Is a Drinking Establishment's Music Really That Important?

No whimsy here: The Peppermill Lounge knows its clientele.

Few things are more depressing than hopping from one suburban bar to the next, alone on a weeknight. These places are usually empty, dark and quiet. Like clockwork, walking through the front door elicits an imaginary record scratch while heads turn in unison: "What the hell?"

It's all part of the clubs editor job I took a few years back. Recently, I found myself asking that question when I went to Oak Cliff's Bar 303. I pulled up around 10 p.m. and walked into what seemed like an Anthropologie catalog. Books were stacked up whimsically across the candle-lit room, and an installation piece made of branches curved up from the floor to the mantel of a fireplace. It was all really, really cool.

Had I been deaf, the atmosphere would have been sublime. Well, actually, I'd have to be a little blind as well, to avoid uncomfortable eye contact with an employee — my guess is a late-night bar back — who was yelping and dancing by his lonesome in the middle of the near-empty room.


Bar 303

But I'm not, and it wasn't sublime. I couldn't help but notice LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem" systematically destroying every bit of vibe the bar's aesthetic created. A Bon Jovi track followed. I ordered a drink anyway. Not a great beer selection on tap but I found something crafty enough. I think it was a Franconia wheat beer.

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The bartender was friendly and introduced himself. I shook his hand when he brought me my drink. I would've offered to point him in the direction of someone who could make a really good, fitting playlist for the bar, but the giant neon jukebox on the wall looked really expensive. He explained that because other, more popular restaurants in the Bishop Arts district shut down by 10 or 11 p.m., Bar 303 sought to pick up some of the neighborhood's late-night stragglers by staying open late. (You can get a drink as late as midnight on weeknights and 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.) There weren't too many on this night, about six or seven gathered around the bar listening to one bad song after another. It was jarring.

Thing is, other Oak Cliff bars have tried the same thing and failed. Bolsa's Chris Zielke laughs when he talks about the restaurant's early attempts to stay open late.

"We tried for a long time to stay open till two every night. We figured everyone would hang out on the patio like an organic Old Monk," he explains. "And it'd be me and Chris [Jeffers, Bolsa's co-owner] staring at each other at the bar after 11 p.m., because people drive down here for dinner, then they go home."

I can't imagine a world where someone would finish a farm-to-fork meal at Bolsa, and head over to a bar where Jefferson Starship's "We Built This City" is lurking around every corner.

Winding down at Bar 303, I think of visits to other bars, mostly low-traffic neighborhood haunts, where there was no pretense in the air; where the music matched the mood a bit better.

I thought back to the times I walked into a place not expecting much and walked away having talked to friendly, well-worn souls. I've met people with such character and charm, weathered from years of sitting on barstools in smoky haunts that, by the time last call comes, I felt like I'd read a novel.

There was the jazz guitarist at Soho Food and Jazz, who shook my hand after his set and talked for nearly an hour about Les Paul guitars and the trouble with making a living as a professional musician.

"Nobody appreciates the musicians these days," he said.

The massive world tours he once imagined never happened. Now he's hustling to make a living, playing to small, empty rooms on weeknights. Just him and his guitar, holed up in the corner with some smooth jazz licks while the bartender flips chairs and wipes drink rings off tables. The mood he sets in those smoky dens, however, is irreplaceable.

Then there was the little old woman behind the bar at Fort Worth's windowless Peppermill Lounge. The interior walls were made of chipboard and painted over with a thin, nearly translucent coat of black. She chain-smoked Doral 100s and told me that the wooden bar on which my beer was sitting was taken from an old hotel in Fort Worth, and that John Wayne was known to lean on the very seat that held me upright.

Soft, whiny pedal steel guitar played warmly in the background. I imagined a time when the bar was first built, the lady was much younger and the heavy rasp in her voice was only a hint. When I told her I was with the Observer, she insisted on not charging me for the Budweisers.

At Soho Food and Jazz and the Peppermill Lounge, it was the drinks, the atmosphere and, most importantly, the music that added to each conversation. But at Bar 303, music was the missing link. There are other establishments that do the music/aesthetic combo right: Amsterdam Bar, Strangeways, Meridian Room. On the flipside, there are bars like Liquid Zoo, on Abrams Road and Skillman Street, whose recent playlist consisted of Richard Marx power ballads, but it fit the mood. An appropriate playlist is the key ingredient in creating an atmosphere.

By 10:30 p.m., I decided I'd had enough of Bar 303. There were a few other places on my list to visit and the night had just begun. So I took one last gulp of my beer and went out, in search of another bar like the Peppermill or Soho, where heavy souls go to feel a little lighter.

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