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Volume 69, Issue 89, Thursday, February 12, 2004

Arts & Entertainment

Candle, small talk brighten La Carafe

Liquid diet

Mario Gudmundsson

Traffic seems incongruous splashing through the rain outside of downtown's La Carafe, a tiny, candlelit mainstay where the ancient brass cash register still rings up sales with a chiming bell. 

Built in 1847 as a bakery, later used as a pony express outpost and converted to La Carafe in the 1950's, it's now the oldest bar in Houston in one of the oldest buildings around.

"I've always thought that it's like a living museum where you can relive the past every time you walk in, take it all in," bartender Gavin Conner said. "It's a really unique bar for Houston and very eclectic as far as clientele goes."

Candles nestled into beer glasses light up the lifetime or two's worth of artwork, lithographs, posters and portraits which adorn every available inch of the wall space. The bar itself is carved with thousands of initials, and a stuffed moose head presides over the dusty gloom inside where a small vintage chandelier provides some of the only light aside from the many flickering candles.

The bar's famous drippy pillar candles still flank the bar, little mountains of wax which will grow for a few more years before they're too tall to light. The candles are about 20 years old in the cozy upstairs section, which seats about 10 people. Upstairs is only open on weekends or for private parties, but the downstairs bar is open every day of the year.

Rain or shine, happy hour runs daily from 4-7pm, offering $3 wines by the glass and $2 draft beer. Shiner Bock, Heineken, Miller Lite and Bass Ale are the beers on tap, but they're served in frosted mugs so cold that ice forms on the top of your drink. More than 15 beers are available in bottles, but the wine selection is the real focus with a full menu of vintages by the glass or the bottle. Wines here cover every country and every price range with popular choices such as California's Leaping Lizard Merlot for $6 a glass or $24 a bottle. Texas beer and wines are heartily supported here as well-ask for the separate menu.

The bartenders already know what wine the regular customers want. The herd here can be a mix of downtown hipsters, office types and scruffy old men, but La Carafe's faithful, chatty barflies will be more than happy to fill you in on some of the bar's haunted history.

"The people here are fun, interesting and friendly," Conner said. "Notice we have no TVs here-it's a conversation bar for a talkative crowd."

David Bowie and the Rolling Stones rule the jukebox, and over the buzz of good music and good conversation, an antique clock chimes the end of happy hour. The night keeps going, though, as regulars and new patrons alike troop in from the rain, select a wine and wait for you to join them.

La Carafe

813 Congress

The verdict: Come to one of Houston's favorite and most historical bars for great wines and great conversations.

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