Anvil Bar & Refuge first ruffled feathers five years ago when it opened its doors in 2009 serving classic cocktails—and only classics. The idea of serving classically constructed cocktails—that is, cocktails built with only five components: a base (spirits), a modifying agent (liqueur of other flavoring), bitters, sugar or something sweet, and water (or ice)—was novel at the time, hitting Houston just as the cocktail began to make its grand comeback. Nondescript wines, boring beers, and cloying, overly-sweet concoctions like frozen daiquiris had seen their day.
But is the idea still novel today? With tiki bars like Lei Low, mezcalerias like The Pastry War, and whiskey bars like Reserve 101 popping up around town, it may seem as though the new hotness is a focus on one particular spirit. But where each of these newcomers makes a name for itself by specializing in one spirit and a handful of corresponding drinks, Anvil made a name for itself long ago serving up every possible old-school cocktail you can think of. And it still does. After all, an important part of its formidable menu is the so-called “The 100 List,” named for the 100 cocktails that every connoisseur must try once.
But you don't have to be obsessed with cocktails to truly appreciate Anvil, and you don’t have to know much about these concoctions to enjoy them. When I bring friends to Anvil who aren't cocktail nerds (as I am), they're always guaranteed to find something to love. When they ask me what to order, I simply reply with the same comment every time: “Go tell the bartender what you like.”
The staff at Anvil are more obsessed with cocktails than I am. You can walk up and tell them you want something sweet and fruity, or dry with an oaky bourbon, and they’ll find just want you’re looking for. You don’t have to know that there are half a dozen types of bitters, dozens of variations in flavors of the bourbons lining their shelves, or why they twist that piece of orange zest over your drink, to be able to enjoy one of Houston’s best cocktails—or 100 of Houston’s best cocktails.
This makes Anvil one of the least pretentious bars in our city, in spite of a concept that, admittedly, could be as pretentious as they come. But the bartenders, fellow patrons, and drinks you’ll enjoy are far from that. It’s that odd combination that makes Anvil so great, even after five years. You may go in expecting to see handlebar mustaches, tweed suits, and ironic suspenders behind the bar, but instead you're more likely to find a decades-old married couple in one booth, a group of young professionals in suits in another, and me—in shorts, a tank top, and flip flops—sitting at the bar, slowly crossing cocktails off Anvil's list.
Anvil Bar & Refuge, 1424 Westheimer Rd., 713-523-1622, anvilhouston.com