Inside Houston’s Dry Neighborhood and Its Private Drinking Clubs

Just a stone's throw from downtown Houston is Houston Heights, the city's only dry neighborhood. Nicholas Hall explores the quirky area, the archaic law that keeps it alcohol-free and the rash of new "private clubs" that have found a boozy loophole.

Legend has it that Houston’s only dry neighborhood—Houston Heights—is the fault of one hot-air-ballooning monkey named Jennie Yon Yon. An early 20th-century marketing ploy for a Heights area saloon, Jennie would take to the skies and parachute back to earth, garnering crowds of drunken spectators. But on September 15, 1912, residents decided they’d had enough of the debaucherous spectacle she drew every week and voted the city dry. At the time, Houston Heights was a separate municipality, and residents weren’t exactly teetotalers—they just didn’t want boozing in their backyards.

When Houston annexed The Heights in 1918, it was with the proviso that the dry ordinance would remain in effect. Even after prohibition came and went, The Heights stayed dry, its original ordinance upheld by a 1937 decision by the Texas Supreme Court that maintained that only a vote by residents in the original Houston Heights area could open the taps once again. Even as Houston’s ice houses boomed and busted and boomed again, and the cocktail renaissance flourished in air-conditioned modernity, the taps remained empty.

Except at the private clubs.

Nestled among the Heights’ elegant Victorian homes is a series of bars—the majority housed within restaurants—that have escaped the archaic legislation of 1912. Flying under the guise of “private drinking clubs,” these establishments slip through a loophole in the law, creating oases in a long dry desert. The only requirement is that they serve food, and allow drinking only during food service hours.

“The Heights has a very distinct character,” says Chris Cusack, owner of one of the private clubs, Down House. “It still has a very small town feel, and I think that’s because previously it actually was its own small town.”

Because the neighborhood is a tiny, walkable pocket in a giant car-focused city, some think of the booze ban as more a point of civic pride than an actual restriction. “It depends on who you ask,” says Cusack. “There are a lot of people who live in the Heights who have no idea that parts of it are dry, while others feel like it’s integral to the culture of the area.”

Down House, an all-day restaurant and café with an excellent bar program offering a range of classic and original cocktails along with a wine list curated by one of the city’s top sommeliers. Down House plays up its private club angle, issuing official membership cards to guests instead of going the more austere route of swiping their IDs to prove membership.

Located inside a re-fabbed bank building, it splits its duty as a cafe, full-service restaurant and bar, all three gears spinning from dawn to well past dusk. It’s a great place to grab a burger and a beer, or ease into your day with a Houston-centric brunch of shrimp and grits with pho broth, rounded out with a Campari Latte that seems so immediately obvious you wonder how it isn’t already a thing. Come evening time, the bar is bustling, and cocktails deck most of the tables, filled alternately with families from the neighborhood and romantic date-night prospectors, most of them counted among the 5,000 or so members on Down House’s private club roster.

The quirky history and required membership—acquired by a simple age verification and a quick signature, leaving the administrative chores to the restaurant staff and its mandated membership committee—are fun for visitors, but for owners the setup means a host of additional costs and operational headaches.

According to Alli Jarrett of Harold’s Restaurant, Bar and Terrace, this includes additional record-keeping to manage membership, maintenance of a separate account whose funds may be used only for replenishment of the club’s alcohol stocks and personally picking up all the establishment’s booze (private clubs are required to use a different class of distributor, setting up a middle-man arrangement that is costly both in terms of time and money).

With all of these complications, it might seem an odd choice to open a restaurant in the area. But there’s certainly something appealing about the model, which feels right at home in a neighborhood that prides itself on its unique history. The clubs have become both a neighborhood fixture and a draw for residents of the broader metro, even when patrons are ignorant of the history. Though there is certainly an element of curiosity at play, the venues themselves are far from novelty acts, and many patrons don’t even know they’re in a private club until they’re asked for their bona fides.

Whatever combination of novelty and reverence for the past that’s made up the mojo at these private clubs is clearly working, as a number of new places are slated to open soon. Among them: new concepts from the Down House team (including the anticipated Foreign Correspondents, a serious Thai concept helmed by Chef PJ Stoops), and an icehouse from the folks behind Coltivare, a rustic Italian restaurant with a highly regarded—and privately licensed—bar program.

But even as Houstonians look forward to a slew of new private clubs in the neighborhood, there is still discussion of doing away with this weird facet of Houston’s drinking culture, though a vote has yet to be brought forward to remove the alcohol ban. But one thing is for sure: If the law is repealed, the resulting celebration ought to include a hot air balloon and a monkey.

Where to drink in the Heights:

Down House | 1801 Yale St.
Housed in an ivy-covered former bank, Down House serves a mean breakfast, complete with Campari Lattes. Sign up for the private membership with a swipe of your driver’s license, and stay for half-pints at lunch and wine or a classic cocktail at dinner, all curated by beverage director Travis Hinkle.

Coltivare | 3320 White Oak Dr.
It’s a good thing there’s a bar at this wildly popular Italian spot, which takes no reservations. Request a table on the wait list, certify your membership and order an amari from the massive bitters collection or a cocktail crafted by hog-farmer-cum-barman Morgan Weber.

Shade | 250 W 19th St.
Housed in a former antique store, Shade was among the first to secure a private club license, and has become a perennial favorite. They don’t make a big fuss about their drinks, but that doesn’t mean they’re not fussed over. Well-executed classics go toe-to-toe with smart originals that complement the simple food, which meanders through Southern flavors with occasional detours into Asian.

Harold’s Restaurant, Bar and Terrace | 350 W. 19th St.

Harold’s Restaurant, Bar and Terrace houses not only a full-service restaurant (called Harold’s), but also a boutique grocer, pizzeria and private club. With Louisiana native Antoine Ware in the kitchen, it’s no surprise that the menu has a way with southern flavors, often coaxed from locally sourced ingredients. Grab a craft, draft beer or low-key cocktail from the vodka-heavy menu.