A Guide to the Best of Houston’s Montrose Neighborhood
Houston’s historic “gayborhood,'' Montrose, is experiencing something of an identity crisis right now. With the recent loss of iconic mainstays such as Guava Lamp, Disco Kroger, the KPFT building, Black Labrador/Cezanne, Southside Espresso, Inversion, and Acadian Bakery—not to mention the gradual shuttering of queer-centric spaces over the last decade and a half—its loudly, proudly LGBTQ+ history has given way to empty lots, decaying storefronts, and disconcertingly quick-rise “luxury” townhouses of questionable safety. Thankfully, beautiful, bittersweet memorials by John Nova Lomax and Chris Patton ensure that Montrose’s radical past will not be forgotten.
Despite the cultural and aesthetic upheaval, however, the neighborhood continues to push back against the encroaching changes through its admirably stubborn commitment to a creative, community ethos. Curb Coalition’s Montrose Marketplace fills up the corner of Montrose and Westheimer where Spec’s, 3-6-9, Half Price Books, and—sigh—the Mattress Firm next door to another Mattress Firm once stood. Every weekend, it features local food trucks and vendors selling jam, juice, jewelry, spice blends, vintage clothing, candles, and other goods. It’s always a struggle to find an open outlet at the myriad coffee shops where St. Thomas students and creative professionals congregate to get work done. The Montrose Center offers a safe place for LGBTQ+ people to organize and be heard. Even as beautiful historic buildings go down (RIP Theo’s), and painful LiveNation reminders go up, Montrose endures.
In particular, Montrose remains one of the premier destinations for the visual arts in Houston. The Menil Collection expanded to include the Johnston Marklee-designed Menil Drawing Institute in 2018, while Sicardi | Ayers | Bacino Gallery continues to showcase groundbreaking Latin American art. Nearby, Houston Center for Photography and Watercolor Art Society-Houston always have interesting exhibits and events, all of which are free to the public.
Yes, Montrose has changed significantly over the past decade. But it isn’t gone. And Houstonians fight hard to make sure that something of the neighborhood’s unique character remains, regardless of what comes next.
The Best of Montrose
Drink Like a Local
Rumors of the legendary Montrose nightlife’s passing have been greatly exaggerated. Yes, Pride Houston’s move to Downtown in 2015 felt like something of a knife twist to the local queer community. Yes, the shuttering of Montrose Mining Company and Guava Lamp left revelers reeling, and Hamburger Mary scuttled off to a bigger stage Downtown. Come the weekend, though, Montrose continues to thrum with raucous joy. Blur, Ripcord, Eagle, Buddy’s, ReBar, JR’s, and George continue to provide the local LGBTQ+ folks with memorable nights out. Even beloved South Beach reopened to bless dancers with laser shows and whiteouts once again. Lil Nas X famously stopped by JR’s after his October show to celebrate. That’s how far word has spread about the neighborhood’s nightlife. Unfortunately for Sapphics, no Montrose-based wlw venue has popped up to replace Chance’s yet. Someday!
This beloved Westheimer dive rightfully prides itself on its generous selection of whiskeys and Texas beers. Share a round or two with the iconic Kool-Aid Man statue in the back or put in a couple of rounds of pinball if the machines are even working that night. If they were, then it wouldn’t be a proper dive, now would it?
Catbirds is the perfect spot when you want a no-frills bar experience, just a drink with a jazzy soundtrack behind it. They do occasionally host live music (not always jazz, either!) or other events, so make sure to check their Facebook or Instagram ahead of time. Or the signage out front if you’re really wanting to go low-tech.
At the opposite end of the Montrose bar spectrum from Poison Girl and Catbirds is Anvil, a chic cocktail bar with a spirits list 35 pages long and cocktail specials that rotate with the seasons. If you’re hungry, they offer a small, but delicious, selection of sandwiches, charcuterie, and tinned seafood. Head upstairs to Refuge, the 50-table bar-within-a-bar for a more intimate experience.
Montrose’s friendly neighborhood gay bar, George, offers true Southern hospitality without the “bless your heart” passive-aggression. If you’re a fan of sports and country music—neither of which have the best history of welcoming the queer community—this is where to go to enjoy your favorite teams and tunes. Maybe even shoot some pool or throw darts, without judgment.
The “ice house” in the name isn’t an affectation. West Alabama Ice House opened in 1928 when Montrose’s roads were still made of dirt and horse droppings. It’s as ice house as it gets in Houston. Come play a few rounds of pool or table tennis on a warm night with a cold beer. Make sure to bring cash for some of the city’s best tacos at the Tacos Tierra Caliente food truck next door.
Eat Like a Local
With a name like Aladdin, you know you’re in for a legendary time. Montrosians are willing to brave the precarious parking situation for huge portions of amazing Mediterranean food at an affordable price point. One meat and three sides is only $16.99, and vegetarians can enjoy four generously-proportioned sides for $14.99. Keep an eye out for daily specials like curry chicken (Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday), and beef and lamb stew (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday).
For a tequila-soaked brunch, a celebration with loved ones, or a tasty lunch alone to reward yourself for making it through yet another day, Hugo’s is always there for you. One of Houston’s most celebrated restaurants features creative Mexican fare for omnivores and vegetarians alike. They also happen to be one of the few spots in the city to serve chapulines.
Get a taste of where it all began! Few meals are as joyful as a bowl of Niko Niko’s huge potato and lentil soup on a cold day… or a crisp Greek salad, gyro or falafel sandwich, and spiced iced tea on the patio when it’s warm outside. When deadlines loom, their pitch black coffee, thick as a brick, helps keep you awake and alert like no other. It’s literally the ambrosia the gods chugged on Olympus.
Nippon serves up fresh, reliable sushi alongside a variety of comforting udon and soba dishes, hot pot, and Japanese-style curry. The laid-back atmosphere is perfect for sharing sake with friends on the patio or sampling more hard-to-find-by-Houston-standards dishes like oshinko (Japanese pickles) and ankimo (steamed monkfish liver—basically foie gras of the sea, without the force-feeding part).
This quintessential Tex-Mex spot in many ways represents what makes Houston’s food scene something special. La Guadalupana is family-owned, completely unpretentious, super friendly, and tucked into a tiny shopping center—in fact, they have to set tables and chairs up in the parking lot to accommodate their brunch crowd. Despite earning considerable accolades for its amazing mole, the Montrose staple never loses sight of what’s important in life: feeding everyone flavorful, comforting Tex-Mex and a bakery case full of tasty take-home sweets. You don’t want to go home empty-handed!
As the name implies, La Sicilia serves Houstonians the best of the best Italian pastries, cookies, cakes, tarts, and other desserts and baked goods within city limits (probably in all of Texas). Its offerings rotate, so call ahead if you’re looking for something specific. And if you’re not? You’re going to struggle picking just one (or two… or three…) savory or sweet treat from the delicious display.
Shop Like a Local
No gift-shopping or “just because” shopping excursions across Houston should leave out Space. Come here for a dazzling spectrum of handmade goodies, like art prints, cards, jewelry, bath and body items, clothes, magnets, photos, stickers, prayer candles, tea… OK, you get the idea. It’s the best way to support local and state creatives without making them pay Etsy overhead.
The shopping center on the corner of Montrose and Westheimer may have been ripped down, but at least another mattress store didn’t take its place. Instead, Curb Coalition has set up a space for food trucks to open at select times and an outdoor market for the weekend crowd. The vendors rotate, so be sure to keep up with your favorites to find out when they’ll be in the neighborhood again.
No matter your age, skill level, or preferred medium, Texas Art Supply has what you need to feel inspired. They also offer the occasional tutorial via Facebook Live, as well as in-store events for learning new techniques or new products. Even if you can’t draw stick figures to save your life, you might still lose hours in their art book section alone.
Montrose has long been known as one of Houston’s premiere destinations for secondhand finds. Out of the Closet provides thrifters with a chance to do good while they fill their bags with stylish clothes and home goods. They donate 96 cents for every dollar of their proceeds to AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and even offer free in-store HIV testing. It’s here to help you be fashionable and affordably keep on top of your health all in one trip.
Out of the Closet doesn’t provide Montrose’s only chance to fund important healthcare initiatives while shopping for secondhand items. Blue Bird Resale Shop partners with Texas Children’s Hospital and other organizations to help fund a pediatric neurology clinic and neurological research. In fact, it made a $10 million gift to the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute in 2021.
Hang Out Like a Local
One time, the author of this piece went to Black Hole and heard Steely Dan’s “Peg” play on repeat every other song for 3 straight hours. Black Hole rules.
The low-key, laid-back Mercantile set up an indoor swing and picnic tables right next to the stage where it hosts jazz night every Monday. Otherwise, it provides a quiet atmosphere for students and remote professionals to nibble on pastries or vegan goodies from Pat Greer’s Kitchen while sipping their favorite hot beverages. If you get bored, they also keep a small library on hand.
With its cozy couches and two levels of seating, Agora is a popular Greek-themed study spot just before the night crowds filter in for a beer or glass of wine (they don’t serve spirits). There’s plenty of familiar coffee and tea offerings as well as tasty desserts to keep your energy levels up while you cram during the day. And once the sun sets, you can invite a few friends to help you unwind.
Siphon gets its name from the siphon style of coffee making featured in this strip center stalwart. Stop in for a coffee and a sandwich, taco, empanada, or pastry if you’re in a hurry, or stay and work if you’re lucky enough to find an outlet for your laptop. Come early if you want to use the wifi, though, since those outlets fill up extremely fast.
Big menu, big patio, and even bigger cakes are Empire’s signatures. But no matter what you order, this friendly, comfortable spot makes for the perfect meeting place if you and some friends want to spend a leisurely time with European-inspired café offerings, coffee or tea, and beer, wine, or a cocktail. Keep an eye out for local sculptor Dan Perez, who sometimes holds demos here and invites patrons to join in making their own clay creations.
For Outdoor Enthusiasts
Menil Park truly shines during Houston’s three nice days a year, and oftentimes on the other 362 terrible ones as well. Depending on when you go and who happens to show up, you can watch (maybe even join in on!) yoga sessions, musical performances, and even improv by local creatives hoping to get out of the house for a while. Even if there’s no free entertainment, Menil Park’s unusual trees and dramatic sculpture still provide a fantastic picnic spot.
This neighborhood park provides visitors with a small playground, tennis courts, and plenty of grassy ground for running around and enjoying your own activities. There’s also a community center available for event rentals. Since the 1930s, the Cherryhurst Civic Association has kept the area clean and safe; they occasionally host fundraisers to help with maintenance costs.
All dogs are good dogs, and all good dogs deserve good playtime. Located at Allen Parkway and Montrose, Johnny Steele Dog Park provides two acres of fun for furry friends of all sizes. The massive pond and dog-level water fountains make it an especially valuable outing come summer.
For Art Lovers
Menil Collection | Rothko Chapel
Two of the crown jewels in Houston’s art community, Menil Collection and Rothko Chapel are always free and always have something interesting going on so patrons keep having a reason to return. Whether you’re visiting the Menil campus for the first time or the 500th, you can spend an entire day meditating with Rothko originals (and in the nearby Cy Twombly gallery, for a different experience), exploring the surrealists and their indigenous inspirations, taking in the new exhibits at the illustration institute… maybe even catch high tea at the café and browse the art book store.
Art League Houston stands as one of the premiere spots to learn about and support local visual artists… and maybe even take classes so you can eventually join in their ranks as well! It’ll be tempting to run into Texas Art Supply next door after witnessing all the amazing artistic talent that calls Houston home.
Sicardi | Ayers | Bacino Gallery
Located just a three-minute walk from the Menil, Sicardi | Ayers | Bacino specializes in contemporary, avant-garde, and modern art by Latin American creators. At 29 years old, it’s historically significant as one of the very first galleries in the country to showcase the talent of a demographic that continues to be underrepresented in the overarching art scene. Sicardi | Ayers | Bacino also played a major role in bringing installation art to the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern.
Stop by Anya Tish Gallery for daring contemporary exhibitions emphasizing ecological and social justice by artists from around the globe. This is Houston, after all. International is kinda what we do best.
Houston Center for Photography
As of the time of this writing, HCP is closed temporarily in order to organize its next exciting show. That doesn’t disqualify this local gem from a shout-out, though! Anyone interested in the latest and greatest trends and names in photography and video artwork has plenty to learn about and explore here, including an annual print auction and plenty of free lectures throughout the year.
For Date Night
Because if they don’t appreciate the majesty of nature, they don’t appreciate the majesty of you. Seriously, though, bring binoculars and show up early. Watching the hundreds of thousands of Mexican freetail bats emerge for a night of protecting us from mosquitos is a popular nightly tradition.
Even if dancing the night away to both live and spun new wave, metal, punk, and disco isn’t your scene, Numbers still hosts plenty of events to let the spice flow. Kinky Tuesday events don’t require a detailed explanation, and the delightful Houston Oddities Market sets up shop here. Show your partner how much you really care with the gift of a skull or taxidermy.
Often touted as Houston’s greatest gay bar, JR’s offers you a chance to impress a new potential partner or spend some quality time with your long hauler. Enjoy a cocktail on the sultry New Orleans-inspired patio, take in a drag show, or try to one-up each other at karaoke night. Check the calendar before you go.
The Flat is casually sensual, a place for good food, good drinks, and dancing together until last call. Live DJs spin a wide array of music every night of the week. Not a night owl? Meet your date for a late morning cup of coffee or pizza and wine lunch instead.
Meeting up for gelato or sorbet and espresso shots makes for an awesome date when you don’t have much time for a meal. SweetCup offers classic flavors like chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla alongside a rotating variety of amazing options like Kashmiri rose and coconut curry. Every month features a new experimental flavor, with one of the most memorable being its sweet and smoky barbecue-inspired gelato. It’s a little shop with a personality as big as Texas.
A night of wine and cheese is hardly a cliché—some date night classics are classics for a reason! Whether picking up a few bottles and accompanying cheeses for a night at home or meeting up for a glass, a chat, and charcuterie, Montrose Cheese & Wine hosts monthly tastings and even fires up the occasional raclette, so keep an eye on their calendar!
Plant It Forward Farms’ stand at University of St. Thomas
Plant It Forward provides economic opportunities to refugees resettling in the United States, with farms and stands located across the city. The wonderful Roy Nlemba oversees the farm located on the University of St. Thomas campus. His stand opens up to the public every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., with his very own fresh, seasonal vegetables for sale. He sells out quickly, so it’s recommended that you show up early!
Some of Houston’s tastiest shawarma and breakfast tacos come from this unassuming convenience store. Al Quick Stop recently opened a restaurant in The Heights. We love that for them; but every Houstonian knows to pay their respects to the original location on Waugh, which has helped many a bar reveler stay full of amazing food to soak up the booze thanks to its late hours.
FLATS offers film development and digitizing services out of a converted second-story loft on Montrose Ave., right above Pop Soap Shop (a hidden gem in its own right). If you’re a local photographer with a passion for the analog in your art, you can apply to use its darkroom yourself either as a member or via a day pass. They occasionally teach workshops and classes in film photography as well.
It’s tiny and it’s terrific. For more than 40 years, Tex-Chick has served mouth-watering Puerto Rican food out of a converted house, giving the small space a welcoming and cozy atmosphere. When paired with a Malta India soda, the mofongo con mariscos makes for one of the greatest comfort meals Houston has to offer. Don’t worry, if they’re already full when you show up; they deliver!
Watercolor Art Society-Houston
Watercolor has an unfortunate reputation as a punishingly difficult medium, and Watercolor Art Society-Houston seeks to make the art far more accessible. Along with regular exhibitions, it also offers classes and workshops for a wide range of ages and skill levels. They even offer online courses for students who can’t make it to Montrose on a regular basis!
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