Claire of the Dog: Houston, TX

by Claire Sprouse

Houston is where my cocktail education commenced. Every time I come back from San Francisco, I see new and exciting projects sprouting up. I am stoked for my hometown, but there's always that twinge of remorse that goes along with watching it progress from the outside. Like seeing an old boyfriend that you dumped once upon a time: none of your friends understood how cool he was back then. He's since then cut his hair, bought a motorcycle, snagged a cool bartending job and all of a sudden everyone wants to get some. You must remind yourself to not get back together because hey, you've moved on too.

In all seriousness though, everyone's heard that it's going down in H-Town.

Most profoundly, there's been a big push to revitalize the downtown entertainment district, which previously enjoyed varying degrees of short term successes as a nightlife draw. A collaborative group of bar/restaurant owners are leading the charge, understanding that it can't be accomplished singularly. The OKRA Charity Bar is the anchoring business of this endeavor. 

After leaving Austin and reaching Houston, I was invited to reunite behind the bar with my good friend Justin Burrow. He is now a second time business owner (previously opening Anvil Bar & Refuge) and operates Capt. Foxheart's Bad News Bar & Spirits Lodge in the heart of the new downtown.

Currently working with a lower legal capacity than expected (the joys of proprietorship and the random "oh, fuck me" surprises that often come with it), there are two wells to serve roughly 25 seats at the bar and 39 total guests, for the time being. The bar is very long though, and I wasn't quite used to having to acknowledge so many customers that are able to belly up to it all at once, especially while still trying to get into my groove.

It was a Saturday night and I ended up getting my ass handed to me - I was filling in and had an hour before opening to help setup and scope out the lay of the land. I learned the recipes (a mix of simple classics and house cocktails with user friendly Last Word specs) and the POS as they were being thrown to me by customers. It was great fun though and we eventually fell back into our old routines, which consists mostly of me getting in Justin's way. He's at least learned a few new tricks... 

Each workstation is a four part setup (from left to right)

1) Cold storage: A top loading glass-chiller whose lid pops off and fits a garnish tray across snugly. Instead of glassware, the inside houses fortifieds, sparkling wine, and large syrup bottles. The cooler is always on the coldest setting, while a thermometer unit is rigged to click off the power to the machine whenever the inside gets down to 40 degrees. The lid slides back on at the end of the night.

2) The Well: They use only Kold Draft (politely declining to make crushed ice drinks). The wide well has a bar mounted across to slide bottle racks in horizontally, keeping juice, syrups, and whole fruit out of sight.

3) Tool/Glass Storage:  A shelving unit whose counter holds tools, reducing bar top clutter. Below are racks of clean glasses (double rocks, collins, coupes) - keeping the backbar free to only showcase spirits. 

4) POS: Stowed below deck on the front so that the bartender rarely has to turn his back on guests.

One aspect of workstation design that is prevalent in Houston (or conversely, not prevalent in San Francisco) is that there is no sink at each well to wash your tins. They use a bar top glass rinser when appropriate, but when using herbs, etc, the tins go on the backbar for the Barback to grab and rinse in a three compartment sink (Bad News' sink is in the middle of the bar; Anvil's is located in the kitchen). 

After opening two bars, Justin has these words of advise: 

"The main thing to remember is that everything takes longer than you expect it to. And when it comes to contractors, you almost always get what you pay for. The cheapest guy is almost never the right guy." 

In San Francisco, Rhachel Shaw teases that she is going to buy me a shirt that says "I'm from Texas". I can't help but get worked up when people bring up Houston, even in a disparaging under-dog context. I jump up on my soapbox, rant about Tex-Mex, and show off my Astrodome tattoo proudly. Recently though, I frequently come across folks who recognize Houston as a city coming into its own. As someone who is now going steady with another town and happy for their ex, I respond with a wink and a knowing grin that could only brag, "Yeah, we used to bang."


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