Celestina Billington

Top Five Gentrifying Bars in Houston

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A gastronomic bomb is hurtling towards Houston, and there’s nothing you, I, or anyone can do to stop it. With projections for 2024 anticipating crippling — err, I mean, tripling percentages of growth for the food-and-beverage industry, there is no question that Houston lies at the very center of this conversation. With Houstonians consistently ranked as the nation’s top frequenters of bars and restaurants, there is no doubt in my mind that our already over-saturated culinary scene is going to burst open like a frozen beer can.

The veritable brunch buffet will be inescapable. An endless succession of bottomless mimosas will see our city streets overflowing, orange juice flooding the streets, a crisis to rival the likes of hurricane Allison, biblical in proportions, only this time the disaster will be profitable. There’s a term for this kind of unnatural catastrophe. It’s called gentrification.

Arlo’s Ballroom

“Early pioneers.” That’s what developers are calling businesses that supplant themselves in marginalized neighborhoods. Maybe that’s why this bar had the words “Forgive that person,” up on their marquee for an ominously long period of time. Located in the formerly black and Latino majority neighborhood of East Downtown, this cheap bar and dance club soon became a hotspot for Houston’s young queer scene. It also didn’t hurt that the owners made a conscious effort to spotlight female DJs and artists of color. Those factors give Arlo’s Ballroom a solid place on this list.

Okra Charity Saloon

What better way to assuage your white-guilt than with the refreshing taste of Becherovka? Every week, the overwhelmingly upper-class membership of this upscale bar votes on a different charity to support with their beverage purchases. They’re actually fast approaching one-million dollars in donations, all of which is going into community organizations, rather than lining the pockets of the bar’s owners. Which is pretty cool.


White-guy music producer Trakksounds called for a boycott of the historic Fitzgerald’s after this disastrous e-mail exchange between him and white club owner Sara Fitzgerald. Before long half the scene was up in arms, viciously attacking the older woman, going so far as to throw trash at her building. It was even alleged that rape threats were made against members of her female staff when they didn’t up and quit their jobs immediately following the incident. The whole thing was a hot mess. But the irony of Trakksounds public austerity isn’t lost, at least not on me.

Support the boycott or not, there’s no denying this venue’s long-held history in Houston’s music scene. Fitz opened in 1977 and has long fostered upcoming local acts. For many of us, it was the first bar we could ever get into, the place where we saw our first show — being one of the only all-ages venues in the city. And for that it will always have a place in my heart.

Public Services Wine & Whisky

Before big oil, Houston’s economy was upheld by the cotton industry. I know history books in Texas are generally pretty terrible, so I’ll explain: the city’s economy was supported almost exclusively by black slave labor. And in 1821, a savvy businessman by the name of Jared Groce came to our big swamp soup of a city to establish himself. Having brought along 100 slaves, he soon built the Cotton Exchange building. It served essentially as a headquarters for the slave-masters of the era. These white, land-owning men would have met, no doubt, in high Southern fashion, sipped whiskey in their smoking rooms as they discussed which brutal tactics could get blacks to work best.

Today this building houses the bar “Public Services.” In a write up by the Houston Press, the place is described as having “preserved or restored details: intricately carved crown molding, antique light fixtures and elaborate paintings on the ceiling.” On the bars website, only the landmark status of the building is mentioned, along with the architect, Eugene Heiner. I guess the context would be too awkward to bring up, especially when you consider what they decided to name the place. But with Houston beverage rock-star and sommelier Justin Vann at the helm, this place has earned its place amongst the best.


A friend of mine once told me that her white mom had a panic attack while driving through Third Ward in her massive SUV. Presumably because she saw an old black man peddling around on one of those low-rider bicycles. But this was before the neighborhood was made “palatable” by the Houston hipster scene, who have dressed the area up with hammocks, string lights, and a massive black-metal fence. But with a diverse staff, an emphasis on craft brews, and a welcoming atmosphere, the place can’t be categorized so easily. In all honesty, I love Axelrad. So much so that I actually had my graduation party there, my women’s studies minor notwithstanding.

  • aMAXiMINalist

    Shamelessly personal and unapologetically candid about the Texas-ness of its history, economy, music, the social consciousness, this article is the bomb.

    • Celestina Billington

      Thanks so much~!

  • Natalia Mujadzic

    Great, interesting read - I wish every article that popped up on my feed was written by this girl!

    • Celestina Billington

      Me too. . . :~)