Is that Sam Houston raising a toast in the back of the bar? Or maybe it’s his ghost winking at us through the mists of time in the twilight that greets us when we venture into this Houston original, La Carafe wine bar? In a city with so many tall buildings, this small quintessential, romantic haunt is tucked away from the bustle of the city on 813 Congress Ave, right downtown. It is just across from Market Square Park, which is what is left of the original market around which Houston grew up. There are not many vestigial remnants of Houston’s past still around, much less one you can wander in off the street, slip into a bar stool and lose 150 years in a few seconds. This dimly lit watering hole, with its assemblage of old art and curios scattered across its walls, its ancient cash register from 1917, amazing votive candle waxworks, excellent juke box, and cool feel is just the remedy for any overheated downtowner, passer-by, or tourist. Houston’s history calls to you from every brick. La Carafe is my kind of place.
On this visit, it was mid-afternoon and the front door was closed. I deigned to venture forth, turned the nob and push the door open and walked in to this curious time capsule. I was greeted by a friendly and knowledgeable bartender, Bonnie Kveton, who has worked there for two years. She was stationed behind the old wooden bar, the daydreams and initials of its patrons carved into it for what looks like it must have been eons.
Bonnie said “La Carafe is an institution and most of the people who got jobs here have stayed because it is amazing.” Consequently, there isn’t a lot of turnover in the staff, but Bonnie told me that all walks of life show up at the bar. From businesspeople to lawyers, architects, construction workers, and young people - adults of any age and walk of life may be seen passing through the doors of this venerable establishment. She continued, “Houston is really great but you have to find the place where you fit in. I walked into this bar and fell in love with it immediately. This is where I want to be so that’s why I’m here.”
Bonnie told me that La Carafe is located in the oldest commercial building in Houston. Built in 1847, it was partially burned down in 1859, when lightning struck and everything in the area burned. It was rebuilt in 1860. Initially it was The Kennedy Bakery, which had brick ovens heated by steam pumped through copper pipes, and some of the original brickwork is still visible. Also serving as a Pony Express mail stop, a general store, a place for fur trading, and a spot where hungry Confederate soldiers could get some biscuits during the Civil War - La Carafe has had many incarnations. La Carafe has been serving up drinks since 1956, and after being owned for 5 generations within the Kennedy family, it is now owned by Carolyn Wenglar, who also owns Warren’s across the street.
La Carafe has beer and wine only, but has good selections of both. Bring cash, as they don’t take credit cards, however there is a cash machine. Believe it or not, even for this intimate venue, you can see live singer/songwriters perform on the last Tuesday of every month. The downstairs bar is open every day of the year from 1 PM to 2 AM and the upstairs bar is open Fridays and Saturdays after 9 PM. The upstairs is worth checking out and even comes with a carousel horse from the 1800’s!
It is rumored that Sam Houston was in the building at one time, so creak open the door to this Houston one-of-a-kind treasure, walk into its dimly lit, ancient interior, and raise a toast to our city’s namesake under the famous Scottish painter Sir James Guthrie’s (presumed) life-sized portrait of Gladys Knox, who oversees the antics throughout.
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