With one of the biggest LGBT celebrations in Texas - Houston Gay Pride - just about one month away (June 25), I thought I'd share a few impressions of this friendly yet sophisticated city, based on my recent visit there this past March. Houston, you may already be aware, is America's largest city with an openly LGBT mayor: Annise Parker took office on January 1, 2010. In fact, this city of 2.1 million has long been one of the gay-friendliest destinations in the South, and the official tourism organization for the city, the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, operates an exceptionally helpful website geared specifically toward welcoming the region's many GLBT visitors.
What I've been struck by during my visits every couple of years since the early '90s is how dramatically both downtown Houston and neighboring Midtown have continued to develop into vibrant, mixed-use communities with lively cultural and dining scenes. Both neighborhoods are very close to Montrose, which has long been the epicenter of the city's gay and lesbian community, although in Houston, you'll find quite a few GLBT-owned and -frequented businesses all across town. One other area of particular note in this regard is the Heights, a somewhat artsy and offbeat historic neighborhood a short drive northwest of downtown.
Among notable places to stay, downtown contains the majority of the city's top lodging options, and from any of these properties you're quite close to Montrose. I stayed at the posh, contemporary Four Seasons during my most recent visit, where the service was tip-top and the in-room amenities and furnishings supremely comfortable. Other downtown hotels I strongly recommend include the boutique-y and charming Houston Magnolia and the ultra-trendy Hotel Icon. For close proximity to the great shopping out in the city's Galleria District, consider the superb and very GLBT-welcoming Hotel Derek. And right on the edge of Montrose, the distinctive, design-minded Modern B&B is art-filled and hip - it's another favorite of the gay community.
Now for a few restaurants and bars I especially enjoyed during this recent visit: In Montrose, the restaurant scene continues to grow in stature among ardent foodies. Leading the way is Feast, which has earned national acclaim for its adventuresome approach to hearty yet imaginative European-farmhouse-inspired cuisine - think of locally sourced ingredients, including some cuts of meat relatively unknown to American palates (beef hearts, duck gizzards, neck of guinea hen).
Update (as of June 14, 2011): One restaurant I mentioned in the original blog, Caffe Bello, recently closed. However, I also want to report news of another high-profile restaurant opening set for Montrose: the white-hot Austin restaurant Uchi, which showcases the mod Japanese fare and stunning sushi creations of James Beard-winning chef Tyler Cole, is taking over the space formerly occupied by Felix Mexican restaurant at 904 Westheimer Road. According to Cole's blog, Uchi will open around November 1.
A newcomer earning props for its extensive selection of classic Tex-Mex favorites, El Real occupies a spacious, two-tier dining room in a former Montrose theater. For authentic smoked-chicken flautas and picadillo-beef tacos, El Real more than hits the spot. Across the street, in the space occupied for many years by the now-defunct lesbian bar Chances, an elegant tail-to-snout restaurant called Underbelly - along with an adjacent craft-beer bar called Hay Merchant - will open later in 2011. During my recent visit, I sampled some exceptional cocktails (I'm fond of the Alibi, with house-made version of Southern Comfort, fig jam, lemon, and lavender) just down the street, at the hip and mixed gay/straight Anvil Bar & Refuge, which is run by the same team of talented mixologists that's opening Hay Merchant. Anvil also serves delicious snacks and small plates, from skillet cornbread with bacon and a fried egg to andouille sausages on a stick (dubbed "Carnie food").
Up in the historic Heights neighborhood, I picked up a delicious picnic lunch (a Cajun twist on a Vietnamese Bahn Mi sandwich) at Revival Market, a cool new charcuterie, bakery, and coffee emporium. There are a few inside tables here, too. In the same neighborhood, Antidote is a slick but inviting cafe and bar with a great list of well-priced coffees, teas, wines, and beers - it's open til midnight and cultivates an urbane, friendly crowd.
There are a few nightspots popular with the gay community that may be new to you if you haven't visited Houston in a while. The hottest newcomer (it opened in early 2011) is F Bar, a stylish lounge with an expansive fire pit outside and a dark and clubby lounge inside - it's become notable on Thursdays and Sundays for karaoke and has great music on weekends. Also generating plenty of buzz, Vue Nightclub opened a few months ago in the space above long-running Guava Lamp (it has the same owners) and is quickly becoming one of the gay community's top dance clubs. In Midtown but close to Montrose, Tony's Corner Pocket is a fun little neighborhood dive bar with drag shows, strippers, cheap drinks, and a nice outdoor deck for mingling. And fans of piano bars should be sure to drop by 88 Keys, a classy lounge in the Upper Kirby and River Oaks neighborhoods that opened a couple of years ago.