Hearth & Haven

Houston’s 10 Coziest Pubs

Where will you hunker down this winter?

By Robb Walsh and Katharine Shilcutt December 31, 2013 Published in the January 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Sitting in a rocking chair by the fire on a winter night at The Black Lab—well, that’s as cozy as it gets.

For most of the year, the ice house may be our natural habitat, but during that brief cold snap we call winter, Houstonians migrate to warmer drinking spots, seeking comfort in wine bars, sports bars, cantinas, and, when it’s really chilly, British pubs, the last of which beat all other comers when it comes to cold-weather coziness.

In the last 20 years, these local outposts of the Empire have evolved from Ye Olde Yard of Ale theme bars into gathering places with occasionally astonishing levels of authenticity. (Expect to get hushed by the Brits if you talk too loudly when Manchester United is on the telly.)

If you grew up eating spotted dick and toad-in-a-hole, you’ll find the food nostalgia-inducing, if not quite as good as Grandmum made. But for many of us, traditional British pub fare has a reputation for pablum-soft textures and palate-numbing blandness. Luckily, the stews, mushies, mash-ups, and fry-ups come accompanied by Worcestershire sauce, Colman’s Mustard, Malt Vinegar, HP (Original or Fruity), Branston Pickle, and Heinz Ketchup, for those who like a little more flavor with their food. And most local pub menus also offer safe havens like burgers, salads, and sandwiches.

Local renditions of authentic pub dishes range from fish and chips that are almost as good as, er, Long John Silver’s, to gourmet creations—see Red Lion’s scallops and truffle mash—that rival London gastropubs in excellence. Nevertheless, excellence of food and drink wasn’t the yardstick by which we rated the pubs on our winter crawl. Sure, we ate wherever we went. But mostly we curled up in comfy snugs and nooks, quaffed English and Irish beers on draught, and shot the breeze with friends and family. By our reckoning, the best measure of public houses is laughter—and coziness. Here are our ten favorites.

Black Labrador Pub

This is what Americans want British pubs to look like, complain visitors from the UK. And it’s true—the well-worn antique furniture and gorgeously rustic interior are way too classy for a real pub (the charming old building is actually the former office of a church). No matter: sitting in a rocking chair by the fire on a winter night at The Black Lab—well, that’s as cozy as it gets. The menu offers an amazing selection of British pub fare including bangers and mash and “sole in its coffin” (fish in a box made of pastry), and the cheddar cheese and ale soup is a cold-weather must. There’s a beautiful private dining room downstairs and a stellar jazz club, Cezanne, upstairs. Just look for the London-style red telephone box on the corner of Montrose and West Main.

The Richmond Arms Pub

By day, the white stucco and dark-brown mock Tudor timbers of The Richmond Arms make it look like the Galleria-area pub got lost on its way to the Renaissance Festival. By night, however, the surfeit of British expats could have you wondering whether you’re the one who got lost. The menu of classic pub favorites includes our favorite Cornish pasty in Houston, with a crispy crust drowned in a pint of brown gravy, not to mention the sturdiest Scotch eggs around, made even better with lashings of Branston Pickle and Coleman’s mustard. The bar offers plenty of popular British ales on draft, from Boddingtons to Bass, but also an extensive selection of local craft beers and excellent cask offerings. Expect huge crowds on Saturday and Sunday mornings, when English Premier League matches are televised live and the pub opens early, offering a full English breakfast (see sidebar).

Watson’s House of Ales

A large pub with cathedral ceilings, Watson’s House of Ales in West Houston somehow seems, like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, bigger inside than out. The comfortable leather couches and chairs by the massive stone fireplace are the seats to score here. (Sure, the fireplace is fake, but who cares? It’s cozy nonetheless.) Watson’s has the same ownership as the Sherlock’s and Baker Street pubs scattered around town, and as such offers roughly the same beer selection—Newcastle on draft, Harp in bottles, a few crafts mixed in here and there—as well as a respectable basket of fish and chips. However, its “indie” status as the only Watson’s elevates the place from run-of-the-mill pub to local favorite. Our favorite night to visit is Monday, when the equally respectable pub burgers are only $3.

Olde City Pub

There’s much to love about this sprawling Spring-area institution, where wingback chairs and cozy nooks abound. While the steaks-and-burgers establishment offers just one pub dish—fish and chips—it’s among the finer examples in town, thanks to a kitchen that takes its British fare surprisingly seriously. Don’t miss the specials, like the homemade shepherd’s pie, which usually makes its appearance on Sunday afternoons, or the live music line-up, which often features local Irish rockers The Blaggards. British beer selections are limited to Guinness and Killian’s Red, but with just as many Brits drinking Miller and Bud these days, it hardly matters.

Bull & Bear Tavern & Eatery 

Formica tables and British beer signs are about it decor-wise inside this Energy Corridor pub, but there are over 50 beers on tap—five British and two Irish. The two dining rooms have a self-selecting vibe: Americans take the sunny room on the right, European soccer devotees the dark room on the left, complete with giant TV screens perpetually tuned to a footie match. Decent fish and chips, cottage pie, and burgers anchor the menu. Weekends bring an extensive breakfast menu, with steak and eggs, corned beef hash and eggs, and a full British breakfast with Irish bacon and beans.

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This is the most authentic British pub in the city, according to no less of an authority than the British ex-husband of a Houstonia editor.

The Red Lion

On a cold and rainy January night, there’s nothing like sipping a 15-year-old Laphroaig Scotch by the fireplace at the Red Lion on S. Shepherd. This is the most authentic British pub in the city, according to no less of an authority than the British ex-husband of a Houstonia editor; furthermore, now that Feast is gone, there’s no other place in town to get a proper Sunday roast. The pleasantly family-friendly vibe and comfortable lounge-like seating all add to this pub’s legitimacy, as does the hybrid Indian-British menu. This is simply the perfect spot, whether you’re taking Mum for seared sea scallops over black truffle mash and a pot of tea, or meeting the lads for a pint of Fuller’s or a round of Smithwick’s—both on draft here. 

Brian O’Neills

(Ed. note: Brian O'Neills is temporarily closed for renovations; it plans to open under a different name in a few months.)
In case the Gaelic font on the outside of Brian O’Neills doesn’t tip you off, this is as Irish a pub as you’ll find in Houston. (Bear with us here; there aren’t many Irishmen in the city.) Blow past the pizza and burgers on the pub menu and you’ll find a more authentic side to this Rice Village Friday-night favorite: corned beef and cabbage with a nicely spicy horseradish sauce and Dingle pies—the favorite meat pie of County Kerry—served with rich onion gravy. You’ll also find standards such as fish and chips and shepherd’s pie, both just begging to be washed down with a Belhaven or Murphy’s Irish Stout. Our favorite dish to match the hybrid sports bar/frat house/only-vaguely-Irish atmosphere: Irish nachos, with corned beef and horseradish sauce atop thinly sliced potatoes, all crowned with a mess of jalapeños and cheese. 

McGonigel’s Mucky Duck 

While Upper Kirby pub the Mucky Duck is a favorite venue for live music, don’t ignore the menu. Musicians and Houston arts types are among the regular crowd. The best seats in the house are the church pews at the two tables in the elevated snug, as such cozy, secluded areas in pubs are known. You’ll find ancient pub standards on the menu like a Ploughman’s Lunch (bread, cheese, and beer) and Welsh Rarebit (melted cheddar and mushrooms over toast), along with five salads and six sandwiches. There’s shepherd’s, steak-and-kidney, and chicken pot pie, and if you can’t make up your mind, the “wee three,” a sampling of all three. We recommend the assortment with a sampler of three Irish beers—Guinness, Smithwick’s, and Harp.

Rudyard’s British Pub 

When you’re thinking cozy, Rudyard’s British Pub—dimly lit and dingy—doesn’t immediately come to mind. But settle into a seat and take in the scene for a while—you’ll slowly realize you’re sitting in the well-worn living room of old Montrose. The characters around you will start to look familiar. That neon sign with a pistol and a glass of beer will remind you that this is the home of the lovably crackpot group called the Montrose Beer & Gun Club. Order the shrimp and chips, a Gulf Coast twist on the classic, or try the “psychedelic” cheeseburger. Then curl up in a corner, put an acid rock song on the jukebox, and visualize the Montrose of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators.

Bayview Duck 

A little south of Kemah and a little north of San Leon, the Bayview Duck hugs Texas 146 in the village of Bacliff. The menu is heavy on British pub standards—there’s fish and chips, Scotch eggs, bangers and mash, and lots of roast beef. At night, the interior is so dark, even longtime patrons have no idea what it actually looks like. Those who’ve been by day, however, know it’s crammed to the rafters with British Royal family bric-à-brac from the era of the Prince Charles–Lady Di wedding and the war in the Falklands. The Bayview Duck conjures nothing so much as a seedy pub on the outskirts of a past-its-prime English seaside resort—Morecambe, say—albeit one in which smoking is still permitted. Partake in the decent selection of English beers and ales, and make sure you try a shot or two of locally distilled Railean rum—this is a pub Gulf Coast pirates would have loved. 

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