La Carafe: steeped in history.

Historically, Houston was a town of neighborhood ice houses. But that was then. Today the city’s bar scene also features cocktail lounges, vinotecas, beer gardens, dives, and just about any other watering hole you can imagine. Want to get the lay of the land? Here’s where to start.

La Carafe 

There’s something about taking a seat here—a seat taken by so many before—that makes this downtown legend a dreamy place for having long discussions on the meaning of life while staring longingly into a paramour’s eyes. The ancient decor, old-timey cash register, and candles somehow combine to create an atmosphere that’s certifiably sexy. The second-floor patio offers spectacular views of Market Square Park, and downstairs you’ll find the town’s most adored jukebox.

West Alabama Ice House 

Operating since the 1920s, this used to be a place where locals picked up hunks of ice to help them stay cool during Houston’s torturous summers. Along the way, someone added a few picnic tables to the open-air spot, and it became a place to stop in for a beer. Today the dog-friendly ice house also offers wraparound patio seating, Ring-on-a-String, an endless supply of long-necks, and the Tacos Tierra Caliente food truck, making it the perfect Houston hangout.

Poison Girl

Within the cluttered red walls of this Montrose stalwart beats the living heart of hipsterdom. Long a neighborhood institution, the place might have settled for being a Lone Star and PBR dive—albeit an exceptional one—if not for its connoisseur’s love of bourbon, much of which is quite affordably priced.

13 Celsius 

Houston’s first demonstrably serious wine bar remains exalted among oenophiles for its broad yet deep portfolio of Old and New World wines, as well as for providing an education with each glass. Not that the place is stuffy—far from it, especially on Sunday afternoons when all open bottles are 50 percent off and the patio is packed with patrons indulging in French wines, cheese and charcuterie boards, and freshly made panino filled with meats sliced to order.

When it comes to cocktail bars, Anvil is the standard-bearer.

Anvil

The bar that started the cocktail boom in Houston, this is still the standard by which all other Houston cocktail joints are judged, slinging expertly made modern and classic cocktails from its airy digs on Lower Westheimer. Don’t miss the bar’s “100 List,” the definitive list of recipes every cocktail aficionado must try at least once.

Image: Todd Spoth

Lei Low

Houston’s premier tiki bar has everything you’d expect, from a come-as-you-are vibe to giant blended drinks garnished with kitschy touches. It also possesses an expert-level selection of rums for all those tiki drinks, and a staff prepared to tell you the history of every tropical libation or pick out the perfect spirit for your Zombie.

Alice’s Tall Texan 

Lots of places claim their beers are the coldest, but somebody has to be telling the truth, right? That somebody may just be this bar, where dirt-cheap Shiners and Lone Stars are quaffed from infamous frosty goblets, and in a strikingly un-skeevy milieu (as cash-only dive bars go, that is) lit by neon beer signs and fueled by a diverse array of bodies on the dance floor. 

Public Services

The Cotton Exchange building’s regal turn-of-the-century lobby has birthed a watering hole worthy of its surroundings. Join the regulars at the oversized, gilded main bar or settle in with a bottle at one of the private sofa nooks. Don’t miss the selection of hard-to-find Japanese whiskeys and the most complete sherry offerings in town, courtesy of owner and former Oxheart sommelier Justin Vann, and listen for the quietly eclectic playlist of jazz, blues, and indie tunes.

Image: Peter Molick

Axelrad Beer Garden

This sprawling spot attached to Luigi’s Pizzeria is famous for one thing: its massive, open-air, tree-shaded “hammock grove.” But even on not-so-nice days, the two-story bar itself offers other reasons to visit—namely, a huge craft beer menu, upstairs seating with a view, and a downstairs crêpe/coffee cart that will perk you up as the night wears on. (Or you can always order pizza from Luigi’s and have it delivered to your table.)

Moving Sidewalk

No other bar has such a massive kitchen attached to it, a perk that has clearly inspired beverage director Alex Gregg, whose ever-changing lineup of bitters, syrups, shrubs, and other infusions makes his drinks as delicious as they are unusual. Of course, you can just get an Old Fashioned—and it will be perfect—but the bar really stands out for its modern concoctions.