The Best New Houston Bars of 2018
While there were not exactly a whole bunch of high-profile bars that opened in 2018, the good news is that those that did were unique additions to Houston’s drinking scene. The ones that opened were significant, with not one clone or overused idea among them. Each has a specific focus or spin, and there are strong indicators that Houstonians aren’t even close to tired of the craft cocktail movement yet. If anything, that movement is more confident and comfortable in its own skin now with the acknowledgment that amaretto can be delicious, there is such a thing as quality vodka and somehow tiki bars can be both dorky and cool at the same time.
Here are the 10 best bars that opened in Houston in 2018, plus one honorable mention. The Houston Food Finder writers who contributed to this list are Jamie Alvear aka The Drunken Diva, lead beverage writer Josh Armendariz, food and beverage writer Carlos Brandon, editor and publisher Phaedra Cook and food writer/happy hour queen Beth Levine.
Honorable Mention, Kanaloa, 311 Travis: The team behind Wicklow Heights opened Kanaloa to transport guests to a little slice of paradise in the middle of Downtown Market Street. The picturesque bar was designed by Tish Ochoa, who also co-owns Melange Creperie. That design starts with a palapa-covered door that leads to a bamboo-clad, blue-accented room adorned with tiki carvings and colorful globes. Drinks include traditional tiki libations like Daiquiris, Painkillers and Zombies. For Tiki newbies, the drink menu rates the cocktail strengths with a one to three “sip with caution” rating. Groups and large parties can partake in the shareable drinks, which serve anywhere from two to twelve guests and range in price from $26 for Couples Therapy, a Guatemalan rum-based drink for two or three, to the $300 Treasure Chest cocktail for 10 to 12 featuring three kinds of rum and a full bottle of Champagne as a “sidecar.” The outdoor patio is the perfect place to unwind while munching on bites from Oh My Gogi’s Korean-fusion fare, which is available at Kanaloa six days a week. Happy hour deals include $6 Mai Tais and Daiquiris and Tiki Tuesdays offer $1 off tacos all day. — Jamie Alvear
10. Prohibition Texas, 26420 Preston, Spring: Owners Brad and Effie Stees opened Prohibition Texas in Old Town Spring to create a much-needed place for friends to gather for a drink or two. They filled a void in Spring as previously there was hardly anywhere to go for a cocktail after 10 p.m. on the weekend. The seasonal cocktail menu is designed by Gin Master and general manager, Belinda Lara. Current specials include a Winter Negroni with winter spice-infused gin and the Texas Campfire made with Balcones Brimstone whiskey, honey and cinnamon. Downstairs is cozy and features a beautiful bar made of reclaimed copper and barn wood. Upstairs is a private lounge for relaxing over selections from a list of 40 whiskeys and the hand-rolled cigar menu. Prohibition Texas offers happy hour Wednesdays through Fridays from 4 to 7 p.m., $12 steak night on Thursdays and Murder Mystery Dinners throughout the year. — Jamie Alvear
9. Pitch 25, 2120 Walker: This massive, refurbished warehouse — located only one block away from BBVA Compass Stadium — is named after the jersey number of its celebrity co-owner, former Houston Dynamo Brian Ching. It’s managed by Andy Aweida and Jeff Barati of The Kirby Group, which also owns Wooster’s Garden (and another entry on this best-of list). Built to be Houston’s premier soccer watching venue, it is a shrine to all things futbol with dozens of screens throughout both the indoor bar area and a sprawling open concept beer garden. The bar’s most unique feature is its full-sized indoor soccer court adjacent to the main indoor bar. The court hosts adult rec league games during the week, making Pitch 25 not just a sports bar, but a legitimate sports venue. The EaDo watering hole also boasts an extensive wall of beer taps and a menu of refined American pub fare as well. This is definitely our first choice for Dynamo-watching parties in 2019. — Carlos Brandon
8. Voodoo Queen Daiquiri Dive, 322 Milby: Two years ago, fire shut down the original Voodoo Queen. In 2018, it made a roaring comeback with a bigger, brighter rebuild featuring spacious interiors, more pool tables than before, two bars, an expanded kitchen and a patio.The new space also has a more relaxed Tiki-surfer-bar atmosphere. While the edgy pentagram that adorned the outside of the building is no more, there’s still a fish tank and plenty of pirate decor to go around. Voodoo has frozen drink machines in two different areas running simultaneously. The neon drinks swirling around in them are made with Flor de Caña Nicaraguan rums. All the frozen drinks have fun names like Tropical Depression, Blue Dreamz, Pineapple Express, Wipeout, Sun Tan Lotion, and Volcano Joe. Among the seven selections, the Basic Betty is great for those who want a traditional frozen libation, as well as for strawberry lovers. If you’re looking for handmade drinks, there are five 22-ounce daiquiris as well as other craft cocktails like the Mai Tai. Voodoo Queen’s is made from citrus, Cointreau, orgeat and Demerara rums, resulting in one heck of a boozy cocktail with a slight smoky flavor that tastes even better as the ice melts. — Beth Levine
7. Night Heron, 1601 West Main: 2018 has been a very good year for Agricole Hospitality, which has not only two bars on this list but also a restaurant on our other Best of 2018 list. The company, led by James Beard Award-nominated chef-owner Ryan Pera and business partners Morgan Weber and Vincent Huynh, opened Night Heron in the former Lowbrow space at the start of 2018. It’s open for brunch, lunch and dinner and features a menu by executive chef Jacob Pate. While the dishes merit discussion (such as the Fried Curry Spice Potatoes, which are worth ordering at every meal), Night Heron’s bar vibe and cocktail quality is what dominates. Innovative drinks include the house Salty Dog with honeysuckle vodka, grapefruit, black pepper, vanilla, pink salt and egg whites as well as the not-fooling-around Spicy Daiquiri made with Serrano cachaça, coconut, lime, Jamaican bitters and salt. In 2019, watch for new food and beverages as well as Pasta Wine Wednesdays featuring a glass of wine paired with excellent cacio e pepe (the same crazy-good one served at Coltivare) for $15, alongside other rotating pasta and wine pairings. — Beth Levine
6. Holman Draft Hall, 820 Holman: The Kirby Group, which also runs Wooster’s Garden, opened Holman Draft Hall just a block away — and it’s an impressive specimen among Houston bars. The big, square metal-and-brick building is like a fortress for imbibers — but that’s not to say it’s not attractive and welcoming. The front half is a great hangout outfitted with long tables and plenty of plants and the airy interior lends itself to close-by bar seating and watching sports. There are 100 taps for both wine and beer, and all are temperature-controlled for one of three “zones” to prevent pesky issues like red wine on draft arriving in a frosty state more appropriate for a lager. Since Holman has so many taps, that means it can afford to have a drink selection that is as downright smart and even tasteful. Locally brewed beers, such as Eureka Heights’ Mini-Boss and Holler Brewing Co.’s Dollar Pilz can appear right alongside venerable imported brews like Hofbräu Dunkel from Germany and Bavik Wittekerke from Belgium. As is the case with The Kirby Group’s other establishments, chef Brandon Silva has crafted an excellent food menu that runs the gamut from snackables like queso with chorizo to substantial “Boozy Brunch” dishes such as the Smoked Sausage Torta with scrambled eggs, refried beans, pickled chiles, cilantro, lime, queso fresco and ancho lime sauce. — Phaedra Cook
5. Present Company, 1318 Westheimer: After Royal Oak closed due to a fire, owner Shawn Bermudez took it as an opportunity to completely redesign the massive two-story venue. At the new establishment, Present Company, visitors are completely immersed in the bright, vibrant — and, we have to say it, Instagrammable — decor. With the birdcage chandeliers, neon signs and brightly colored tables and umbrellas, it’s hard to resist snapping a shot for social media. It’s not just all about the looks, though: the cocktail menu is also appealing and playful, both with ingredients and presentation. One example is the Stranger Danger cocktail, a refreshing combination of watermelon vodka, honeysuckle liqueur, fresh lime juice, watermelon kiwi La Croix and a prosecco floater. Beverage director Rex Neilsen serves this drink in a topless La Croix can and patrons just can’t get enough. Present Company offers happy hour from open until 7 p.m. each weekday and all day on Monday. That said, the drinks are incredibly affordable all the time and range from $8 to $11. Main happy hour deals are a selection of wine bottles for $15 and $7 pizzas. — Josh Armendariz
4. One Armed Scissor, 208 Travis: The original Heights location of One Armed Scissor (OAS) closed suddenly in March 2018 after realizing that a shared venue with Hughie’s Tavern wasn’t the right fit. Thankfully, Michael Molina never gave up on his dream and found a standalone location downtown. The Travis Street location, next door to Public Services Wine & Whisky, opened in the middle of October with the same staff. (Like Molina, refused to quit on the vision.) Fan favorite cocktails like the rye whiskey and toasted black sesame orgeat Trinidad James and the Bebop, with Whistlepig 10-Year rye whiskey, returned to the menu, but the OAS team didn’t rest on their laurels and continue to develop and debut new drinks. Molina says that some of the cocktails have taken as long as six months to refine. Factor in that the most expensive cocktail on the menu is $12 — with some being as cheap as $6 during happy hour — and we’ll call that a recipe for success any day. — Josh Armendariz
3. Goodnight Charlie’s, 2531 Kuester: The initial answers to “What does Montrose really need right now?” might include “rebuilt sidewalks” and “pothole filling.” “A honky tonk” might not spring to mind — but apparently people really did need a new place to get their Boot Scootin’ Boogie on. That’s all fueled by a big dance floor, live music weekly and a fine whiskey and cocktail selection. Happy hour is from 4 to 7 p.m. and visitors can look forward to all canned or bottled beers costing only $3, half-price wine and frozen drinks and a $10 deal that includes three tacos and a beer. All of that sounds right in line with a typical honky tonk. The big unexpected surprise, though, is the way-above-average food. In addition to eminently munchable duros (puffed wheat chips) and salsa and queso with chips, carnival food cravings can be satisfied year-round thanks to a righteous, crunchy-edged funnel cake. There are seven different tacos, too, from the expected barbacoa to the atypical Hot Chicken with chorizo collard greens and pickles. Even when it’s standing-room-only, it’s hard for even country music haters to not be charmed by Goodnight Charlie’s friendly vibe. — Phaedra Cook
2. Miss Carousel, 1201 Saint Emanuel: This big new bar east of downtown (another winner from Agricole Hospitality) encompasses 5,000 square feet and opened just after Vinny’s and Indianola. On the drink menu, cocktails are divided into familiar categories like sours, Collins, and highballs as well as new categories like the “refreshing, bitter Italian” and “spiritous, bitter Italian”. Current standout libations include the Red Eye To San Cristobal made with Oaxacan rum, aperitif, vermouth, amaro, black garlic and grapefruit oil and the Jimmy Rig made with Pan Pacho 8 year, Bardstown 90, pineapple-tarragon syrup, lime juice and Topo Chico. For those looking to nibble while sipping, the food menu features light bites such as Butter Bean Hummus and marinated olives, as well as heartier fare including the Texas Wagyu Burger and slow-cooked pork ribs. It’s a standout addition due not just to the high-quality cocktails but also for it’s plush, den-like atmosphere. The wood and metal-accented space is home to an ample number of leather couches and chairs that are quite welcoming to groups. An outdoor hang-out area with a private entrance is planned for 2019. — Beth Levine
1. The Cottonmouth Club, 108 Main: Owner Mike Raymond is known for his long-standing downtown whiskey bar Reserve 101, but this new venue is more than capable of making its own name. Raymond partnered with Michael Neff who has put his own mark on bars from Los Angeles to New York — and he hasn’t taken his foot off the throttle at Cottonmouth. Patrons will be well taken care of at the downstairs bar with friendly staff and a mouthwatering cocktail menu featuring my absolute favorite cocktail of 2018 — the French martini riff Sanity & Wits — or The Cottonmouth Club — the namesake cocktail featuring the exclusive Raymond/Neff blended whiskey. Raymond says that Cottonmouth’s goal is to create great drinks that don’t require the customer to be a cocktail expert. To that end, customers can head upstairs to the “reverse speakeasy” bar where Neff has fun creating bespoke cocktails in funky glassware. Inspired by New York in the 70’s, Cottonmouth nails a rock-and-roll vibe that speaks to us. We expect it’s going to keep rocking on in 2019. — Josh Armendariz
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.