The first problem I had with this drinking man’s guide was to get your macro-picture, to generate a universe of tips on joints. I know a lot of people who should have been able to help me with this—bar owners and bartenders and inveterate drunks—but for some reason the old memory retrieval system doesn’t work too well when it comes to bars. Barely three calls into my survey, I noticed that I was getting a lot of “Oh, yeah, there’s this place right outside Rockport… Damn, what was the name of it?” When they did remember, it was invariably a place I already knew about, one that was closed, or one that I knew didn’t fit my criteria.
I fretted over this for a while, and then one evening, deep in the throes of a self-pitying stupor, the answer suddenly dawned on me. Forget the bartenders and bar owners. Forget the inveterate drunks. You want the real skinny on bars? Go to the real authority. So I staggered over to the nearest pay phone and called my favorite state senator.
It worked like a charm. In 24 hours I had more tips than I could handle, not to mention a generous offer of assistance anytime I needed a drinking buddy. “Serving my constituents is what I’m all about,” he said. “This is off the record, isn’t it?”
Bars and objectivity have never gone well together. I’ve listed in no particular order the places I liked and the places I could remember. The criteria for what I call a bar bar are fundamental: no ferns and no froufrou, an adequate degree of darkness, stiff drinks, engaging bartenders, no-nonsense waitresses, and that most elusive quality of a great bar (see “The Bar Bar, ” for more on this), the sense of not being there.
Marfreless, 2006 Peden. I knew this was a bar bar before I even entered. Two reasons: the place displayed no sign announcing itself, and it had that frequently ignored bar bar essential, a door door. No kidding. There’s just this door, like to someone’s office. Inside, it’s not dark, it’s subterranean. There’s a loft if you want to get semicozy and a room off the loft if you want to get paranoid. Nice group of regulars at the bar and passable drinks—though the place did serve a Scotch and water in a stemmed glass, which is troubling, and it did offer a two-for-one happy hour, which is unforgivable.
Kay’s, 2324 Bissonnet. Rice University beer bar with marvelous deco crapola and a daytime bartender who calls you neighbor. He also gives directions willingly and well—a must for a bar bartender. Arguably the best beer bar I visited.
Nick’s Fish Market, First City Tower, 1001 Fannin. Talk about unlikely locales. Nick’s is not only downtown in a big bank building that looks like a Ronson lighter, it’s also a restaurant. And as if that isn’t bad enough, it’s an expensive fish restaurant. Despite all that, it’s the best Manhattan-style lounge I found. It’s all corner booths and tiny, intimate cocktail tables, with a huge, snaking bar. All-male help wearing those waiter’s uniforms, and (get this) they pour everything—soda, juice, even water—from pitchers or bottles. It’s clearly a power bar, with lots of lawyers and pols, but Nick doesn’t take himself too seriously. Among other things, he’s got complimentary Visine in the men’s room. Nice touch. The place might seem stuffy, but don’t let that fool you: Nick’s is the real thing.
The Last Concert, 1403 Nance. This is a Mexican restaurant near the Elysian Street viaduct north of Buffalo Bayou. I bring it up for three reasons. First, a good friend of mine, who definitely knows her bar bars, drinks here. Second, it has one of the niftiest bars I’ve ever seen, a curved, multicolored, decobrick affair. Third, it has an interesting rest-room setup: two little cubicles out back across a courtyard, one labeled “Man’s,” the other “Ladies.” You figure it out.
Park Lane, 2010 W. Alabama. Best bar in the Montrose area. It’s a little too deco, but you still get that all-important feeling of being in someone’s living room. Last time I was there it had a great lady bartender and two guys playing power darts—meaning they threw the suckers as hard as they could and watched what happened. The couple next to me at the bar couldn’t remember the rules to backgammon—a good sign in several ways.
The Jockey Club, 4714 Richmond. I had a feeling this might be good when I saw where it was located—in a small strip shopping center at the intersection of Richmond and Loop 610; good bar bars tend to be located nowhere. Deluxe sports bar here, with big tube, ESPN, all the essentials. The thing that impressed me most was the rowdy table at 1 a.m.
The Remington Bar & Grill, 4608 Westheimer. Okay, it is a fern bar. Besides that, it’s a fern bar that has live jazz, munchies, and some other things that don’t have anything to do with a good bar. But it has great regulars in the afternoon, and at happy hour there’s a bartender so slick and so fast that he kept my ashtray clean, and that’s a little like trying to keep the floor of the big top clean at circus time.
The Backroom, Hyatt Regency, 1200 Louisiana. The Hyatt? You bet. Houston has a strong tradition of solid hotel bars, and this unpretentious little place just off the atrium on the main floor is no exception. Leave the Spindletop to the tourists; the Backroom (a) has a door door, (b) is dark enough to accommodate the lighting needs of, say, a sea cucumber, and (c) features the only workable variation on that silly two-for-one happy hour business: it serves the drinks, which are only moderately stiff, one at a time.
White Horse Cellar, 1211 Fannin. I knew that serious drinking must go on in this tattered old downtown steakhouse-bar the minute I saw the plaque on the door: “Est. 1744.” Any joint that has regulars in it at 3 p.m. is a bar bar, period. This one had a retired judge (always a good sign), two lawyers earnestly discussing a case (a better sign), and a group of old guys holding forth ferociously on the subject of, well, dog poop. Other highlights were the bartender’s riveting rap on bursitis and the array of graffiti in the john, including “Life: Several realities to choose from!”
La Carafe, 813 Congress. Cozy little downtown beer bar with appropriately scruffy regulars. High ceilings, a lot of mysterious doors in the back that don’t appear to lead anywhere, and the best graffiti I found: “Life Is a Swinging Tire” and “Mutants for Nuclear Power.” Any place that has “Puff (the Magic Dragon)” on the tape is not just funky, it has soul.
Grif’s, 3416 Roseland. Montrose beer pub that’s a bit heavy on the Irish crapola and definitely heavy on video games. But the regulars—ranging from smartly dressed attorneys to an old black guy in a cowboy hat—are a group to behold. The proprietor, Grif, is a real bar bartender, and any place that’s got not merely old guy regulars but old-lady regulars has to be the real thing.
Richmond Ice House, 4700 block of Richmond. This is a fern icehouse, if there is such a thing, but it’s probably the safest breed of fern bar to sample. Pool tables, dominoes, and a great lady bartender (my favorite Texas bar tradition).
Joe Miller’s, 3531 McKinney. Best bar in the state, if only because it’s mine. You’ll not find a more archetypal bartender than the irrepressible Joe, and his young protégé, Louis, is a carbon copy. A great mix of regulars including lawyers, judges, journalists, a coach, retired guys, and some ladies. Dark, cozy, and unpretentious, Joe’s pours the stiffest drink in the state—and on that count I am being semi-objective. Don’t ask for a piña colada here; Joe doesn’t have a blender in the joint and has been known to fly into a rage of expletives at the mere mention of a froufrou. Having said all that, I’d like to join the rest of regulars in requesting that you please not come by if you’re in town.
Bullington Point, 1411 Bryan. The look is deceptive, to say the least: a cavernous downtown hamburger joint frequented by secretaries who drink iced tea and things like that. But if you sit at the bar, you’ll quickly see it’s the real thing. Choice group of regulars—a lot of financial types—and a ruthless bartender, Mark Boles. Just when you think it’s safe to go home, he’s liable to pop you with a shooter of peppermint schnapps. If you’re in the mood, ask Pat or Pam or Barbara to tell you a joke—the Bullington may have the worst waitress humor in the state. Food? Try it if you’re starving, but ask for a blindfold, which is provided free of charge. The Bullington happens to be my favorite daytime bar, but other entries in this burgeoning division have merit too, notably the Point After on Lovers Lane, an exemplary sports bar.
Lakewood Yacht Club, 2009 Abrams. This East Dallas joint doubles as a lunch spot and manages to capture the essence of bar bar spirit even though it has a window (horrors). Chief reasons are its eclectic group of regulars, ranging from big-time lawyers to blue-collar workers to East Dallas hangers-on, and proprietor Tom Stevenson, who does a wicked imitation of Bill Cosby and an even more wicked takeoff of Joe Miller.
The Quiet Man, 3120 Knox. Oak Lawn beer joint that predates liquor by the drink and for years served as the area’s only real bar. Still the scene for a lot of arty types and an occasional spirited attempt to reconstruct New Left politics. A close neighbor and former speakeasy, the Know Street Pub, runs along the same neighborhood-bar lines.
The Den, Stoneleigh Terrace Hotel, 2927 Maple. I still think this tiny New York-style lounge is the best hotel bar in Texas. Its darkness rivals that at Joe Miller’s and the Su-Su in Fort Worth. Also has the state’s most-regular regulars.
Greenville Bar & Grill, 2914 Greenville. An East Dallas neighborhood bar bar, in spite of its trendy soda fountain look and occasional live entertainment (a bar bar no-no). Only place I’ve seen with a window that actually adds bar bar ambience; because it’s right on the street, you can watch the passersby and make fun of them.
Stan’s Blue Note, 2908 Greenville. Legendary East Dallas beer joint that has shown immense heart by surviving the slow but inexorable ferning of lower Greenville Avenue. Old-timers, dominoes, that sort of thing.
Arthur’s, Campbell Centre, 8350 N. Central Expressway. Upscale, along the lines of Nick’s Fish Market in Houston. Has live jazz, and at cocktail hour it’s a bit of a singles club. But in the afternoon it’s the real thing, despite its location in a gold-glass office tower.
Willie’s, 1105 S. Beacon. Deep East Dallas beer bar. Dark as bejesus. If you’re hungry you can make your own sandwich from a plate of cold-cuts, and if you hang around long enough you might get a round on the house from Willie, who announces this ritual by blowing a whistle.
Rangoon Racquet Club, 4936 Collinwood. This place was the best of a dim lot in Cowtown, until it closed at the end of March. It had a bedeviling mixture of themes. I think the original motif was along the lines of colonial Thailand, but the seating areas looked more like a New York lounge. There were some fern bar and pub trappings tossed about and a separate piano bar upstairs. Phew! It was dark, served monster drinks, and had regulars in it at three in the afternoon. The RRC will go down in bar bar history.
The Su-Su-Lounge, 5922 Curzon. Just down Camp Bowie from the RRC, this musty West Texas—style beer bar has received several nominations for darkest bar in the state—and deservedly. Pool table, jukebox, peanut machine. The regulars look as if they settled in in 1943 and never left. Nicest touch is something called Man’s Nite, appropriate countermarketing.
Angelo’s Barbecue, 2533 White Settlement Road. Blow off the famous barbecue and ignore the gimmicky stuffed bear. This is a preferred haunt for locals as well as for Cowtown expatriates who have the misfortune of having to return every now and then.
Chateau Club, 5409 Jacksoboro Highway. This joint is the subject of more Fort Worth folklore than Cullen Davis. A large, castlelike structure at the top of a foreboding winding road, the Chateau is reputed to have been a casino and reputed to have been a brothel. Whatever it was, it is a bar bar. You walk downstairs to the bar (a detail I always like), where you are greeted by a kitschy fifties ambience that is not at all contrived—it’s the way the place has always been—and by an engaging lady bartender. Of special note are the rest rooms, which include stalls with shower doors on them. I asked what was upstairs and was told tersely, “I live there.” I didn’t ask why there were six big cars in the parking lot and no one in the bar but me. I’m glad I didn’t. “Come back and I’ll make you up some red beans,” she said as I left.
White Elephant Saloon, 106 E. Exchange. Okay, so it’s a bad, touristy imitation of an Old West barroom. Okay, so it sells White Elephant T-shirts and posters and serves beer in plastic pitchers with fake frost on them. Okay, so it has live entertainment and asks for your credit card—and keeps it—if you want to run a tab. This is Fort Worth we’re talking about, and this mainstay of the rejuvenated stockyards area is favored by courthouse types and sundry downtown drinkers.
The Quorum, United Bank Tower, 400 W. Fifteenth. Big league power bar. We’re not talking lawyers who talk about politics, we’re talking lawyers who are politicians. Key fact is that the Quorum has changed location twice and never skipped a beat. The latest move was to the top floor of a glass bank building, but the people, as proprietor Nick Kralj puts it, are the place. Notable attraction is bartender Raymond, who must have been born with a quart of gin in his hand. This place’ll get you nowhere, too: I had two, I think.
Austex Lounge, 1920 S. Congress. If you race down—or across—the demographic scale (and you can certainly do that after two of Raymond’s drinks), the Austex will do you fine. Epitome of the tough South Austin beer bar, it has a group of nonupwardly mobile blue-collar types, a large black bouncer-doorman, and a three-piece band that plays some kind of very loud fusion. A strong point is the availability of that neglected bar game, seeing how many card-board coasters you can catch after flicking them up from the edge of the bar; catch as many as the bartendress deems fit and you win a free beer. If you get into this genre, continue on to the Horseshoe Lounge on South Lamar or to Donna’s Club on South Congress.
The Cedar Door, 401 W. Fifteenth. Journalists’ bar about the size of a walk-in closet, as I recall, and with the atmosphere of a steam bath. There’s absolutely no reason for it to exist except for drinking.
The 606, 606 Trinity. First problem: it’s near Sixth Street, which has developed a fern forest about the size of the Costa Rican one I saw recently on one of those “Then the lizard jumped on the rock” PBS nature programs. Second: it calls itself an oyster bar, which as far as I know should be near an ocean. Third: it has windows. But look at it this way—everything is relative. It had the sense to name itself what it is: the 606, its address. A crowd of regulars hangs out nightly, and a sweet lady bartender remembered my drink on my second night.
La Plaza, 317 E. Sixth. A real cantina on Sixth Street. If you don’t know any Spanish, try the E.G. Bar, just down the street—talk about a serious group of regulars. Even though the lights are on and there’s a good crew at the bar, the sign at the door says Closed. Sometimes, I hear, the door’s even locked. But if you have the fortitude to walk around back, they’ll never give you a second look.
Scholz Garten, 1607 San Jacinto. I’m not one for beer gardens—or beer, for that matter—but no tour of Austin bars would be complete without a visit to this venerable hangout for students and pols. At least it’s willing to serve mixed drinks, and the garden itself is unpretentious and lively.
English’s, 3010 Guadalupe. My bar when I was a student, so it gets included automatically. It’s one of the few tastefully done pub-theme places I’ve seen, and it mixes a drink that will blow your doors off. Always a good assortment of kids and businessmen here.
Piggy’s Bar & Grill, 310 Congress. Jazz bar, I know. But what a fine one. Good music, tastefully appointed deco decor, drinks that’ll make your face shrivel up like a dried coconut after the first sip. Great late-night bar.
Ray’s Place, 1308 Chestnut, Bastrop. Worthy of mention because it is a classic of the Central Texas bait n’ beer joints that kept an awful lot of barflies happy long before the Baptists let us have liquor by the drink. Key features are live bait, a terrific Formica-topped bar, and a rubber machine that dispenses Funny Fannie’s Dirty Dozen.
The Past Time Club, 200 block of W. Travis, La Grange. No, not that. This is an old courthouse-square bar, with the obligatory grandmotherly bartendress and a group of domino junkies for regulars. This name is appropriate. How old were they? So old that they were all drinking coffee. But they were there, and that’s what a bar bar is all about.
New Ulm Tavern, Taylor Street, New Ulm. This place has great matchbooks—the late-fifties kind with the Playboy-style photos on one side—and five beer clocks. As in all good bars, each clock shows a different time.
Knebel’s Tavern, 102 Pecan, Pflugerville. Sells beer, barbecue, and nail clippers. Also has two first-rate bar regulars: one, a half-dwarf with a Snoopy-type hat on; the other, a grizzly of a fellow whose head looks like it was shot with some kind of German steroids. Mr. Knebel behind the bar is a real charmer, as are the ice-cold beer and barbecue.
The Speedway Inn, Interstate 35, Jarrell. Between Georgetown and Temple, right on the access road, the best highway bar I visited. Other contestants welcome. Seedy shotgun-shack of a place, with four guys playing dominoes, a rest room that doesn’t really work, and an evocative behind-the-bar sign: “Come to the Taylor Fire Department Four-Wheel Drive Mud-Run.” If that doesn’t do it, how bout 60-cent beer? Anyone who’s into highway bars should try the Shadowland, at the West exit off IH 35, too.
Bruno’s Curve, Texas Highway 87, Comfort. So named because it sits squarely on the curve out of town. Hill Country beer bar: dominoes, pool, and a Pac-Man machine? Well, you can’t fight progress.
Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar, 308 Main, Bandera. Name alone scores points here. Sawdust and shit-kicker honky-tonk. Lamp shades with elaborate Western scenes. Pool table. Arkey Blue is a semifamous musician in these parts. You can get a lot of Arkey souvenirs here, as well as a book called Up and Down With Elvis Presley, and pizza.
Bill’s Ice House, 528 W. Main, Fredericksburg. This classic of the small-town Hill Country icehouse genre closed its doors in March—gone but not forgotten. It had beer, junk food, ammo, bait, a lounge, and—to the very end—block ice.
Gallery Restaurant and Bar, 230 E. Main, Fredericksburg. Gets high rating for looks alone. Long antique affair lined with tables and booths. What whiskey drinkers there are in this area drink here. Period.
Sunday House Lounge, Best Western Sunday House Motel, 501 E. Main, Fredericksburg. Don’t scoff at motel bars. In places like Abilene and Amarillo, a motel can be an oasis in a Bennigan’s-and-beer-joints desert. Regulars here were playing liar’s poker as the evening passed on.
The Esquire, 153 E. Commerce. Best-looking bar bar in Texas. A musty, amber-shaded saloon with the longest stand-up bar this side of the Long Branch, high Victorian ceilings, and a row of old wooden booths. Regulars tend to be your elderly Mexican Americans, though at cocktail hour on a weekday you begin to see some suits and ties. A small patio overlooks the San Antonio River. The margaritas are hand-shaken and even better than those in the border towns.
The 5050, 5050 Broadway. From the folks who brought you the Stoneleigh P and the Greenville Bar & Grill in Dallas. This soda fountain bar doubles as a lunch spot, but there’s more soul here than you usually find in such places. It serves a terrific Bloody Mary and has the definitive neon sign—a simple old-fashioned treatment of “Tap Room.” Regulars tend to be young professionals and Alamo Heights hanger-outers, but in San Antonio this is the emerging bar.
The Beauregard, 320 Beauregard. This King William-area pub along the trendy nouveau deco line serves as watering hole for serious downtown drinkers who eschew the hotel bars along the river. Best features are the genuine deco meat locker and the beer garden, which works because it’s right on the street.
Little Hipp’s, 1423 McCullough. An irrepressibly funky beer joint that serves folk from the nearby Santa Rosa Medical Center. The exterior is orange prefab aluminum. The interior includes a spectacularly odd selection of bar crapola: a live Amazon turtle, numerous old four-color photos of food, and beach balls suspended from the ceiling in fishnet. Runs a close second to Kay’s in Houston as best beer bar.
Gomez Ice House, 8223 Broadway. Sells beer and ice and cuts keys. Need to know anything else? Sits amid a clutter of new office buildings on Broadway near Loop 410, a testament to its true bar bar heart.
The Navy Club, 123 E. Travis. A downtown spot known for years as a hangout for off-duty cops, the Navy Room retains its private club status, which is kind of quaint. You can get a membership card if you even look like you might buy a second drink.
Menger Bar, Menger Hotel, 204 Crockett. It may look like a tourist trap, but this is the place where Teddy Roosevelt tied em on. A coterie of downtown regulars sip here amid the finely restored paneling and the wooden booths. If the lights were dimmed and the service improved, it might be my favorite downtown spot in San Antonio.
Elizabeth’s Cocktails, 902 N. Chaparral. Great old seamen’s bar downtown, with assorted other types, like journalists, thrown in. The place is only slightly larger than the pool table that dominates as you enter, but there’s a cozy stand-up bar. I knew it was a bar bar when Elizabeth, a sweet-faced bird of a woman, shushed some rowdy drinkers much more efficiently than any bouncer could have. Another keen feature is the glorious old rubber machine in the men’s room, selling something called the Cutie Nudie Puzzle, and its sign warning, “French Ticklers Sold as Novelty Items Only.”
Cooper’s Alley, 15 Gaslight Square. In Dallas or Houston this would be just another fern n’ froufrou bar. But this is Corpus and despite all the brass and old railroad ties and piña coladas and lip gloss, it’s the bar for the young and upwardly mobile. Catch it at cocktail hour but don’t stay too long, because later the loudest in Texas cranks up. Watch out for the parking-lot beggar.
La Cantina, La Quinta Royale Hotel, 601 N. Water. The best of a meager lot among the hotel bars near the water. A walk-in closet of a place, but it had a great bunch of regulars at lunch the day I visited, and the lady bartender mixed the only legitimate (made from scratch) Bloody Mary I drank in my travels.
Cantina Santa Fe, 1011 Santa Fe. A Taos-style fern bar, but I could see being reasonably comfy here at cocktail hour. Worth noting if only for the niftiest rest-room gimmick I came across: a large wall unit that dispensed Brut, Aramis, or Musk Oil for a quarter.
Rod n’ Gun Cocktail Lounge, 821 Tarpon, Port Aransas. Hard-core islander bar, with a great wall mural and the stoutest drinks in town. Nice behind-the-bar sign here: “Give credit to those over 80 only if accompanied by their parents.” Shorty’s Place right next door is an Aransas hangout of some renown. No question about it. Shorty’s has loyal regulars. When I glanced in, one of them looked up at me and then reached over and slammed the door. Whoever you were, I understand the feeling.
The Gaff, 409 S. Allister. Heavy-duty beer bar of the sort that silences instantly when a stranger walks in. It had the best bar TV I saw—a 1955 Truetone that was about the size of a Buick—and one of the better collections of behind-the-bar humor—”If you’re in the doghouse, you’re welcome here” and “Fishermen, hunters and other liars welcome here.” This was the only joint I found that had a six-legged barfly, a pesky critter about the size of the Truetone TV.
Resaca Club, Fort Brown Hotel, 1900 E. Elizabeth, Brownsville. This hotel bar sits right on one of Brownsville’s famous resacas, and the effect is so pleasant that I don’t mind the windows. The margaritas are nearly as good as the Esquire’s in San Antonio, and there are numerous old guys at the bar—always a good sign.
Blanca White’s Matamoros Long Bar, 49 Alvarado Obregon, Matamoros. A survivor among the border bars’ dwindling lot. The Long Bar is just that: a huge bar surrounded by two seating areas. Decor is early cantina tacky. You’ll see your tourists in here but also locals from both sides of the border.
Austin Street Inn, 1110 Austin, McAllen. The equivalent of Cooper’s Alley in Corpus, a ferny pubby joint. Ditto for McAllen’s Quorum, which has the appearance of a singles bar but is dark enough to be a bar bar.
Lobby Bar, La Posada Motor Hotel, 100 N. Main, McAllen. Regular hangout for business types; unpretentious hotel bar.
The Veranda, 2300 Padre Boulevard, South Padre Island. Has a big-screen TV, and the night I was there the bunch at the bar was having a spirited argument about the rules to liar’s poker.
The Pirate’s Castle, 5401 Padre Boulevard, South Padre Island. What a find! The place is designed like a miniature castle, and the help wear little pirate costumes. Lots of unidentifiable pirate-looking crapola behind the bar. I heard some terrific, sorrowful holding forth here about the state of the border economy. The bathroom euphemisms were the best I saw anywhere: Pirates and Wenches. It’s a silly, tacky theme bar, but it manages to be the real thing by virtue of its island regulars. Put it this way: if there’s a lady drinking tequila and dancing the two-step by herself when you walk in, it’s a bar bar.
Louie’s Backyard, 2205 Ling, South Padre Island. As does the Resaca Club over in Brownsville, this joint gets by with windows because it’s right on the Laguna Madre. It also has the stoutest drinks on the island and the only acceptable munchies I encountered: simple crackers and cheese. My visit was marred by some pretty obnoxious live entertainment. A guy sang “Song Sung Blue,” “Moonshadow,” and then Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender” all in the same key and all in precisely the same rhythm.
007 Room, 110 N. Big Spring. Best real bar bar that I found outside my own joints in Dallas. In Midland? You bet. Dingy little spot with several great crapola touches, like the huge fake scallop shell around the pay phone, and one of the better behind-the-bar sign combos I ran across: “This Is a Reputable Establishment. Try to Act Like It” and then next to that “F—— Communism.” A great lady bartender was presiding over a particularly fine assortment of bar barflies, including this one fellow who seemed to be on the last leg of a transcontinental drunk. I forget his name even though he introduced himself to me approximately 78 times. He wasn’t just crying drunk, he was kissing drunk. In the midst of his forty-sixth or forty-seventh introduction, he planted a big wet one on top of my head. In that noble bar bar tradition, I took no offense. The bartender stopped serving him though and sent him home with a friend. The holding forth was top quality too. “You know,” mumbled one regular, “this bar’ll be here long after we’re all dead and gone. A sobering thought, huh?” If all that doesn’t convince you, then get this. When I tried to leave, the guy next to me told me I wasn’t going anywhere and bought me another one.
Discovery, Hilton Hotel, Lorraine at Wall. I’m not sure it’s that, but this modest joint at the downtown Hilton is a creditable hotel bar. An English bartender and a darkest-bar honorable mention.
The Bar, 606 W. Missouri. Slips in on name alone, even though I spotted a few too many ferns. Downtown joint with heavy-duty TV sports crowd. I overheard a young guy in a gray suit making the call home using an interesting variation of the lie. He told her he’d be home soon, but first he had to drop off his friend Wayne because he was too drunk to drive.
Wall Street Bar and Grill, 115 E. Wall. Has symptoms of the New Orleans oyster bar trend, but its solid hard-drinking regulars of the white-collar variety save it.
Montana Mining Company, 1 Oak Ridge Square. This is part of that awful steak-and-salad-bar chain, but in Midland its lounge is okay. An old cowboy next to me was a barfly supreme: he drank bourbon straight up at three-thirty in the afternoon.
Picasso’s, 220 N. Grandview, Odessa. A safe joint in Odessa? I think so, but I can’t tell you for sure because I went in the daytime. I was willing to make a lot of sacrifices in my quest for bar bars, but going to an Odessa bar at night wasn’t one of them. Occasionally has live entertainment and other no-noes, but it’s a solid little place with good stiff drinks.
Moriarty’s Bar & Grill, 500 N. Kansas. Most authentic pub I ran across. An exceptional bar sign here: “People who think they know everything are particularly aggravating to those of us who do.” A couple of pool tables, a small grill across the room from the bar, those fine old chrome-and-vinyl barstools, and that seldom-seen bar tradition, a regular who just stands in the middle of the room by himself and looks around. He wasn’t at the bar, he wasn’t near a table, he was just smack in the middle of the room. When he’d finish a drink, he’d signal to the barmaid and she’d deliver a fresh one at his outpost.
Jaxon’s, 508 N. Stanton. A downtown spot along the Santa Fe—chic lines, but it’s not overdone. Good stout drinks are served in huge lowballs—a rare touch.
Kentucky Club, Avenida Juárez 629 Norte, Juárez. Still the best in this shell-shocked border town, it’s my favorite border bar of all because local drinkers, not tourists, hold sway here. Serves a lip-smacking version of that oft-abused libation, the Tequila Sunrise. Genuine saloon trappings and marvelously tacky mural. As you might expect, it sets the record for parking-lot beggars.
Pine Knot Jr., 2224 E. Yarnell. Hole-in-the-wall beer bar; one that serves only Old Milwaukee and Bud on tap has got to be the real thing. Regulars are old blue-collar types with hands that look like heavy drilling equipment and with seemingly endless capacities for beer. Fairly interesting holding forth here by an old guy on Vietnamese refugees. “Those people’ll work anytime, anywhere, any hours. Never seen anything like it.”
Central Cafe, 109 N. Oregon. Slick, New York-style lounge that must be in the running for stiffest drinks in the state. I knew it was right when the bartender answered the phone, turned to the guy next to me, and said, “Are you here?”
Graham’s Corner, 5959 N. Mesa. Shopping center bar with friendly bartenders, good jukebox, and some old-lady regulars.
The Rugger Pub, Steak and Ale Restaurant, Interstate 40 at Paramount. Yeah, I know, but this is Amarillo, remember? Watering hole for lawyers, pols, and others who still mourn the loss of Lucy’s and Rhett’s. Nothing special, but the drinking is serious, and I was the only stranger in the crowd.
The Mad Hatter, 2600 Paramount. Alternative bar for serious Amarillo drinkers. Remindful of the Point After in Dallas: dark, cool, with a depth charge in every drink. Located in a strip shopping center near Interstate 40, it had to overcome a lot to reach bar bar status, but it’s made it.
Sipango Club, Interstate 40 at Western. Amarillo’s only real bar for years, this is easily the best motel bar I visited, a distinction owed in no small part to its location in a Howard Johnson’s. It’s a bit shopworn, and the blaring C & W music gets old, but the place adds a new dimension to the term “dark.” Neat cowgirl bartender knows her sign language. I ordered a second one merely by catching her eye and raising my eyebrows; she wordlessly and efficiently mixed another vodka tonic and took two bucks out of my change on the bar. At the Canyon Club at the other Howard Johnson’s, on Interstate 40 at Grand, things are pretty much the same.
The Office Lounge, 506 W. Sixteenth. Old Amarillo beer bar with blue-collar clientele. One fellow was just starting into the final descent of a transcontinental. “I know I’m a drunk,” he kept saying, “but I’m an honest person.” That’s world-class holding forth, as was the subsequent session of trying to guess one another’s age, a favored bar pastime.