I used to go to Ernie's on Banks every once in a while. It wasn't a hip place, but the upstairs balcony was cool, and the dart boards were decent. They had a couple of decent beers on tap, too. I used to balk at the $5-$6 price tag of the beer, but that was before I learned what it meant to pay for quality. In the last year, I had only been there once, and we froze our butts off on the new back patio, trying in vain to get one of the heaters lit.
Then when someone told me that it had reopened and served decent cocktails, I was very skeptical. So skeptical, in fact, that I avoided the place. Perhaps I didn't trust the person who told me about it. Perhaps I didn't want another hipster bar. Whatever it was, I didn't go for another few months. But when I did finally end up there, it became one of my instant favorites.
I can go all night describing what Grand Prize Bar is like, but there's really no need to. There are three things you should know about Grand Prize, and it is those three things that keep me coming back.
1. The cocktails are good. It's unfortunate for Anvil that every cocktail bar in the city has to be compared to them, but they were the first real cocktail bar in the city, so it's also inevitable, and still quite a good thing for them. I love Anvil, and I love the Anvil's drinks. The Grand Prize has similar drinks, or at least they can make them, but they don't go quite as far as Anvil. First, there is no real cocktail menu at Grand Prize. They will make whatever you want, and they have a few original cocktails, but they don't have a menu.
Last time I was there, they had two specials written on the board, which really means that they're making those drinks on that night. My friends got other things, as well, but these two were the main drinks for that night. My last time there, the specials were a modified Aperol Spritz and a Negroni. This time, it was a Calvados Collins and a Bitter's Bitters. I, of course, ordered the Bitter's Bitters, a mixture of Averna, Angostura bitters, Cointreau, and lemon juice. Delicious.
To make your own version of the Bitter's Bitters, combine
2 oz Averna
4 dashes Angostura bitters
1 oz Cointreau
1 oz lemon juice
shake with ice, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Better than a Negroni, in fact. I enjoy making this one at home, but I have to credit the Grand Prize Bar for introducing me to it. So while they don't have a full cocktail menu that they make from every night, they will have a few specials written on the board, and they know how to make nearly any drink. And they make them well.
I sometimes call the Grand Prize Bar an Anvil Light because they don't use all fresh mixes and stuff like that, either. They use bottled ginger ale and Luxardo cherries instead of making their own. They use regular club soda instead of the really expensive stuff. The drinks aren't quite up there with Anvil, then, but they're a little cheaper, too. I have never paid more than $8 for a cocktail at Grand Prize. The same drinks at Anvil would cost $10-$12. Not much difference, but it can still make a difference. And the drinks are still good, believe me.
The Grand Prize downstairs bar. From http://www.29-95.com/photo/photo-529?gid=409122
2. They're not pretentious. I like Grand Prize because I can go in there in a t-shirt and jeans and not feel like a snot. At Anvil, I feel as if everyone is watching me, and I fear that they won't accept me. It's not the fault of the owners of Anvil, either. They're cool guys. But the clientele is such a scene that it makes it a bit odd to be there on a Friday or Saturday, especially. Grand Prize has none of that. It's not a dive, but it's not exactly classy, either.
As a point of reference, they have $2 Lone Stars. Yes, they serve $2 beer. After enjoying my $8 Bitters Bitters, I switched to drinking Lone Star and had four of them for the same price. Awesome. They also have a beer on their board called As Seen on TV. I asked the bartender about it, and he snickered that it was all of the beer advertised on TV, like Budweiser, etc. I told him that was mean, and he replied simply, "I know." So I guess they do have a bit of pretense, but at least they will still serve it. I saw one table that must have had three dozen bottles of Lone Star on it.
Some would say that such prices will attract an, umm, unwanted clientele. But I think it also keeps people like me coming back. I can't drink at Anvil every week, that's for sure. Way too much money there. At Grand Prize, I can get one really good cocktail and a few Lone Stars and come out in under 20 bucks. Not bad.
One night I was there, I saw the bartender making eight shots of Jagermeister, and my face screwed up into a "what the hell is that?" face, and then the bartender put Tabasco in it. I had to grab onto something to keep from falling. "Who orders something like that here?" I asked my friend. "I gotta see." The bartender started passing them down the bar to a group of guys that...I actually knew. Yes, I knew them. I won't give their identities away, but let's just say they're associated with a fraternity. Not that that's a bad thing. It's just fitting.
And I kind of like that they can hang out there and order stupid drinks while I drink my Old Pal and laugh at them. There's even an Elvis pinball game, that, well, let's just say it doesn't tilt very easily. It's one of my favorite pinball games, so make sure you play that one. There's also a pool table and sit-down version of Ms. Pac-Man. Can't imagine those things at some other cocktail bars.
3. The place is big. One of the things that keeps Grand Prize from seeming so pretentious is that there's enough space for everyone there. There are two complete bars, one on each floor. There's an upstairs balcony and a large outdoor patio. Even on a Friday night, it's possible to get a table. And if you want food, Feast often has meals there on weekends, and a pseudo taco truck called Modular is sometimes there, too.
So drinking in Houston can be good. You just have to find the right places.