The Best Casual Cocktail Bars in Houston

The Tindler Swindler Tho from Trash Panda Drinking Club

In the food writing world, “best” lists tend to have a problem. These often read like the products of regurgitated Google results or heavy-handed marketing. This seems especially true in the case of bar lists. Many read as though the author never actually visited and ordered a drink before writing. Over the last few years, cocktails have become one of my passions, and this list is based on my experiences of imbibing around Houston.

Two people can visit the same cocktail bar and have vastly different experiences, based on what they prioritize. Those factors include the people on either side of the bar, the setting, how comfortable ordering a drink is, if there are food choices and the location. Most importantly, though: an excellent cocktail bar must have great drinks.

Houston is home to many spectacular drinking establishments; so many that we have the luxury of plenty great ones to suggest for just one subset: casual cocktail bars. These spots embody Houston’s come-as-you-are vibe; places where you can hang out for hours making new friends or comfortably relax on your own after a long day, all the while enjoying delicious, affordable mixed drinks.

Ben Mowbray stylishly making cocktails at Grand Prize Bar.
Ben Mowbray stylishly making cocktails on his birthday at Grand Prize Bar. Photo by Ryan Baker.

Grand Prize Bar, 1010 Banks: If I could only go to one casual cocktail bar in Houston, it would be this one. This iconic bar is home to many of Houston’s friendliest and most experienced bartenders, and a regular hangout for industry pros. At first glance, it looks like a borderline divey, neighborhood spot where your first instinct is to sit down, order a beer and a shot and call it a day — and that is perfectly fine. Grand Prize has a large selection of beers and spirits, and a handful of wine options.

That said, skipping out on Grand Prize’s cocktails is a mistake. The bar routinely creates well-executed, seasonal drink menus that are fun and bold with the ingredient choices. For example, one current cocktail is the Under the Bridge, which features a savory shiitake syrup. Grand Prize also has a history of bestowing drinks with phenomenal names such as Burt Reynolds Naked on a Bear Skin Rug or Melon Collins and the Infinite Seedness. In addition to drinks, Grand Prize routinely features live music, DJs or events, a full kitchen with rotating food vendors, three patio areas and plenty of seating.

Daiquiri Time Out, 2701 Market, Galveston: One of the few craft cocktail bars available in Galveston, Daiquiri Time Out (also known as simply DTO) is not a tiki bar, but the menu does not shy away from island themes, serving cocktails such as zombies, mai tais, daiquiris and painkillers. Created by Brad Stringer, a Johnny’s Gold Brick alumnus, DTO is not as large as others on the list, but it is cozy, with a relaxed atmosphere. If you’re mai-tired of sweeter drinks and have been lei-ing low from tiki bars, DTO does a great job of creating a full menu of classic cocktails with tiki influences. DTO also has a wide selection of spirits and beers. The bar’s onsite food truck serves dishes such as shishito nachos and a blue crab grilled cheese.

Libation at Johnny’s Gold Brick. Courtesy photo.

Johnny’s Gold Brick, 2518 Yale: This is the gold-standard for a Heights neighborhood bar. Aside from a few food vendors popping up weekly, Johnny’s Gold Brick offers very few frills aside from great cocktails, a relaxed vibe and plenty of comfortable seating. Johnny’s has developed a reputation for its talented and friendly bar staff, with a 2022 Tales of the Cocktail “Best Bar Team” nomination added to the list of accolades. Each month, Johnny’s bartenders are challenged to create an entirely new set of house cocktails, leading to an ever-changing series of creative and delicious drinks, which are sold alongside a set menu of reasonably priced $8 classics.

Monkey’s Tail, 5802 Fulton: When Monkey’s Tail opened up in Houston’s Lindale Park neighborhood, there was nothing comparable in the area. The bar serves a selection of complex, well-made and often Houston-inspired cocktails, as well as a food menu of casual bar foods such burgers and wings, along with dishes sporting Mexican flair; think barbacoa or carnitas on pizza. Monkey’s Tail serves a lengthy drink menu with sections featuring house originals, highball variations, classics with bartenders’ personal touches and a rotating selection of four frozen drinks. All of this can be enjoyed inside, at the bar or at one of two patio spaces.

Rabbit’s Got the Gun, 708 Hogan: When this bar opened, it introduced a hub for quality drinks to Houston’s Near Northside neighborhood. The drink menu is small and does not change often, but the bartenders are well-trained and can make a variety of off-menu classic cocktails. The front patio is home to Lobos Tacos, and the bar occasionally has other food vendors pop up. The inside seating is limited and often crowded, but there are two large patios available, including one with a breathtaking mural that on its own makes a trip worthwhile.

green cocktail
The “It’s Not Easy Being Green” cocktail at Monkey’s Tail. Photo by Kirsten Gilliam.

Rosewater,1606 Clear Lake City: Just off of I-45, this bar is a long drive from anything else of the same caliber. However, the cocktail program is well-developed and always worth the trip. The selection of spirits on the back wall is expansive and diverse, allowing for the bartenders to make countless variations of drinks. A unique feature of Rosewater is the break-even shelf: unique and pricey spirits sold at the bar’s cost. The decor at Rosewater feels elegant, but the lighting, food and staff do a great job creating a casual environment where anyone can be comfortable.

Trash Panda Drinking Club, 4203 Edison: Since it first opened, the staff of this casual hangout has worked diligently to improve in every area, and even with plenty of room to grow, it is already one of Houston’s best bars. After an infusion of talent from the recently shuttered Night Shift, Trash Panda has completely reinvigorated its drink menu. The new iteration has a larger, more rounded set of house originals, nearly two dozen classic cocktails, as well as additional menus of highballs, boilermakers, non-alcoholic drinks, beer and wine.

Alongside the solid beverage selection, and thanks to a new chef, Trash Panda also has an impressive and eclectic food menu with a mix of Mexican dishes, pasta and burgers. Special events are Trash Panda’s bread and butter. Nearly every week, the bar brings in guest bartenders — often from around the country — for one-day pop-ups. It also hosts steak nights, weekly break-even sales on select bottles and over-the-top holiday celebrations. Each month, the bar selects a different fast food chain and recreates its most popular food items, and a special cocktail or two. The majority of the staff is young and still learning, but arguably some of the most personable and friendliest around.

The fish tank at Voodoo Queen Daiquiri Dive. Photo By Beth Levine.

Voodoo Queen Daiquiri Dive, 322 Milby: The only genuine dive bar on the list, Voodoo Queen specializes in tiki and frozen drinks, many of which are exceptionally high in alcohol content. The first time going to (and Ubering back from) Voodoo Queen is often seen as a right of passage among bar hoppers. In place of traditional Polynesian themes, the bar has fun with decorations that can be described as “pirate chic.” Voodoo Queen is cavernous, spacious and always full of interesting people. (Granted, many of the surfaces are a little sticky.) The wall behind the bar is lined with frozen daiquiri machines filled with strong, colorful drinks. The menu also has several blended drinks and stiff cocktails, most of which utilize rum. In addition to the tropical drinks, Voodoo Queen has a decent selection of spirits and beer, as well as underappreciated food. Make sure to try the eggrolls.

The Bloody Mary at Winnie’s in midtown Houston. In the background, bartender Dawn Broadley makes more drinks. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

Winnie’s, 3622 Main: Winnie’s feels like a great bar with a large, chef-driven food menu focused on sandwiches and snacks to enjoy with the drinks. While Winnie’s is owned by the same people behind Johnny’s Gold Brick and has chefs Graham Laborde and Chris Roy (formerly of Bernadine’s) driving the menu,  this spot is an entirely unique concept. The bar has a light, vibrant atmosphere and color scheme. The drinks include a Hemingway daiquiri in their frozen selections, as well as a small section dedicated to classic cocktail variations like a Hurricane Highball. There is also a list of house seasonals featuring drinks like Everything’s Gone Verde. With unique flair, Winnie’s also serves a handful of its drinks out of ice-filled treasure chests.

Worcester’s Annex, 1433 North Shepherd: Heights Bier Garten has two distinct bar setups in separate buildings. One is dedicated to beer and wine, while the other, Worcester’s Annex, serves a massive list of elegant cocktails that you might expect to find in more upscale settings. The outdoor space between the two buildings is filled with tables, benches, swings and other miscellaneous types of furniture. The Annex building features one of the largest spirit selections in the city of Houston. Additionally, Heights Bier Garten has a full food menu and regularly hosts events.

One To Watch

Betelgeuse Betelgeuse, 2102 Washington: It’s rather early to say that this is one of the best casual cocktail bars in Houston, but early showings have been solid. Betelgeuse sports a great and diverse cocktail menu, plenty of beer and wine options and a comfortable atmosphere that feels similar to that of Grand Prize Bar or Johnny’s Gold Brick. The bar has a dedicated food truck with a menu designed by Anthony Calleo (formerly of Pi Pizza) that offers specialty pizza, wings and one of the most satisfying cheeseburgers in the city. 

Houston is host to many phenomenal cocktail bars. Your experiences with these bars, or ones left out, may be different than mine. These are opportunities to explore and disagree, and add to the beauty of living in a large city with many talented industry professionals. 

Want to recommend a casual cocktail bar we didn’t mention? Feel free to leave a comment. It will take a short time to appear, as we moderate all comments to keep out the trolls. 

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