Anyone living in Houston now knows that the city is a culinary capital, in terms of both food and wine. Open any national magazine lately, and the Bayou City is widely proclaimed as a place where people who are serious about food and drink not only come to visit, but come to ply their crafts. Looking around the city now, it's almost hard to believe there was a time when Houston's food and drink scene wasn't so vital and exciting. It's even harder to imagine that that time was less than 10 years ago. But what a difference a decade makes.
Perhaps one of the biggest stamps on Houston's food and drink scene was made by Bobby Heugel. The force behind Anvil, Heugel also runs Nightingale Room, The Pastry War, Hay Merchant and OKRA Charity Saloon with his business partners. We sat down with Heugel to talk about the spirits he's brought to Texas, the fear that comes with success, and what's next for his team.
In many ways, when you're talking about Houston's cocktail scene, all roads lead to Anvil. For me, I think it all started with Beaver's, where we created the drink menu. That was really important. It gave us a safe way to introduce the kinds of cocktails we were interested in creating. Without that, I don't think we'd have been as successful. And I'm not sure, at that time, the city would've tolerated a program like this. But Beavers helped us build a small, but loyal following. That base group of people was important.
What was it like opening Anvil. You guys did it yourselves. What do you remember about that time? We were unprepared. I never thought we'd be as busy as we were. I had this idea that I was going to work Sunday by myself, that it would be this nice, easy shift. Three months into opening, we were just overwhelmed by how busy and popular it became. And we didn't have the work force to handle it. I think we had seven people. And in the city, we didn't have a lot of people who were used to making drinks the way we wanted to.
A good cocktail should remain humble. That's what I like about classic cocktails. We're not showing off a new technique.
You have a very specific approach to classic cocktails. It's not just making a Sazerac the way it was originally made. Talk a little about your philosophy. What's cool to me about cocktails is that it comes back to the spirit involved. You have people who produce these spirits, they take the time to grow and distill and age them. I think cocktails should showcase the spirit they're made with. A good cocktail should remain humble. That's what I like about classic cocktails. We're not showing off a new technique.
And you've been successful in creating a place where the team cares about this — and people who come in find they like that, too. And you know what else? A lot of people who've worked here have gone on to open bars of their own. Alex did Moving Sidewalk. Justin opened Bad News bar. Training is important for us - and when people leave us, they are not only great bartenders, they are great bar runners.
When you look around Houston now, what do you think about how the city's cocktail scene has changed and grown? Because it's a very different place now than it was when you first opened. It is. But even before Anvil, you always had people who were making good drinks. Now, though, it's cool to see what's happening. You have varying schools of thought throughout the city, and they're producing solid programs. Hope Park at Boulevardier has different priorities than we do; Leslie Ross at Down House is interested in different parts of cocktail culture: creating and modifying drinks. I think we need that in the city. There's room for it, and it makes us better.
What's changed for you over the last seven years? I think there's a different level of maturity. I've been making drinks for people since I was 18. And open to close, we are arguably one of the busiest bars in the country. As I've gotten older, I'm more thoughtful about what I'm serving. I'm paying more attention to the service we give. I want to give people an experience they fall in love with. I like to consider the quality of ingredients we have in a different way. When we opened, we used the best we could find. But I look around now and I think of spirits that we fought to bring in to Texas. The Carpano Antica, for example. I spent a year trying to get that in. Now, it's the premier vermouth in Houston. Things like that to me are a matter of pride.
What's been the most challenging thing about your success?
The hardest part about Anvil is meeting all the expectations that walk in the door. We end up on someone's Top 10 list and it's nice, but it's scary, too. Because you're looking at it going, 'We're in a list with 11 Madison Park,' and they have an endless budget. Are we better than they are? I don't know.
But I think Anvil matches Houston, and a bar should match the city it's in. We don't want to be a New York bar in Houston. Anvil embraces our culture and our casual nature. And, we want to remain casual and approachable.
Seven years is a long time for a bar. Something happens to bars when they become special for people. They don't belong to you, anymore. They belong to the people. And that's where we are.
What's next for you? I just want to learn more. I remember we were so scared of how this was all going to turn out, we had that butcher paper covering the windows and taped on the door. On the Thursday before we opened, we had a bunch of friends come, and word of mouth started. But, each day, we took down another sheet of that butcher block paper. We did it gradually, we didn't want to look entirely open, we were so afraid of not doing well. But people really gave us a chance, and they were patient about things like waiting for a drink and clueing into what we do. I'm not sure that atmosphere exists anymore - people expect you to be perfect when you open. We were given time to make that happen.
So, what do you think when you look around and you see this crowded space and Houstonians enjoying themselves? I see the details and why we need to do a renovation. Seven years is a long time for a bar. Something happens to bars when they become special for people. They don't belong to you, anymore. They belong to the people. And that's where we are.