Last week, I had a chance to travel once again to Houston to do one of my murder mystery parties. Besides the event itself (thanks, Steve!), the highlight of the trip was a chance to visit Bobby Heugel and company’s craft cocktail bar, Anvil Bar & Refuge. Bobby was one of the first cocktail bloggers I read regularly, back when I was first getting into this whole enterprise, and his combination of knowledge and genuine affection for craft cocktailery was an important part of my evolution into taking cocktails (a little) more seriously. Bobby kinda fell out of the regular blogging world a while back, but with a noble purpose in mind.
He and some others were going to open their own bar. And they were going to do it Right.
The result is Anvil. Located near downtown Houston in an older, re-purposed stand-alone building, it is laid out like tens of thousands of neighborhood watering holes all over America. It has a single, long bar on the back wall, low tables and seating scattered throughout, and a small patio. But for any reader of this blog, or any like it, this watering hole should be a mandatory part of any visit to Houston. If you are lucky enough to live reasonably close to Anvil, it should be a mandatory part of your lifestyle. By any drinker’s measure, Anvil is a top-notch bar, but for the cocktailista, it’s more. I’ll get to its special added touches in a bit, but I’ll start with the basics that provide such a solid foundation.
Many bars have that huge wall of bottles behind the long bar, with a counter-to-ceiling display of inventory. Too many of them will have 75 bottles of Hangar One or some such vodka lined up like soldiers, but I don’t believe that Anvil’s wall contains so much as one duplicate on that entire crowded expanse. I’ll get to the nature of this inventory later, but for now, just know that whatever you want, they can make. Their basic menu includes 14 original cocktails, arranged by leading spirit, as well as a page of classics from every school. Prices are about 75% of what your average New York hotel bar charges for some vodka and juice concoction.
Anvil also serves some pretty good food as well. I had a very tasty 3 by 3 pizza, but they also serve a few sandwiches, other appetizers, and cheese selections. The food comes fast, looks great without being all fancyfied, and is reasonably priced. They also serve Sunday Brunch.
The bar stools are comfy, and the rest of the casual seating looks similarly inviting. The valet parking is a handy feature as well. The place gets packed on Fridays and Saturdays, but the bartenders are quite sharp eyed and you’ll have no trouble getting a drink long before you can find a seat.
With all that, Anvil would be a great place to drink. But here’s where all that stuff I said about Bobby’s mindset (and his partners’) comes into play.
First and most important is the staff. Bobby wasn’t there when I went last week, as he had a consulting client to take care of. (Note to self: Self, whenever you get around to starting your own bar, hire Bobby.) But he must have handed out my mugshot earlier in the day, as manager Matt Tanner introduced himself to me. The bartenders at Anvil, all of them, are what make this place special. If you take nothing else away from this review, take this: Lots of businesses are Labors of Love, Anvil is a Labor of Fun.
I’ve been served by some exceptional bartenders hither and yon. Of course, each possessed a unique mix of fine characteristics, such as professionalism, showmanship, creativity, encyclopedic knowledge, etc. The thing that sticks out about every bartender at Anvil is this: They are all fascinated by cocktails. And they are eager to share that fascination. The two words I’ve thought about using for this review were “geeks” and “evangelists”. But neither quite works. Geeks tend to be self-centered. If you don’t share their interests, they shut you out. Evangelists tend to be tiresome. If you don’t share their interests, they just get more aggressive. These guys are enthusiasts. The only bar I’ve ever felt quite the same vibe is the Velvet Tango Room in Cleveland.
And they give themselves the tools to indulge their enthusiasm (and yours). That giant wall of liquor I described? What is so fun about it is not just the vast selection of main spirits, especially whisk(e)ys, but the equally amazing selection of the obscure add-ons. There is a sea of strange liqueurs, amari, bitters, syrups and so on. I’d be hard-pressed to find a cocktail from any era that they can’t put together from this inventory. This has got to be a huge capital investment, as many of the bottles are quite obscure, and equally expensive. The cocktail geek customer will have a ball trying to plumb the depths of this selection of building materials, but not as much fun as the staff has in wielding it.
Oh, and in the ultimate act of cocktail snobbery/inside jokery, not only is there no sea of identical vodka bottles on the wall, there is no vodka at all. The only vodka to be found at Anvil at all is a single, lonely jug of Tito’s, jammed in a corner to gather dust. It’s kind of sad, really, like a highschool cheerleader who finds herself in a room full of supermodels.
Not only does Anvil’s gang know what to do with this dazzling array of liquids, they do some wonderful things to ensure that their customers to know what to do with it too. This is good business of course. When you build a bar that’s a cocktail geek’s wet dream, it’s best to have a ready and growing supply of cocktail geeks to come spend money in it. But it is also the case that these guys dearly want you to share their fascination with drinks.
You know. Enthusiasts.
A bar near me called the Lazy Chameleon has these little pocket lists of the 100 international beers that they keep in stock. They hand these out to customers and you get each item punched the first time you order it. When you fill the card, you get… a very tattered piece of paper. Anvil has had, since they opened, their list of 100 cocktails that every drinker should have at least once. I blush to say I’ve only had 56 of the drinks on the list in my life, but perhaps that’s because I’ve had so many of #67…. If you live in Houston, go to Anvil, pick up your copy of the List, and get to work.
Beyond the List, Anvil’s education efforts have grown more extensive as the place has matured. They offer monthly cocktail and spirit classes that cover a wide range of subjects. I didn’t ask much about them because unless the good folks of Houston get more blood-thirsty in future, chances are I won’t happen to be in town for any. I did meet a number of satisfied alumni of the classes throughout the night, however. And may I say, when I can get into a discussion with a woman two seats down about the sorry state of Creme de Violettes available in the United States, Bobby and company may be doing too good a job….
The last special educational feature I want to mention is that Anvil has dubbed Tuesdays as Tiki nights. Each week, they put together a different collection of about about eight classic faux tropicals for the uninitiated to explore and the connoisseur to adore. Incidentally, Tiki Tuesdays bring up another of the little, in-your-face elements of cocktail snobbery the Anvil guys let themselves indulge in: There is no blender at Anvil. How they produce Jet Pilots without one, I don’t know, but if Tiki Tuesdays get much more popular, I bet they relax this ban. They can hide it next to the Tito’s.
As I said to begin with, you need to go to this bar
, should you have the chance.