Tongue-Cut Sparrow lies behind an unmarked door in the back of Houston’s raucous mezcal bar, The Pastry War. Scale a flight of stairs and you’ll leave behind frozen Margaritas and loud rock music to find French 75s, bartenders in bowties and soft jazz emanating from a vintage McIntosh stereo.
The two bars couldn’t be more different. Yet they do have one thing in common: Bobby Heugel. Walking between is a bit like tracing his evolution as a bar owner.
Heugel is a sixth-generation Houstonian who started his career at Logan’s Roadhouse, a heartland chain, before breaking into bartending at 18. He opened Anvil Bar & Refuge in 2009, at the age of 26. Widely considered one of the country’s best, the bar remains the anchor of the growing Houston cocktail scene, and of Heugel’s own empire, which includes OKRA Charity Saloon and The Nightingale Room.
While always prolific, lately Heugel’s gone on a spree. Since February of this year, he’s opened both Tongue-Cut Sparrow and Better Luck Tomorrow, the latter a loose-limbed local bar in the Heights neighborhood—and they may be the best, and most personal, watering holes he’s created.
Heugel’s bars up until this point have been uniformly excellent. But it often felt like he was following models forged in other cities. Each had a stamped personality: the agave bar, the elegant southern saloon. The arrival of the two new bars would have been news regardless; beginning with Anvil, Heugel has become a national figure in the cocktail world—partly due to his outspoken view on such touchy topics as the impact of Big Liquor and the sustainability of tequila and mezcal. But their opening is news in another way: for Heugel, they mark a departure from following trends, and toward something built primarily on instinct.
Better Luck Tomorrow, which opened in May, is set inside and around a small corner building that could have been an A&W root beer stand in another life. It’s a classic example of the style of casual cocktail bar that began to emerge five years ago in reaction to the stiffness of trailblazers like Milk & Honey and Bourbon & Branch. Tongue-Cut Sparrow, meanwhile, is an adult bar, of which New York has a wealth, but Houston lacks entirely.
“I’ve always wanted to open a more formal cocktail bar in Houston,” says Heugel, “a bar that emphasized every step of service, particularly those that didn’t have to do with the cocktails.”
Sparrow’s gentleman’s-club decor—with its leather couches, Tiffany style lamps and black leather “Mad Men” bar stools—skirts the border of self-parody. It’s a place where you’d expect to hear Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”—and you do. But it works, because neither the drinks nor the staff betrays an iota of irony or self-consciousness. “Tongue-Cut Sparrow is just us growing up,” says Heugel.
The bar is a study in balance. For every formal gesture—the offer of a hot towel when you’re seated, the formal bearing of the table servers—there is a counter, such as the engaging banter of the bartenders, or the tiny bowl of chewy candies that comes with the check.
Inside Tongue-Cut Sparrow
The formality derives, in part, from the ritualistic and detail-oriented Japanese cocktail bar model that Heugel has fallen for in recent years. This homage is also evident in the bar’s name (a reference to a Japanese fable) and the drinks. The Martini there can be had in a wet version—with two parts gin to one part vermouth, and orange bitters—or a very circa-1950s dry version made in the Japanese style, wherein the ice is “washed” with vermouth, tossed and then supplanted by two and a half ounces of gin and no bitters. The latter arrives frosty cold and pulls no punches. The Gimlet, too, is done in the Japanese style, with a chunk of ice floating in the middle of the coupe. All of this adds a sneaky international elegance to the joint.
There is also a Japanese-style highball: your basic Scotch and soda made with more care, delicacy and better ingredients than the sort drunk in John O’Hara novels. Inspired by Heugel and Sparrow general manager Peter Jahnke’s trips to Japan, Tongue-Cut Sparrow’s version is made with chilled Suntory Toki whisky combined with Mountain Valley Spring Water, a sparkling water they believe is closest to those they enjoyed in Japan. Served in a highball glass with no ice, it’s light and refreshing with just the right touch of tang and smoke lurking in the chill.
The rest of the menu is a string of classics, both major (Daiquiri, Rusty Nail) and minor (Bijou, Coffee Cocktail). There is an excellent swizzle, served in an ice cream soda glass; a classic Americano; a Pimm’s Cup turned spritz with a crown of Champagne; and a straight-ahead Hanky Panky. This approach is inviting—any cocktail novice can navigate it—but also speaks to the ownership’s bedrock confidence in the bar’s traditional vision.
In stark contrast to the snug, sealed aura of Sparrow, the architecture at Better Luck Tomorrow is open and integrated, as if nothing separates the jaunty outdoor seating and the snug interior, both of which are aglow in candy-colored neon light. You’re immediately invited to the club, both figuratively and literally. Due to a local zoning quirk, the neighborhood is dry, and customers must join BLT’s “club” before they can drink. This leads immediately to a bit of comical bonding over the bar between guest and bartender, as the latter explains the set-up.
Inside Better Luck Tomorrow
There’s more waggish fun on the menu, where the cocktail names telegraph twists on classics: Lucky Daiquiri, Cold Fashioned, Salty Cat. Everything about the first drink—the chipped ice, the paper umbrella, the red color furnished by raspberries—screams no pretense. And, in truth, there is none: It’s a pretty-good raspberry Daiquiri that tastes mostly of raspberries.
The Cold Fashioned, meanwhile, is a potent pre-chilled, nearly three-ounce mix of two bourbons, rum, brandy, bitters, sugar and water served in a highball with an ice spear. It’s the Long Island Iced Tea of Old-Fashioneds. (Both drinks are the work of operations director Terry Williams, who, with bar manager Alex Negranza, developed the entire menu.)
The Gibson, which is by Negranza, is a triumph. The gin is infused with onion juice, and blanc vermouth is paired with a bit of pear liqueur. It is slightly briny, slightly sweet and balanced. The multi-garnish of pickled green garlic and pearl onion wrapped in red onion adds to the savory panoply.
That Japanese highball found at Sparrow is here, too. And you can get it at half price if the temperature goes above 95 degrees. It’s the kind of fun-loving, whimsical gesture you expect from a bar like this, where the first priority is playing host to your good time.
The tomfoolery of BLT and the relaxed sophistication of Sparrow both illustrate, in their separate ways, a new assuredness in Heugel. As a bar owner, he was always preternaturally smart and capable for his age, but this is something different, akin to the easy confidence of prolific restaurateurs like Keith McNally and Danny Meyer who know, without thinking, how to please the public while also pleasing themselves. Sparrow and BLT feel like bars he wanted to open, not bars he needed to open.