Out of Town
Andrew Collins | August 24, 2006
A cosmopolitan city that blends Western and Southern heritage and style, Houston has been one of America's great boomtowns of the past decade. Its once staid, business-oriented downtown has become a trendy district of restaurants, clubs, shops, condos, and hip hotels, along with an architecturally stunning baseball stadium. Other central Houston neighborhoods, including gay-popular Montrose and up-and-coming Midtown, have also seen big changes for the better, helping to turn the nation's fourth-largest city into a lively and downright stylish getaway.
America's fourth-largest city, Houston has developed into a world-class center of culture, dining, and style - Photo by Andrew Collins
The Little Black Book
Barnaby's (604 Fairview St., 713-522-0106)
Baba Yegas (2607 Grant St., 713-522-0042)
Blur Bar (710 Pacific St., 713-529-3447)
Brazos River Bottom (BRB) (2400 Brazos St., 713-528-9192)
Chances (1100 Westheimer Rd., 713-523-7217)
Club 1415 (1415 California St., 713-522-7066)
Decades (1205 Richmond Ave., 713-521-2224)
Diedrich Coffeehouse (1901 Westheimer Rd., 713-522-8801)
Empire Cafe (1732 Westheimer Rd., 713-528-5282)
Farrago (318 Gray St., 713-523-6404)
Gravitas (807 Taft St., 713-522-0995)
Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau (713-437-5200 or 800-4-HOUSTON)
Guava Lamp (570 Waugh Dr., 713-524-3359)
Hotel Derek (2525 W. Loop South, 713-961-3000 or 866-292-7100)
Hotel ICON (220 Main St., 713-224-ICON)
Houstonian Hotel (111 N. Post Oak La., 713-680-2626 or 800-231-2759)
Hugo's (1602 Westheimer Rd., 713-524-7744)
J.R.'s (808 Pacific St., 713-521-2519)
Katz's Deli (616 Westheimer Rd., 713-521-3838)
La Strada (322 Westheimer Rd., 713-523-1014)
Lovett Inn (501 Lovett Blvd., 713-522-5224 or 800-779-5224)
Mark's (1658 Westheimer Rd., 713-523-3800)
Meteor (2306 Genesee St., 713-521-0123)
Mo Mong (1201 Westheimer Rd., 713-524-5664)
Montrose Mining Co. (805 Pacific St., 713-529-7488)
Rich's (2401 San Jacinto St., 713-759-9606)
Ripcord (715 Fairview St., 713-521-2792)
Ruggles Grille (903 Westheimer Rd., 713-524-3839)
Solero (910 Prairie Ave., 713-227-2665)
South Beach (810 Pacific St., 713-529-7623)
T'afia (3701 Travis St., 713-524-6922)
Houston acts as a cultural capital bridging the South and Southwest, with some of the best museums in the country. Cultural highlights include the Menil Collection, with works by Warhol, Leger, and Picasso in a space designed in 1987 by Renzo Piano. Within walking distance are the Menil Collection's Cy Twombly Gallery, plus two independent facilities: the Rothko Chapel, which contains 14 large-scale Mark Rothko paintings commissioned for the chapel and a peaceful reflecting pool and plaza; and the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, which showcases two 13th-century frescoes rescued from war-torn Cyprus.
Many of the city's engaging attractions lie in the Museum District, south of downtown, anchored by lush Hermann Park. Don't miss the Museum of Fine Arts, with its concentration of Impressionist, as well as Italian and Spanish Renaissance, pieces. The Contemporary Arts Museum hosts reputable temporary exhibitions. And the city's Holocaust Museum has changing exhibits (which sometimes touch on the persecution of gays and lesbians) as well as a permanent display that includes artifacts and personal effects recovered from a Polish concentration camp. At the northern tip of Hermann Park lies the Houston Museum of Natural Science, one of the nation's most-visited museums. Check out the Burke Baker Planetarium, which has a 25,000-square-foot tropical rain forest complete with butterflies. (No joke: Spray Calvin Klein's Obsession on your shoulder and the butterflies won't leave you alone!)
Houston's gay scene is centered in Montrose, an attractive neighborhood a couple of miles southwest of downtown, with a mix of early 20th-century homes and cottages and several newer pockets of condos and apartments. At the epicenter, where Westheimer Road crosses Montrose Boulevard, you're within walking distance of countless gay bars and gay-friendly restaurants. As you head farther west along Westheimer, you'll pass a number of antiques shops and funky boutiques. Consider taking a break from shopping with a meal at the homey Empire Cafe, which is set inside a converted vintage service station and offers splendid pizzas, hearty frittatas, and such breakfast treats as hot polenta with honey-cream and toasted almonds. Another excellent nearby option is Diedrich Coffeehouse, a spacious cafe with sunny seating areas and a shaded patio.
Montrose has dozens of other great eateries. Acclaimed chef Monica Pope, one of the Southwest's culinary stars, brings great cooking to the masses at T'afia, a sleek space on the eastern edge of the neighborhood, where you might feast on such creative, globally inspired fare as yellowfin tuna with coconut chutney, or buffalo rib-eye steak with a tamarind glaze. With an ebullient, festive atmosphere but a serious menu, La Strada serves fine, upscale Italian fare at dinner, including a signature Italian paella. Ruggles Grille is highly popular with the queer community, famous for its Sunday brunches and delicious Southwestern-meets-Mediterranean food.
Mark's is an upscale hot spot in a deconsecrated church, serving appropriately nonconformist fare like bourbon-glazed pork tenderloin with molasses, glazed yams, and ginger-apple compote. Mo Mong, a spare-looking haunt known for great Vietnamese food, happens also to be a favorite spot for cocktails (especially sake martinis on Wednesdays) among queers in the know. For stellar, upscale regional Mexican cuisine, book a table at the hip and high-ceilinged restaurant, Hugo's.
Steps from the Montrose bar strip, Baba Yegas sprawls with sunny dining rooms and shaded decks, which are constantly abuzz with chatter and gossip. Decent burgers, many veggie items, and other light dishes are served. Barnaby's is a down-home diner with a tres gay following and consistently good, filling fare. And Katz's Deli serves astonishingly large sandwiches, savory soups, and heavenly cheesecakes in a handsome dining room that's open 'round the clock.
While Montrose has plenty of great gay-popular eateries, downtown Houston is where a number of top chefs are operating these days. Among the neighborhood's most acclaimed dining options, Solero serves delicious tapas in a sexy environment; and Bank (at the Hotel ICON) presents the refined, ethereal, Asian-tinted French cuisine of famed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Between downtown and Montrose, the city's Midtown neighborhood has one of the hottest real-estate markets in the country, as this once virtually deserted area booms with new condos and town homes. Cool restaurants are popping up, too, such as Farrago, a dapper bistro serving creative pizzas, affordable pastas and burgers, and wonderful weekend brunch fare. A more upscale but still moderately priced option is Gravitas. This slick, beautifully designed space is known for its terrific wine list and tantalizing American bistro cuisine – the roasted Texas quail with sweet corn and applewood-smoked bacon is heavenly.
Houston has a tremendous number of gay bars and clubs. Here are some of the more popular options: Extremely friendly and therefore a great place to go if you're new in town, Brazos River Bottom (BRB) is a good-sized country-western bar with two-stepping and line-dancing some nights. Chances is one of the city's more lesbian-oriented hangouts, with dancing (both to pop and country-western music) and a super-friendly, low-keyed crowd. J.R.'s – like its sister bars in Dallas and Denver – is a quintessential stand-and-model bar with attractive Southwestern-inspired decor and a fabulous patio. Nearly next door, Blur Bar is a large new space with a packed dance floor and a big patio. The Montrose Mining Co. draws a mix of bears, Levi's-and-leather guys, and regular Joes into its dark and cruisy confines. And South Beach is the favorite warehouse-style dance club in the heart of Montrose, with dancing and music into the wee hours. Also pulsing nearly all night long, Rich's is an industrial-looking downtown dance club.
The hip video lounge Meteor has extremely popular happy hours and fun karaoke Sundays. Guava Lamp has live entertainment some nights, great martinis, an array of video screens, and music at decibels that allow conversation (and, of course, cruising). Regulars at Club 1415, a laid-back dance bar, love to mingle on the spacious patio. A popular neighborhood bar among the city's over-35 gay folks, Decades is also one of the friendlier hangouts in town. The more hard-core of the city's leather bars, Ripcord is a fairly typical such hangout, with the traditional black decor and dim lighting.
Houston's hotel scene has truly blossomed in recent years. Right in the heart of Montrose, you'll find a terrific, affordable, first-class accommodation, the Lovett Inn, which draws a mostly gay and lesbian crowd. There are 12 rooms and suites, some in the historic main house – the former residence of a one-time Houston mayor – and others in separate outbuildings set about the attractive grounds (which include a pool and hot tub). A longtime favorite is in the Houstonian Hotel, an opulent old-world property in the upscale Post Oak section of the city. Out toward the ritzy Galleria Mall, the trendy Hotel Derek is a super-sleek property done in bold colors with dramatic contemporary furniture. Among downtown properties, the swanky Hotel ICON occupies the historic Union National Bank Building. The stunning rooms in this boutique property have the ambience of a decadent Parisian flat, with vibrant red drapes, plush bedding, and high-end toiletries. Although it's not especially gay, the restaurant's uber-cool Whiskey Bar is a favorite downtown spot for cocktails – even if you're not staying at the hotel, consider having martinis here, as you observe the dramatic renaissance that is downtown Houston.
Andrew Collins is the author of 10 travel guides, including Fodor's Gay Guide to the USA.
Santa Barbara, California