Like any reasonable bar owners would be, Justin Yu and Bobby Heugel were at least a little intimidated when they decided to open a bar in the historic Heights. Known as the city’s first actual neighborhood and a destination for restaurant enthusiasts, Heugel and Yu set out to create a spot that was both a perfect fit for the Heights and something that the neighborhood had never seen before.
“When Bobby and I first talked about coming into the Heights, I was afraid,” Yu tells Eater. “They do have just a rich history overall and a great clientele that loves supporting everything in the Heights. But when we looked closer, we saw that there were a lot of people who were wanting something a little different. Bobby and I tend to do things a little different anyway, and we saw an opportunity to create something that would leave its mark on the neighborhood while just blending in with the other bars that were in the area.”
And thus, Better Luck Tomorrow, Eater Houston’s 2017 bar of the year, was born. Since opening its doors in May 2017, it’s earned accolades from critics and diners alike, including a rave review from Eater roving critic Bill Addison. To accomplish that, Yu and Heugel installed an all-star team of bar professionals, including Terry Williams and Alex Negranza, both alumni of vaunted cocktail den Anvil Bar and Refuge.
Williams and Negranza, who recently moved on to manage Heugel’s Japanese speakeasy Tongue-Cut Sparrow, have a seriously obsessive attention to detail. Everything from the glassware to the bar’s playlist is tightly curated by Heugel and his staff, which Negranza says is ultimately what makes Better Luck Tomorrow such a successful bar. In fact, Williams and Negranza have trained their staff to anticipate those subtle needs — ramping up the tempo of the playlist when the crowds start to pick up, adjusting the lighting as the night progresses — before they even become an issue.
“With any good bartender, you’ve gotta know what’s happening in the bar at all times. How does it feel? Is it raining outside and people are coming into a freezing cold, air-conditioned bar?,” Negranza says. “People come to bars because they’re comfort places, they want to relax with friends or decompress, and making sure that everyone is comfortable and not noticing these small inconveniences when they step into the bar makes a major difference.”
Almost a year after opening, Better Luck Tomorrow has cultivated what it describes as a diverse crowd of regulars that keeps it packed around the clock. “We’ve got a happy hour crowd that exits I-10 for their commute home that stops in,” Williams says. “There are tons of apartments and houses within walking distance, and those people treat us more like their neighborhood bar and grill, they come in for dinner and then stay for a few drinks. We see a lot of late-night from industry people from the restaurants in the neighborhood — bartenders, servers, and cooks from Alice Blue, Coltivare, Presidio.”
One population that is somewhat less welcome at Better Luck Tomorrow: the under-18 crowd. Yu and Heugel are really dedicated to ensuring that this is a space for adults to drink, hang out, and socialize. “We constantly have to make sure that everyone is safe,” Yu says. “We see kids during brunch and it’s a little better because the entire family is there, but you don’t want the kids around people people who have gotten out of control because they’ve already had a bottle of wine at dinner. We want adults to feel comfortable cursing up a storm if they really want to. But, just like with the music, or difficult guests, or the temperature, we have to be flexible.”
Despite the presence of an occasional child, brunch has been one of Better Luck Tomorrow’s more successful ventures, both creatively and financially. Unlike other Houston brunch haunts that focus on bottomless mimosas and boozy cocktails, the offerings here are equal parts thoughtful and playful, like the hangover-curing hash browns and Yu’s absurd (yet delicious) spaghetti sandwich. “We don’t have a busy environment where there’s a line out the door and kids running around everywhere,” Negranza says. “We can really create a different brunch experience.”
Both Negranza and Williams have moved onto bigger roles within Heugel’s cocktail empire now that Better Luck Tomorrow has found its footing, with Williams taking over as operations director for the bar and Negranza moving to manage Downtown watering holes The Pastry War and Tongue-Cut Sparrow. Left in the capable hands of the team trained by both of them, the next year or so brings an attuned focus on consistency for Better Luck Tomorrow.
“A lot of bars look too far ahead and don’t realize that consistency is the most important part,” Yu says. “If we don’t lose sight of that overall, over the next couple of years we’ll have the change to maybe do something bigger. But now, our goal is to always be that place where you come in, you know you’re going to get good food, really fantastic drinks, and those bartenders are friendly and are taking care of all the little things.”
This is the second in a series of features highlighting Houston’s 2017 Eater Awards winners. Stay tuned for the next installment in May.