Q: In the first line of my favourite Guy Clark song, “Dublin Blues,” he sings about drinking mad dog margaritas at a bar in Austin called the Chili Parlor and I’m curious if the place I find on Google is the same one he mentions. The lyrics lead one to believe that it’s a special place, as Clark is longing to be there in the song. Also, if this is the actual bar from the song, what’s so special about it? And what exactly is a mad dog margarita?
Pete Tremblay, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
A: The Texanist doesn’t always get to say this, but boy, have you ever come to the right place. To answer one of your questions, yes, the Chili Parlor you found on the Google is indeed the same Chili Parlor that Guy Clark sang about in “Dublin Blues.” Its full name is the Texas Chili Parlor, and while it’s billed as more of a restaurant than a bar, it actually serves the community as a watering hole as much as it does as a chili hole. The Texanist knows all of this because the Chili Parlor happens to be located just a short stroll from his office in downtown Austin, right there in the shadow of the State Capitol, and he has darkened its door for both “water” and chili since back in the middle eighties.
The Chili Parlor first opened that door to the public in 1976. (As a side note, chili was named the official state dish of Texas just a year later.) Among the establishment’s early patrons was a loose-knit assemblage of fun-loving rabble-rousers known as the Mad Dogs, a group founded by legendary Texas Monthly writer Gary Cartwright and his equally legendary wordsmithing compadre Edwin “Bud” Shrake. Circling around the Mad Dog nucleus of Cartwright and Shrake was a constellation of other Lone Star luminaries (as well as out-of-state friends and associates) that included writers, politicians, artists, actors, rascals, and musicians. Larry L. King, Dan Jenkins, Willie Morris, Billy Lee Brammer, George Plimpton, David and Ann Richards (yes, the same Ann Richards who went on to become Texas’s second female governor), Susan and Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie Nelson, and one Guy Clark were all members in good standing.
Individually, the Mad Dogs were mostly creative, productive, and important members of society. As a unit they were less so. Though their proposed plans were big—multiple attempts to buy a town, the production of thirty-minute pornographic movies with socially redeeming value, an all-night general store, the launch of “the world’s first literate and non-hysterical underground newspaper”—these schemes went almost wholly unfulfilled.
The Texanist could go on and on and on, but a full history of the Mad Dogs would end up being book-length and there are already a couple of those in existence. If you’re interested in further reading on the subject, let the Texanist suggest Texas Literary Outlaws: Six Writers in the Sixties and Beyond, by the Texanist’s friend Steven L. Davis, and Jay Dunston Milner’s Confessions of a Maddog: A Romp through the High-flying Texas Music and Literary Era of the 50s to the 70s.
Those books contain a lot of useful information and wildly entertaining anecdotes, but what’s most pertinent to your query is that much of this crowd’s special brand of jollification took place at the Texas Chili Parlor (Gary Cartwright got married in the Parlor’s back room) and was fueled in part by margaritas—especially margaritas made with mezcal.
In Tamara Saviano’s biography, Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark, Clark talks about the Mad Dogs and the Chili Parlor and those margaritas. “Everyone was hanging out at the Chili Parlor, and they started ordering margaritas made with mezcal, which is just horrible,” Clark remembered. “The only reason it came about was because nobody had any money, and it was cheap. That was a Mad Dog margarita.” And that’s how the low-cost and high-octane margaritas served at the Texas Chili Parlor came to be.
In the mid-nineties, about twenty years after the heyday of the Mad Dogs, Clark released his eighth studio album, Dublin Blues. The first song, the title track, a tune for which Clark borrowed heavily from the folk classic “Handsome Molly,” starts off with a few resolute chords strummed on an acoustic guitar that are then followed by the equally resolute opening verse in which he apparently addresses a gal he’s pining for: “Well, I wish I was in Austin. Mm-hmm. In the Chili Parlor bar… Drinkin’ Mad Dog margaritas and not carin’ where you are.” It’s Guy Clark tunesmithing at its best, and one of the Texanist’s favorite Clark songs, too.
The Chili Parlor was likely a special place to Clark until the day he died, in 2016. And for many a Texan (and Guy Clark fan) it remains so.
Upon walking into the Parlor, one is instantly transported back to a time when most of the Mad Dogs were still with us (Cartwright, Shrake, King, Morris, Brammer, Plimpton, and Ann Richards are sadly all gone). The air is pungent with the smell of chili spices and booze and the décor is a mishmash of neon signs, old photos, and sundry ephemera, including the obligatory hand-painted list of rules found in most all divey establishment: “No checks… no foofoo drinks, no talking to imaginary people.” On a busy day, when the place is humming, if you listen really closely you can hear the whooping of Mad Dogs among the din of clanking dishes, classic rock music, and the mostly genial commotion (though the Texanist did witness a lunchtime bar fight there not too long ago) of Chili Parlor patrons partaking in a little merrymaking.
Many folks who show up to the Chili Parlor today, the Texanist was told by management, are tourists who heard about the place in “Dublin Blues” and have pilgrimaged there to raise a Mad Dog margarita to Clark and see what it’s all about. The Mad Dog margarita (two parts Monte Alban Mezcal, one part Triple Sec, one part fresh lime juice, shaken vigorously with ice and served on the rocks) is reportedly the Chili Parlor’s best-selling drink.
If you ever make your way to Austin (mm-hmm), look the Texanist up. He’d be happy to meet you at the Chili Parlor for a Mad Dog margarita. The first round, of course, is on him.