For a star bartender, Bobby Heugel has a pretty unusual resume. He didn’t hone his skills at any well-known watering holes or hot speakeasies. Hell, he hadn’t even been inside a proper cocktail bar when he opened his own establishment Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston’s funky Montrose neighborhood in 2009. “I didn’t go to PDT in New York until afterwards,” he admits.
Not only has Anvil—which is housed in a late-1950s tire store—survived, it has become one of the best bars in the country, serving drinks like The Brave (mezcal, sotol, amaro, Curaçao, Angostura Bitters) and Pliny’s Tonic (gin, lime, cucumber, mint, habanero tincture). It also started a cocktail movement in Houston and was a James Beard Award semifinalist in the Outstanding Bar Program category the last two years running. (Heugel himself was a semifinalist for the Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional award in 2011.)
What’s more amazing is that Heugel hadn’t planned to be a professional mixologist. “I used to bartend to pay for school,” he explains. “But it’s kind of like a crazy girl you’re dating, and then it works out.”
The Houston native returned home after receiving a master’s degree in intercultural communication from Illinois State University and began working behind the stick at farm-to-table restaurant Benjy’s. He then joined his childhood friend Kevin Floyd at local celebrity chef Monica Pope’s Beaver’s. It was there that he and Floyd wrote a business plan for a place of their own, which became Anvil.
Three years later, they created a craft-beer Mecca on Westheimer Road, just three blocks from Anvil. The Hay Merchant has 80 taps and dozens of delicious brews from around the world, plus an array of hearty snacks and gourmet pub grub.
Heugel and his partners now operate a small empire of Houston businesses, including coffee shop Blacksmith, chef Chris Shepherd’s Underbelly and nostalgic eateries The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation and Antone’s Famous Po-Boys, as well as bartender Alba Huerta’s forthcoming Julep.
This summer, a tequila and mezcal joint offering a fermented-grapefruit-beer Paloma and a frozen mezcal Margarita will join the ranks—it’ll be called The Pastry War. “We have a curated list of brands produced with integrity,” he says. “The bar is a reflection of Mexico first; the drinks are secondary.”
As if that weren’t enough, Heugel is also president of a collective of philanthropic-minded Houston restaurant and bar owners known as OKRA (the Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs).
“It’s like working on an all-star team,” he says. The organization is helping transform the community with The Original OKRA Charity Saloon, a watering hole that donates all proceeds to a different local charity each month. This is one cocktail trend I hope goes viral.
Alia Akkam is a New York-based writer and managing editor of Hospitality Design.
(Photo courtesy Julie Soefer)