJ or people crowding the bar screaming for a drink. Just two bartenders and bar back running the place and tunes coming from an old stereo system. It has a great Tiki vibe and as soon as you walk in the doors you are overwhelmingly hit in the face with the smell of fresh ground coffee! The staff is always friendly and always willing to take the time to make you a great cocktail or help you figure out something for you to drink. They have a good selection of craft beer, most of which are in a can, which is fine by me. You do not get that pretentious crowd or "mixologist,"  just a friendly bar staff that makes some damn good cocktails/drinks. Chris, one of the bartenders, is a true master at crafting cocktails and handing out smiles, a true artist.”

Favorite feature/drink: “Chris makes a mean Fernet Branca and Mexican Coke. The smell of fresh ground coffee is great pick me up with the smooth tunes flowing from the old stereo system.”

Jamie's runner-up: The Dog House Tavern

“Dog House Tavern is one of those places where you can go and always feel welcome. The bar is always filled with regulars, it is like Cheers where everyone knows your name. You can always find the same people there any day of the week. This bar is located in the middle of the bro/sorority Midtown haven of trendy basic millennials. If you are looking for a get away and some good people watching of the drunk basics walking through on the weekends, look no further. This is a place where the hard working managers, bartenders and servers of the local bars go to hangout when they want to get away from the hustle and bustle of Midtown. The staff is great and can handle the waves of rushes they get on the weekends and still be chill during the weekdays and have a conversation with you.”

Favorite feature/drink: “If you want a good stiff drink and shot.”

Sam Davenport

Big Star Bar

Heights

Picked by: Lindsay Rae, Grand Prize Bar

“Big Star Bar is one of those magical unicorn spots in the Heights. I feel like it is just enough off the beaten path and unless it’s a large event celebrating Bowie or Urban Cowboy, folks forget what an amazing neighborhood bar it is. It has such personality without being too kitschy. It is a true Texas dive bar with a weapons grade amount of personality and a back bar that is solid too. This isn't a place you want to ask for a cocktail menu but it is the spot where you can grab a solid drink and have an amazing night.”

Favorite drink/feature: “I can get a shot of Plantation Pineapple and a Stiegl Radler at a solid price, play some amazing tunes on the jukebox, and hang out in a giant backyard. What's not to love?!?! More folks should swing through, give Charlie and Roy a big ole hug too, they may look tough but that's just their beards talking.”

Boheme

Boheme

Montrose

Picked by: Rex Nielsen, Stone’s Throw

“You can be on a beautiful date drinking lovely frozen mojitos at Boheme but the whole time you secretly want to go to Lola's Depot like the Eye of Sauron is beckoning you. The best way to get to know someone is take them to experience the dichotomy of these neighbor bars.”

Favorite drink/feature: “Bohemes’ ambiance and lighting is superb, Lola's is like you're inside a staph infection with the friendliest bartenders around, and I love them both.”

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1. Charbar 305 Travis St, Houston, TX 77002 (Downtown)

Say cheers in a tux at Downtown Houston’s Char Bar, a hybrid drinkery and tailor shop. The bar inside 70-year-old Duke of Hollywood Tailors was initially conceived to redeem owner Michael Shapiro’s failing garment alteration business, and it now draws both locals and visitors to indulge in a strong martini while their shoes are shined or their dresses are hemmed. On display in the narrow hall are fabrics sourced from decades and decades of people in once-ill-fitting outfits.

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2. Nick's Sports Bar & Grill 1448 Wilcrest Dr, Houston, TX 77042

Briarforest’s Nick’s Sports Bar & Grill is a destination for football fans both throughout the season and during the sad, empty, devoid off-season. In victory or defeat, eat appetizers like the Terminator Nachos piled high with chili, cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes, sandwiches like a lamb gyro sopping with tzatziki, entrees like chicken tenders, and burgers like the Grilled Sourdough served with ranch dressing, tomato, bacon, and Swiss cheese on sourdough bread with fries. Drinks are strong and unforgiving here (which is perhaps the best part), so sip up and get your Advil ready.

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3. Rosewater Clear Lake 1600 Clear Lake City Blvd, Houston, TX 77062

Rosewater Clear Lake is a cocktail bar that offers a carefully curated menu of classic and original cocktails as well as rotating beer and wine lists. Rosewater originals include the Weekend Lover, a sultry blend of Jamaican and Barbadian rums, Velvet Falernum, house blackberry syrup, lime juice, and local ginger beer and La Policia, a south-of-the-border concoction of mezcal, lemon juice, peach cordial, Ancho Reyes, and peach and lemon bitters, among others. The bar’s sleek and modern design gives this neighborhood staple a sophisticated flair, making it equally suitable for both date night and an evening out with friends.

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4. Nobie's 2048 Colquitt, Houston, TX

At Nobie’s, owner Martin Stayer aims to take the pretension (and price) out of fine dining. Named for Stayer’s grandmother, Nobie’s blends the elevated food from restaurants like Chicago’s L20 and Moto that molded Stayer earlier in his career with an affordable, casual experience. The New American menu is divided into snackable items that are perfect to enjoy over a cocktail at the bar, shareable plates, traditional entrees like Nonno’s Pasta with tagliatelle, Bolognese, and parmesan, and larger entrees to share, like the Winner Winner Chicken Dinner, with a whole bird, lemon, and condiments. You’ll come to Nobie’s for the food and stay for the music, which plays from vinyl records or custom mix tapes (there’s a “no digital” policy here) and reverberates throughout the restaurant thanks to vintage ‘70s audio equipment in each room.

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

This grungy two-story bar where Montrose meets the Museum District features rooftop access, a pool table, jukebox tunes and a full bar manned by award-winning mixologists on each floor. Cocktail lists are ever-changing and the kitchen is fully operational, meaning you’ll snack on a pimento grilled cheese with blackened green tomatoes or a chorizo meatball sub between sips of an imaginative beverage like the Five Finger Death Punch with rum, apricot brandy, vanilla, and lavender. Illuminated by glittery rainbow string lights, the space is alternately sophisticated and whimsical.

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6. Lei Low Bar 6412 N Main St, Houston, TX 77009 (The Greater Heights)

Houston’s only tiki bar, Lei Low is a breath of fresh, tropical air in what is an otherwise drab Sunset Heights strip mall. Beyond the tax office and the convenience store is a colorful drinking den that serves house-made carbonated coconut water and flavors its cocktails like the Balinese Room #2 or the Polynesian Rainbow with made-from-scratch syrups. Though rum is the spirit of choice at Lei Low (“RUM” is even enshrined in all its neon sign glory behind the bar), you can of course order bourbon drinks, gin drinks, and, of course, flaming coffee grogs.

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7. Ninja Ramen 4219 Washington Ave, Houston, TX 77007 (Washington)

Ninja Ramen is a name that should get you pretty excited about two things, and this spot doesn't disappoint in either arena -- from Ninja Turtles-themed cocktails to scratch-made noodles and broth, these guys aren't messing around.

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8. Houston Watch Co. 913 Franklin St, Houston, TX 77002

Houston Watch Co. is a bar located in the historic old Southern Pacific Railroad Building, which housed the official timekeeping equipment that kept railroads operating on the same schedule in the 1900s. In the spirit of simpler times, the Houston Watch Co. declines to incorporate televisions in the bar -- but fear not, WiFi is very much available. Sip on classic cocktails like Hot Toddys and Old Fashioneds, or a selection from the bar’s excellent array of whiskeys, and kill a few hours in this cozy space.

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9. Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar & Spirits Lodge 308 1/2 Main St, Houston, TX 77002 (Downtown)

Be prepared to feel the effects after just one of spirits guru Justin Burrow’s boozed-up, classic cocktails laced with unexpected flavorings like elderflower and spiced wine syrup. But before you can enjoy the drinks, you’ll have to find them behind a nondescript door in Downtown Houston. Climb the dark, narrow staircase to the dark drinking den at the very top, where you’ll revel in your libations and the views of the city in a small, sultry space.

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10. Johnny's Gold Brick 2518 Yale St, Houston, TX 77008

Johnny’s Gold Brick is the golden mean between dive bar and sophisticated cocktail lounge, trading luxe décor for ivory booths, chartreuse walls, and wooden accents. What Johnny’s Gold Brick lacks in pretension it makes up for with a stellar beverage program that combines stripped-down, classic cocktails with eccentric libations found on a rotating monthly specials list. Perennial beverages include Moscow Mules, Gimlets, and a frozen margarita that comes with a float of Big Red, the gold standard of bubblegum-flavored sodas.

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11. Double Trouble Caffeine & Cocktails 3622 Main St, Houston, TX 77002 (Midtown)

Double Trouble Caffeine and Cocktails satisfies two vices at once, meaning you should really visit for the sake of convenience if nothing else. If it’s an upper you’re looking for, you’ll find locally owned and operated Greenway Coffee flavored with house-made syrups in flavors like cocoa, vanilla bean, salted coconut caramel, and cinnamon stick. Booze imbibers, on the other hand, will face the effects of the Frozen Suffering Bastard (the drink of course), with bourbon, gin, lemon, Angostura, and ginger beer, and the Captain’s Orders, with rye, French vermouth, Allspice Dram, orange bitters, and absinthe. The interior is cozy and sleek, with white leather barstools dotting the chocolate wooden bar.

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12. Under the Volcano 2349 Bissonnet St, Houston, TX 77005 (Rice Village)

Under the Volcano in Rice Village is named for a macabre 1947 Malcolm Lowry novel. The cozy bar is much less menacing than its namesake, though (apart from the arguably ominous masks that line the walls), and it offers some of the best value for bar food and drink in the city. Weekly steak deals include hand-cut certified Angus rib-eye served with authentic Argentinian chimichurri sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, and house sesame raspberry vinaigrette-tossed salad, while the daily menu offers snacks like pulled slow-braised beef tacos and Italian charcuterie. All cocktails are made from scratch to have robust flavors, and highlights include the Bloody Mary, strawberry-basil margarita, and the mojito.

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13. Hunky-Dory Tavern 1801 N Shepherd Dr, Houston, TX 77008 (The Greater Heights)

Built around a wood-fired hearth, this dark, sophisticated Heights restaurant serves British-American cuisine like black pudding, pork belly, and game pie in a romantic dining room. At the full-service bar, a shorter pub menu features steaks and chops along with a selection of wines and around a dozen specialty cocktails. Polished wood tables, classic white-rose centerpieces and low lighting makes Hunky-Dory the ultimate date spot -- just be sure to come hungry and ready to share because they don't fool around with portions here.

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14. Barringer 108 Main St, Houston, TX 77002

Barringer quite literally takes your drinking experience to new heights: on the list of performances at this downtown speakeasy-style spot are aerialist shows. They also feature live music and DJs that contribute to the energy in the space, which is punctuated by antique furniture and light fixtures. Sip on a craft cocktail from their house or classic menu, like their signature drink, The Barringer, made with whiskey, Dry Curacao, simple syrup, and lemon.

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15. Kata Robata 3600 Kirby Dr, Houston, TX 77098

Kata Robata is Houston’s preeminent sushi and Japanese tapas restaurant, featuring a signature menu from Executive Chef Manabu “Hori” Horiuchu. On offer is a creative array of Japanese fare inflected with French flavors, evident in dishes like foie gras and duck chawanmushi -- a Japanese-style egg custard -- and miso lobster mac and cheese. The menu’s crown jewel is its 72-hour slow-cooked Texas Kobe beef skewer, which is impeccably succulent and tender. Finally, you’ll want to take advantage of Kata Robata’s sushi offerings; create endless permutations of seafood like spicy chopped scallop, New Zealand king salmon, fatty tuna, and others.

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16. Ouisie's Table 3939 San Felipe St, Houston, TX 77027

Ouisie’s Table has been a Houston household name since 1973, beloved for its authentic Southern comfort and Gulf Coast fare like pimento cheese sandwiches, chicken-fried steak with peppered gravy, and fried oysters. Visit for weekend brunch, and imbibe your bottomless mimosas, belinis, and champagne alongside seafood crepes filled with shrimp, lump crabmeat, red snapper, and béchamel sauce, or French toast drizzled with warm Grand Marnier syrup. The Southern charm of Ouisie’s menu is matched by its quaint exterior and back patio, reminiscent of a cottage and its gardens.

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17. Poison Girl 1641 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77006 (Montrose)

Poison Girl is a Houston dive bar as infamous for its oddball decorations as for its whiskey selection. Pose for photos with a giant Cabbage Patch Kid and a life-size Kool-Aid man who has (sadly) seen better days as you sip on whiskey that, lucky for you, tastes far more expensive than it actually is. Try your hand at pinball before browsing Poison Girl’s collection of 1970s portraits of nude women that seem to surround you. However you choose to spend your time here, you can be sure it’ll be a memorable evening.

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18. Edgar's Hermano/Part & Parcel 1700 Smith Street, Houston, TX 77002

This Downtown restaurant is tucked inside Sotherly’s historic Whitehall hotel and boasts a menu of what it’s dubbed “Mexi-South” cuisine, fusing Tex-Mex and Southern comfort food together in unique dishes like Texas corncakes with pork chicharrón and mac and queso with chipotle-grilled Gulf shrimp. Outside, the courtyard bar Part & Parcel shows off Mexi-South-inspired street eats like deviled eggs, fried oysters, and candied bacon, and a mix of classic and original cocktails jazzed up with Sotherly’s own private label bourbon, Edgar’s Truth.

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19. The Dog House Tavern 2517 Bagby St, Houston, TX 77006 (Midtown)

The Dog House Tavern in Midtown is a destination for Houston locals seeking inexpensive drinks and a friendly -- if sometimes rowdy -- neighborhood spot. Complete with pool tables, a jukebox, and a fireplace, the Dog House Tavern also boasts several televisions for your game-watching pleasure. When hunger strikes, indulge in the bar’s pizzas or order delivery from any of the nearby eateries.

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20. Big Star Bar 1005 W 19th St, Houston, TX 77008 (The Greater Heights)

Big Star Bar is a modest hangout with low ceilings and a black-and-white linoleum floor whose loyal base of regulars comes for the cheap drinks, the jukebox, and the dance floor. Big Star also has an outdoor patio with picnic tables that are warmed by fire pits on chilly Houston nights, so bring the mutt and enjoy a frosty Lone Star all year round.

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21. Lola's Depot 2327 Grant St, Houston, TX 77006

There's enough ephemera decking out the walls, ceiling, and patio to echo an episode of Hoarders, but the interior decorators (aka the bartenders) did a fine job of making it all work. If it's a slow day, maybe try challenging the bartender to games of I Spy for shots.

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22. Boheme Cafe & Wine Bar 307 Fairview S, Houston, TX 77006 (Montrose)

This Montrose wine bar has a cool ambiance, a great back patio, and sharable plates like Bangkok-style fries and cheese boards.

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