The Blanco Bowling Club Cafe
The sky in Blanco is pale river-rock gray as I roll into downtown. The main square looks like any small town’s—a few antiques shops, an old courthouse, some shuttered store fronts, a truck full of watermelons, and a barbecue restaurant. I spot the Blanco Bowling Club Cafe, a restaurant and bowling alley rumored to be a hot spot for old-fashioned ninepin bowling, and walk in. Blanco Panthers signs adorn the wood paneled walls, and a waitress behind the counter sings along to the country tunes played on the juke box. I eat a hot roast beef sandwich, look around, and see no signs of the bowling alley. “Must be in the back,” I think. Or maybe I’m too early—it’s Saturday night after all.
The restaurant begins to fill up around six with older couples, families, and people who seem to know each other by name. I order the last piece of coconut meringue pie, and when the towering slice arrives, heads turn. A woman with short brown hair at the next table turns to me and says she can’t believe there was any of the coconut pie left—it usually sells out before two. I ask the woman if there is going to be any bowling. She tells me that the league only bowls Monday through Thursday, and that even Friday night would have been a better night to come to Blanco. “Friday night they have all-you-can-eat fish. Maybe that brings ’em out,” she says with a laugh. The woman’s name is Carol, and she and her husband, Bobby, usually come down to the bar on Friday nights, drink a couple beers, and go home. They seem concerned that I came to Blanco on a Saturday night, when not too much is going on.
In back there’s a bar, an area with some tables, and the bowling lanes, which tonight are hidden behind a white curtain. Carol and Bobby introduce me to the bartender, Joe D., who looks comfortable in a straw cowboy hat. Joe grew up in Blanco and tells me a few town stories, like how Johnson City stole the county seat from Blanco in the election of 1890 and that Elvis once came to the Blanco Bowling Club Cafe. He too says I should come back on a Friday night. “They do all-you-can-eat fish Friday nights,” he explains. “That fills ’em up.”
I ask a young waitress named Jessica what she recommends doing on a Saturday night in Blanco. She says in the summer, a lot of people barbecue down by the river in the early evening. She usually works on Saturday nights, and if she has a free night, she goes to Austin to get out and see the city a little bit. “But Friday night is a big night here,” she says, folding silverware into napkins. “It’s all-you-can-eat catfish.”
Richard just got off of work at the Sunset restaurant in Blanco’s main square. He’s seventeen, about to be a senior in high school. He’s got dark-brown hair and wears a white striped shirt and khaki shorts; a seashell necklace hangs around his neck. A paler, lankier Josh Hartnett perhaps? “This is not much of a happenin’ town,” he says with a laugh when I ask him what to do on Saturday night.
“No, it’s happenin’, man,” Corey, a co-worker, says from behind the counter with a big smile.
“I don’t like this place,” Richard says. “Too small. Too small. It’s so boring. I hate to say it ’cause I live here and stuff, but it’s boring.”
I follow Richard to a site he says is the coolest place in town, the Blanco Rose Coffeehouse and Chess Club Cafe. He’ll be meeting friends there later. On the way, he says he’s probably going to join the Marines when he graduates from school because his whole family was in the Marines. He thought about going to culinary school—”What girl doesn’t want a guy who can cook?”—but decided against it. Richard gives me a tour of the newly opened cafe, pointing out the couch he usually sits on. It’s a cozy place, with hardwood floors, rustic olive-green wooden tables, and beautiful oversized chess sets. There are books, plants, and burlap sacks in the windows. Louisa, the bartender, looks like an urban hipster in her black shirt and trendy black glasses.
Outside, we wait for the Uncle Fud Band to start playing. Two huge trees billow over the lawn, where a man in a Hawaiian shirt dotted with red sunsets and palm trees sits alone. A middle-aged couple sips wine on a swinging bench. “Me and a couple of my friends like to chill at mellow places,” Richard tells me. “Some of my friends say this is crap. I just say, ‘You don’t know anything about class or nothing.'” It’s warm but not hot, the sky is that lovely deep blue at dusk, and I can hear the cicadas chirping between the chatter. As the group starts to play a mix of jazz, acoustic bluegrass, and some “travelin’ songs,” a lady leans back in her chair with sleepy but happy eyes. Life seems easy for a moment. Richard watches the band, still waiting for his friends to arrive. “Once you think about it, this town is pretty cool sometimes,” he says.
The one thing I do know for sure is that there’s a dance at the Twin Sisters Dance Hall, a few miles outside of town. Around ten, I drive down a dark road to the historic dance hall, built in the late 1800’s. The wooden dance floor is big, the ceilings high, and the light fixtures exposed. Twin Sisters is filling up, but it’s not too crowded yet. There’s a nice mix of people here—families with small kids, older couples, teenage girls in tight tanks, middle-aged men drinking beer. It’s amber colored and warm inside, and cigarette smoke drifts over from a nearby table. A young man in a turquoise shirt and a black hat holds his partner awkwardly at arm’s length while she laughs.
A trio of gorgeous girls from Canyon Ranch sits at one of the long tables. Jordan, Jessica N., and Jessica S., all in cowboy hats, tell me that they drove more than thirty miles to get here because this was the best thing happening on Saturday night. A lot of students from their high school come to these dances, which are held the first Saturday of every month. The band starts up again, and it’s too loud for me to hear them talk. Besides, they’d rather dance: Jessica N. pops up to twirl with a little girl in a red top, while Jordan and Jessica S. dance together, laughing and trying to get the steps right.
Allan and Eleanor are one of the best couples on the dance floor. Although they look like they’ve been dancing together forever, it’s only been a year since they got married and became dance partners. They’ve been making the rounds to all the old Texas dance halls. So far they’ve danced at the Quihi Gun Club, Gruene Hall, Club 21 in Uhland, and the Old Coupland Inn and Dancehall. They move like pros, comfortable and smooth. He spins her around and she smiles as the band plays its final flourish of Texas dance music. It’s Saturday night in Blanco, after all, and everyone’s up to something.