James Nielsen  /  AFP-Getty Images file
Traffic flows along Interstate 10 in Houston, Texas during a solar eclipse, in which nearly 60 percent of the moon covered the sun, 10 June 10th 2002.
updated 7/3/2006 1:30:49 PM ET 2006-07-03T17:30:49

THE PERFORMING ARTS

For fans of the performing arts, Houston is fertile ground. Few cities in the country can equal it in the quality of its resident orchestra, opera, ballet, and theater companies. In addition, there are several organizations that bring talented artists and companies here from around the country and the world, presenting everything from Broadway shows to Argentine tango groups to string quartets. Tickets aren't usually discounted for the opera, ballet, or symphony, but you should ask anyway. For information about performances, visit www.houston-guide.comor the websites of the various organizations listed below.

The symphony, the ballet, the opera, and the Alley Theatre (the city's largest and oldest theater company), all hold their performances in the theater district downtown. The opera and the ballet share the Wortham Center, 500 Texas Ave. (tel. 713/237-1439); the symphony plays a block away at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St. (tel. 713/227-3974); and the Alley Theatre is one of those rare companies that actually owns its own theater, located at 615 Texas Ave. (tel. 713/228-8421), cater-cornered from the symphony. Also in the theater district is Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby (tel. 713/315-2400), which is shared by the Society for Performing Arts and Theater Under the Stars.

The Society for the Performing Arts (SPA), 615 Louisiana St. (box office tel. 713/227-4772;www.spahouston.org), is a nonprofit organization that brings to Houston distinguished dance companies, jazz bands, theater productions, and soloists. Within SPA, there's a program called the Broadway Series, which brings popular productions from Broadway and London's West End. The organization uses Jones Hall, the Wortham Center, and the Hobby Center.

Following are brief descriptions of the principal organizations; there are many more, especially independent theater companies that present several plays a year.

Classical Music, Opera & Ballet - The Houston Symphony (tel. 713/224-7575;www.houstonsymphony.org) is the city's oldest performing arts organization. Its season is from September to May, during which it holds about 100 concerts in Jones Hall. The classical series usually contains a number of newer compositions with visits by several guest conductors and soloists from around the world. There is also a pops series and a chamber music series, which often holds its performances at Rice University.

Da Camera of Houston (tel. 713/524-5050;www.dacamera.com) brings classical and jazz chamber music orchestras to the city and holds concerts either at the Wortham or in the lobby of the Menil Collection. You can buy tickets from the box office at 1427 Branard St. in the Montrose area.

The nationally acclaimed Houston Grand Opera is the fifth-largest opera company in the United States. Known for being innovative and premiering new operas such as Nixon in China, its productions of classical works are brilliant visual affairs. The opera season is from October to May. For tickets and information go to the Wortham Center box office at 550 Prairie St. during regular business hours, or buy online at www.houstongrandopera.org.

The Houston Ballet (tel. 713/227-ARTS;www.houstonballet.org) has garnered enormous critical acclaim from across the country. A lot of the credit belongs to director Ben Stevenson, who came to Houston more than 25 years ago under the condition that the company create its own school to teach dance as Stevenson believed it should be taught. This school, the Houston Ballet Academy, now supplies the company with 90% of its dancers, and its graduates dance in many other top ballet companies. The company tours a great deal but manages around 80 performances a year in Houston, at the Wortham Center. You can buy tickets over the phone or at their website.

Theatre - The Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. (tel. 713/228-8421;www.alleytheatre.org), has won many awards for its productions. Its home holds a large theater and an arena theater, and during the year the company uses both to stage about 10 different productions, ranging from Shakespeare to Stoppard and even a musical or two. Ask about half-price tickets for sale the day of the show for weekday and Sunday performances. Pay-what-you-can-days are sometimes offered, but you have to show up in person to buy the tickets. Box office hours are Monday through Saturday from 10am to 6:30pm and Sunday from noon to 6:30pm.

Theatre Under The Stars, 800 Bagby (tel. 713/558-8887;www.tuts.com), specializes in musicals that it either brings to town or produces itself, averaging 200 performances annually. The organization got its name from having first worked at Miller Outdoor Theater in Hermann Park. It uses the new Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.

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The Ensemble Theatre, 3335 Main St. (tel. 713/520-0055;www.ensemblehouston.com), is the city's largest black theater company. Founded in 1976, the Ensemble has grown from a band of strolling players into a resident professional company of 40 actors and eight directors. Their specialty is African-American and experimental theater.

BAR SCENE

La Carafe, 813 Congress (tel. 713/229-9399), has been around for ages, and the small two-story brick building it occupies even longer. In fact, it is the oldest commercial building in the city and sits slightly askew on a tiny lot facing Old Market Square. Its jukebox is something of a relic, too, with the most eclectic mix possible and some obscure choices. The clientele is mostly older downtowners who were here before the resurgence, mostly office types, in-line skaters, and reporters from the Chronicle. For sheer character, no place can beat it.

Another bar with a unique flavor is Marfreless, 2006 Peden (tel. 713/528-0083). This is the darkest bar I've ever been in. The background music is always classical, and the ambience is understated. Little alcoves here and there are considered romantic. The only trouble is finding the bar itself. It's in the River Oaks Shopping Center on West Gray. If you stand facing the River Oaks Theater, walk left then make a right into the parking lot. Look for an unmarked door under a metal stairway.

Sports Bars--The best sports bar in Houston has to be Grif's, 3416 Roseland (tel. 713/528-9912), in the Montrose area. This is the archetypal sports bar before they became super large, high-tech, multi-screen palaces. It has been in business since the '60s and has the worn-in look to show for it. The friendly crowd includes many regulars, giving the bar that comforting feel of an honest neighborhood gathering place. Be prepared to talk sports. The bar is a block east of Montrose and 2 blocks south of Westheimer.

For the large multi-screen version of a sports bar, with lots of pool tables, go to Dave And Buster's, 6010 Richmond Ave. (tel. 713/952-2233). It can handle a large crowd that enjoys a game of pool with a background of several sporting events -- unless there's a particularly big game on, when the crowd becomes focused and drops their pool cues.

GAY & LESBIAN NIGHTLIFE

Most of Houston's gay nightlife centers around the Montrose area, where you'll find more than a dozen gay bars and clubs mostly along lower Westheimer Road and Pacific Street. For current news, pick up a copy of Houston Voice.

For a large and popular dance club, go to Rich's, 2401 San Jacinto (tel. 713/759-9606), in the downtown area. Rich's gets a mixed crowd that's mostly gay men and women. It's noted for its lights and decorations and a large dance floor with a mezzanine level. It's very popular on Saturdays. For something more low-key, try EJ's, 2517 Ralph (tel. 713/527-9071), in the Montrose area. It's just north of the 2500 block of Westheimer. Gay men of all ages come for drinks and perhaps a game of pool. There's also a dance floor, and a small stage for the occasional drag show. A friendly lesbian bar frequented by couples and singles from all walks of life is Club Rainbow, 1417-B Westheimer (tel. 713/522-5166). It has a popular dance floor and plays a variety of music.

For a complete listing of what to see and do in Houston, visit the online attractions index at Frommers.com.

Frommer’s is America’s bestselling travel guide series. Visit Frommers.com to find great deals, get information on over 3,500 destinations, and book your trip. © 2006 Wiley Publishing, Inc. Republication or redistribution of Frommer's content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Wiley.

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