When Mike Criss opened downtown bar, Nightingale Room, in November 2014, he melded two of the things he loves most: good music and cocktails. Criss describes the bar, which he opened with Bobby Huegel and The Clumsy Butcher Group, as a high-energy place, where people can have fun, listen to good music and make good memories. Now, a little more than a year after it opened, the Nightingale Room is looking to become more of a live music destination.
We caught up with Criss about what’s new at the downtown spot, which recently expanded its live music offerings and revamped its cocktail menu, its growing vinyl collection, and what’s next for him.
Tell me about the changes at Nightingale Room.
The changes are that we have a cocktail menu where we take throwback drinks and try to make them fresh. Like our Midori Sour, we call it My Midori Sour, where we actually juice the honeydew melon so it makes fresh Midori. So it’s more fun but it’s still kinda clean as far as cocktails go. And last year we only did one day of live music but we wanted it to grow, because I felt, we all felt, that Houston’s music scene was on the cusp of growing a little bit. Instead of doing one day a week, we’re actually now doing five days a week of music. It’s good because it gives artists that don’t get those chances to play in venues a chance. You get that opportunity to be put on a slow night and if you have a good following, then we put you on a busier night. I thought it was really good to share the stage with people like that, where young artists can learn how to market themselves and put on a show in front of a crowd. It’s a good thing to do locally.
Was that what you envisioned when you opened?
Yeah, I think I wanted it to be that way. I’m so impatient sometimes about things. I want things to happen now, but I’m glad that we took our time. I envisioned doing music five days a week but I didn’t know how the guests were going to perceive that. So I felt like if we introduced it to them a little bit at a time then they’d get this whole concept of who we are and what we were trying to do as far as Houston music goes. It’s gotten a great response. It’s pretty fun. It brings new energy every time. People come in and they say, wow, you guys spin vinyl too? It’s kinda cool because a lot of these artists when they have demos, they burn them onto vinyl and give them to us.
About that vinyl collection, what is it at now?
It’s probably over 4,000 now at the bar. I don’t know if you know this but basically we exchange. Our guests bring us vinyl and we exchange but the coolest part about it is everybody on staff, from the bar backs to the bartenders to myself, everybody gets to pick an album a week and it can be anything that you want to listen to. It doesn’t have to be anything in particular. It’s kinda cool because you get different personalities. For me, I love jazz, I’m all over the place, but some people may bring some stuff that I’ve never heard so it’s like we’re all learning at the same time. I think we have like a No Doubt record and then we have like a Marilyn Manson record. They’re so different, and then there’s Miles Davis Kind of Blue in there, so it’s just all over the place.
So if I walk in there, I won’t know what I’m going to be in for musically …
You know there’s going to be good music, let’s put it like that. We get a lot of Shazams in our building. I always see people putting up the phone, like, what is this? That’s my favorite part. They didn’t know what the song was but they liked it so they grew musically at that point. On the weekend it’s great because it’s a really high energy, sing-along kinda thing. Our most sung along song … it’s between two right now: I Want To Dance With Somebody by Whitney Houston or Biz Markie’s Just A Friend. Between those two, everybody sings.
Going back to the cocktail menu, what’s different about it?
We have this Blue Hawaiian on the menu, which is frozen and garnished with umbrellas and mint and pineapple. We have this thing called the Inconceiva-bowl; it’s a tiki bowl that’s on fire. There are three kinds of rum that go into it with lime juice. A lot of our cocktails are a little bit elaborate in color and presentation so Bobby and me thought it would be really, really cool to do that and bring some more energy with our cocktails instead of putting out the same stuff. We thought, well, let’s have a lot of fun with it, let’s put umbrellas in it and crazy straws that have the loops on them. That’s the only thing I really tried to create in this menu, just to be fun, like somebody sees it and thinks wow, this is crazy, look at what I’m drinking. I thought it was really fun to throw back some of the old-school drinks to the 70s-80s and keep some of the stuff that’s classic, like the Godfather or the Blue Hawaiian. You don’t see it often, especially at nightclubs.
Is it hard to make this type of drink in a nightclub?
There are definitely some challenges because of the speed of the place, you know, because we have so many people coming at you. We try to prep really well to still make it fast enough so people get their drinks on time. We’ve gotten to where we’re in a good groove where we plan better rather than having so many more steps. Like we did the Nitro Cuba Libra, where it’s already batched, it’s carbonated and we put it in the frozen machine so we still serve the freshest cocktails but just trying to execute speed, but we don’t take any shortcuts or anything like that. It’s challenging but worth the while for me.
What’s next for you and Nightingale Room?
I don’t want to give up all our secrets. We’re trying to get some really good acts, like on three-day weekends where people know that they have Monday off, have a special show on those days. We’re working toward that. This year I really want to branch out to the colleges and things of that sort and try to speak there about what we’re doing at Nightingale Room. So we can get those young bands in there too to give them some experience, to learn how to be professional in sound checks. They’re things they’ve never had to do, so they can be prepared. We’re going to start holding classes with sound and engineering and if you want to learn it, then you can come out and learn so we can get people to sharpen up their craft. It’s a lot of work but that’s what I would like to see in the future.