Bobby Heugel is Opening His Most Ambitious Houston Bar Ever
On May 17, bar owner Bobby Heugel will unveil Refuge, which he calls his most ambitious bar to-date. Described as a “formal cocktail apartment,” the new bar will be located at 1424 Westheimer on the second floor just above Anvil Bar & Refuge and Tongue-Cut Sparrow. While service and cocktails will be approached seriously by the staff, Heugel aims to keep the environment comfortable and not overly crowded. A playlist anchored by “90’s to early 00’s hip-hop with late-era jazz” should lend a friendly vibe.
“I’ve wanted to do this for years, and we finally feel we can pull it off,” said Heugel via a press release. While Refuge is the realization of a personal, long-held dream, opening it may also be one of his biggest team efforts since Squable, the restaurant that Heugel co-owns with James Beard Award-winning chef Justin Yu.
Tommy Ho, who has served as Anvil’s general manager since 2013, will have the same role for Refuge. In addition, Heugel and business partner Steve Flippo are finalizing an agreement to make Ho a partner in both bars.
Kristen Nepomuceno, who gained experience at New York bars before moving to Houston to work at Uchi as well as Squable, will be Refuge’s head bartender. “Working with Kristen at Squable reminded me distinctly of people that mentored me in the past and of traits the industry is missing today. She’s energetic and friendly of course, but she never ‘takes a guest off’ or misses a moment to form a lasting relationship with someone. It’s a professional standard as much as an interpersonal one that you just don’t see that often these days.” For her part, Nepomuceno says she’s “excited to take a leadership role with a company that has coached so many employees into bar ownership, a goal I have for myself one day.”
Familiar faces from Tongue-Cut Sparrow are also helping with the new effort. Tongue-Cut Sparrow’s general manager, Peter Jahnke, and bartender Máté Hartai, round out the opening bar team. Later this year, they’ll also assist with Heugel and Yu’s food and beverage concepts at Hotel Lucine in Galveston.
Refuge will have approximately 200 spirits along a walnut bar, backed by a lighted mirror. While that’s far below Anvil’s collection of approximately 700, the focus is on underappreciated spirits that are also staff favorites. These include gins that deviate from the typical big-brand names seen everywhere, little-seen amari (bittersweet, herbal Italian liqueurs) and European brandies (some from distilleries that Heugel and Ho have visited). Also expect a range of shōchū, a traditional Japanese spirit that can be distilled from a variety of ingredients, such as barley, buckwheat and sweet potatoes.
Refuge’s 20-cocktail list is divided into three sections: Originals, Classic & Riffs and Excessives. The latter consists of splurge-worthy cocktails made with rare or expensive spirits sourced by Ho — who picked every bottle on the back bar. For the Classics, Ho created an updated Martinez using contemporary spirits and vermouth, specifically Notaris Genever, Martini & Rossi Ambrato Vermouth, Maraschino and Yuzu Bitters.
Heugel cites a cocktail in the Originals group, Jahnke’s Saturnes Cobbler made with mango, as “arguably the best drink on the menu.” Another from the same section is named for its pastel green color: the Pantone 359, which combines basil soda spiked with coconut-washed rum. The complex Eastern Non-Sour is made with Japanese whisky and a seven-citrus cordial.
Nepomuceno’s contributions to the cocktail list include Hall Pass, a sparkling cocktail with French gin, lemon, chamomile, gooseberry and Champagne, while one of Heugel’s offerings is Greenhorn, a mix of Valley Tequila, Midori and Suze.
Refuge is a much more intimate project than Anvil. For example, Anvil has a maximum occupancy of about three times the patrons. Additionally, Refuge’s eight tables and dozen bar seats will be outfitted with classy creature comforts such as brass ice buckets, etched water carafes, brass dishes with complimentary snacks, flower vases and individual lamps.
Heugel says that he not only personally designed the dark-interiored space (there are no outside light sources save for a skylight and small, round window) but hand-picked everything in the bar, including surfaces, modern linear pendant lighting and even the linen coasters. For the first time, he’ll also get to display a collectible that he bought years ago in London: a replica of the neon sign at Floridita Bar in Havana.
Also expect an interesting array of glassware — personal favorites that Heugel has collected not only in the United States, but also from trips to Japan, Italy and France. Guests will surely appreciate being able to tell their water apart from a companion’s thanks to individually colored Japanese water glasses.
“The past two years have really made us question what is important to us and why we do what we do.
Sure, the safe move coming out of this difficult era would be to open bars that are easier to operate and
more profitable, but what I missed the most while being forced to operate in ‘survival mode’ during COVID
was the challenge of finding new levels of creativity in our bars and helping our guests forget the world
outside with unique experiences,” say Heugel. “We lost that, and we’re going to celebrate being able to
do that again with Refuge. It’s going to be our best bar yet – no doubt about it.”
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.