Entering the sprawling new Sign Bar in far East Austin is like visiting an amusement park with no rides, or maybe a museum without a curator. The outdoor space is vast—its boundaries defined by shipping containers—in a part of the city that’s mostly full of auto shops. As you enter, you’re met with an avatar that might be familiar if you drove up South Lamar Boulevard anytime between 1997 and 2020: the dark-haired, legless statue of a woman that once beckoned diners to Maria’s Taco Xpress. She’s flanked, sentry-like, by a human-size figure of a gnome wearing a hat with the Lavaca Street Bar logo on his pointy little head and a Bob’s Big Boy wearing checkered overalls and holding a burger aloft. 

Entering the gate, there are more signs, mostly from departed Austin institutions, iconic or otherwise: The Frisco Shop diner, campus coffeeshop and bar Spider House, Sixth Street pool hall Buffalo Billiards, Hyde Park wine bar Vino Vino, short-lived downtown Italian spot Italic. A small indoor bar serves drinks, and is illuminated by neon signs from Doc’s Motorworks and Dallas Nightclub. This is the whole gimmick behind Sign Bar. It’s full of signs, most of which come from places Austinites of any vintage—especially mid-aughts or later—are likely to know. And have feelings about. 

As I hit twenty years since first moving to Austin, I’m wondering: Is this place for me, a longtime Austinite who remembers most of these places from when they were open and vibrant, or is it for newcomers who want a glimpse of (and to make some social media content in front of) the city that existed before they moved here?

The best era in Austin history is whichever one was going on when you moved here. For me, that’s the early aughts version of the city, where I hung out at Spider House until two in the morning, rented movies at I Love Video, stopped in for a green juice at  Daily Juice after swimming in Barton Springs, and occasionally scrounged up enough change to meet my friends for dinner at Hut’s Hamburgers, or maybe for a chicken-fried steak at Threadgill’s. I celebrated birthdays at Dart Bowl, snuck into SXSW shows at Buffalo Billiards, and played shuffleboard at the Poodle Dog Lounge. 

All of those places are gone now, part of the circle of life for a city that grows, changes, and reshapes itself. For others, Italic, Warehouse District hookah bar Red Fez, or South Lamar gourmet donut restaurant Gordough’s might be the quintessential lost Austin businesses. But all of them live on, in some form, at Sign Bar. 

If your connection to Austin is based, in part, on your memories of various restaurants, bars, and retailers, entering the space is an uncanny experience—you can see the sign for Hut’s but you can’t get a Hut’s burger. (The Hut’s sign, as with a handful of others in the space, is an artist’s recreation, not the original.) It’s like visiting an elephant graveyard full of your own nostalgia—one that also serves White Claw and plays Dave Matthews Band. 

I’ve talked with friends about Sign Bar since it was first announced in the spring. For most of us, there’s a sense of ambivalence around the place no one has quite been able to put their finger on. 

Founder Matt Luckie, whose company FBR owns several bars around the city, including Lavaca Street Bar, Mean Eyed Cat, and Star Bar, told me that he’s been collecting signs since around 2007. He’s paid cash, accepted gifts, and traded for them. (He acquired one from former West Austin fast-casual Mexican spot Zocalo Cafe for six cases of tequila and a case of bourbon.) Business owners whose signs now adorn his bar seem nonplussed about it. Sue Davis, who closed the brick-and-mortar location of her vegan diner Counter Culture late last year (it still operates as a trailer), told me, “Someone reached out to me a month before my closing Counter Culture and they asked for my sign. They didn’t say why they wanted it, but I had no use for it.”

Some of the spots whose iconography hangs in Sign Bar are still around—the metal sign for Mrs. Johnson’s Bakery, a donut shop that’s been serving Austinites since 1948, for example, was upgraded to snazzy neon earlier this year—and the venue is dotted with QR codes visitors can scan to learn more about the establishments. Former South Lamar pizza place Rockin’ Tomato lived a fairly short life in a spot that cycled through various pizzerias over several years, so being part of a monument to Austin history is probably a more noble fate than being forgotten entirely. 

Luckie told me he got the idea for the QR codes from his friend, Austin architect Michael Hsu, and immediately knew it was an idea worth pursuing. But beyond that, there’s little context for most of the signs. In a few spots, Luckie said, he tried to group things by the era in which they operated, but for the most part, the signs feel undifferentiated. Buffalo Billiards sits next to Abel’s on the Lake, which were four miles apart, and both of them sit under a sign for the ACL Festival merch store. Next to them, the sign for Rosedale Kitchen and Bar is hung on its side, more a design element than a display. 

The indoor space, where many of the non-illuminated reproductions live—Hut’s, Katz’s, Nau’s Enfield Drug, and Threadgill’s—feels a little bit like a Potbelly’s or another chain decorated with replicas of vintage signs. Toward the back of the venue, there are neon signs for Dallas-based sandwich chain Which Wich and Boston-based New Balance sneakers. (Luckie told me he acquired that one from Karavel Shoes, which offered to let him take the store’s sign for free if he also took the other signs that hung on the building, a contractual obligation the store had to the space when it moved.) Luckie acknowledged those signs don’t exactly fit with the theme of memorializing old Austin, but told me he’s still acquiring signs, and expects to rotate them as his collection grows. 

It’s not exactly the level of curation and context you’d expect from a museum, but then again, it’s not a museum—it’s a theme bar. Maybe my ambivalence—and the ambivalence I’m picking up from other longtime Austinites—is more about our own feelings around the changes we’ve seen as years of living here become decades, and less about an Instagram-friendly bar that’s at least operated by someone whose enthusiasm for these relics of Austin history seems sincere.

Lord knows enough ink and pixels have been spilled trying to make sense of Austin’s obsession with itself, but even if you think you’re agnostic about whether these changes are the end of the city, sometimes seeing pieces of that history laid out like big-game trophies in front of which newcomers can snap Instagram content just hits a little differently.

Or, to put it another way: It turns out what I wanted upon entering Sign Bar wasn’t to see the sign for Dart Bowl—what I actually wanted was to eat six-dollar enchiladas before bowling a few frames with the friends I had when I was 22. It’s not the bar’s fault it can’t offer that. But when you’re hit with all those reminders that the places you fell in love with when the city was new to you are gone, well, nostalgia can cut both ways. 

So who is Sign Bar for? The place seems popular; I went on a Tuesday evening in the middle of a heat wave, and the place enjoyed a steady stream of customers. So it’s definitely for someone—but I don’t think it’s for me. That’s not a fault of the bar, so much as it’s an acknowledgment I don’t really need to visit a monument to the Austin of years past and be confronted immediately with my own fading youth. There’s a new Austin that’s popped up where the old one used to be, and I’d rather make new memories there than spend my evening surrounded by the totems of the one that’s been lost.