The Endangered Dive Bars of Dallas
We raise a toast to the best dives in Dallas, before they get razed
Last year we lost two. First went The Loon, the bar Uptown forgot, an against-all-odds dive that finally succumbed to the weight of reality and was plowed in favor of a CVS. Next went Club Schmitz, the working-class bar on Old Denton Road, replaced by a RaceTrac. It’s impossible to know which will go next, or when, but it won’t be long. Inevitable death is part of any dive’s charm, just like it’s part of yours.
This is especially true today, in Dallas, as developers rush to remake the urban core’s remaining pockets of grit. So we went drinking. We wanted to take a snapshot of our favorite dives, in case — in case! — the money comes for them sooner than later, and their torn upholstery and angelic jukes are replaced by horizontal redwood and cane-sugar soda machines. We wanted a time capsule of their shittiness. We wanted to celebrate the eccentricity they pickle within their walls.
Mostly, though, we wanted to drink, and this seemed as hearty an excuse as any. So off we went. – The Editors
Lowest Greenville, 1613 Greenville Ave.
When it all ends, I hope I’m at this bar. The moment the soil quakes with the undead; before the sun burps a solar flare like a dragon tongue; after Chuck Norris vacates the Oval Office, I hope I’m holding a heavy mug at Ships Lounge. I truly hope I’m in the boat, the jukebox humming and my thoughts gauzy with beer, at the exact moment it all comes crashing down.
I’m here on the night of Mayweather v. Pacquiao, and the place is just on the cusp of too-busy. I’m down two mugs’ worth of draught Pabst Blue Ribbon and stuffed up against the bar. The padding is puffy and worn, fake leather flaking away like a stale baguette. House lights are low. Chili pepper Christmas lights dance above the bar more loudly. Shooting stars of tinsel run alongside them. Pam, the bar manager, is tipping a box of Franzia into a wine glass. This is Ships. There’s no liquor, and one of the two draught beers (Shiner) has a towel over the lever indicating that it’s spent. The ceiling sags with the weight of time. Hey, cold PBR it is! You’ll have to find the Pacquiao fight at another bar. The TVs here play muted TBS.
When the door closes at Ships, time and space become fluid somehow, and you’re not in Dallas. You’re rocking from the bow, 1980s Nashville, to the stern, a 1960s New York winter. There is literally no evidence whatsoever that Lowest Greenville is bustling nearby. Within shouting distance of Ships’ front door are the craft beers and ceviche and artisinal popsicles of the new Greenville, and it’s creeping its way toward Ships. The wave has already overtaken Ross Discount Tire, a holy-shit-cheap hole-in-the-wall where you could once get your tire swapped out in under 15 minutes. The Discount Tire closed up shop recently, and it’s being remade. Soon it’ll be another spot to get burgers and craft beer.
For now, everyone and everything inside Ships is immune. It’s as though Pacquiao and Mayweather ended decades ago. As though I could turn to my neighbor and say, “Holy shit did you see _____” and fill in the blank with any major event in history.
Somehow 40 minutes have passed since the place opened and I settled in. Here’s what’s happening:
10:40 p.m.: The pool table is swarming with 20-somethings. They’ve invaded. They’re all leather jackets, mustaches, tight jeans and cool shoes. “Earth Angel,” the original by the Penguins, fills the bar. If a 20-something changes the song, I’m challenging him to a fight at the quarry, even if the nearest quarry was long ago turned into a Korean fried chicken joint.
10:50 p.m.: Pam pours another glass of wine from the Franzia box. Slow clap for whoever is enjoying the hell out of their Franzia. “I’LL HAVE ANOTHER FRANZIA,” few people have ever said.
10:53 p.m.: Trendy Macklemore Haircut Sleeve Tattoo Dude is talking to manager Pam loudly, in that all-the-people-at-work-think-I’m-hilarious tone. He says, “I’ll even put one of my own playlists up there, so people don’t suck a dick on the jukebox … but it’s not like you can go wrong on this jukebox.” No idea why he says it.
11:03 p.m.: Oh hey, my dad’s at the end of the bar in a Tommy Bahama shirt! Hey Dad! OK, shit, that’s not my dad. Turn away. Dad? No, still not him. This man wears white shorts?
11:09 p.m.: “When a Man Loves a Woman” is on, and everything is all right. Several PBRs in, I am. (I think to myself in a Yoda voice.) It’s all cash, and a five dollar bill will get you two. “Say hi, Pam!” Macklemore dude says to the manager, and she smiles and waves. He says “hi, Pam!” in a cheeky way because he’s the funniest guy in the world. When a mannnnn loves a womaannnn...
11:26 p.m.: I’m waiting in the back for the restroom. The cigarette machine, the old one with the brass pull handles, is glowing like Kryptonite. There’s a microwave haphazardly plugged in on top of the machine, which may just be the greatest one-two dive-bar-decor punch in Dallas. I’ve been waiting to pee for a while. I can hear the guy in the bathroom unclogging his throat with massive loogies. Or he’s playing movie sound effects of vomiting.
11:30 p.m.: Two guys next to the pool table, dressed like they’re in a band, stand and hug. One guy kisses the other’s head. They come to the bar for Pabsts, where we’re all obviously drinking Pabst — me, my Dad at the end of the bar, Pam, the guy hurling in the bathroom, B-team Macklemore — and it’s beautiful. It’s all without the anchor of years. — Nick Rallo
Lakewood, 7248 Gaston Ave.
Across the street, there’s a new Luke’s Locker. And a Fresh Market. And a Petsmart. The New is invading the area surrounding The Goat, and I’m worried that very soon, one of my favorite Dallas dive bars is going to get eaten by newness for the sake of newness.
A tattooed and hoop-earringed bartender wipes down the bar. Shark Tank plays on one TV, a telenovela on another, Rangers game at the bar. It’s 8:34 p.m. on Friday at The Goat.
The idea of trading the street tacos and green squeezy-bottles from Tacos La Banqueta and the wood-paneled walls of The Goat for yet another Starbucks or Gwyneth Paltrow’s next boutique, probably named Junks!! Or Splooge? Or Panty Hat Ellipses — well, that just makes me want to puke all over your Manolos. It makes me want to fail at attempting to throw heavy stuff. It makes me feel like history and culture mean nothing. And it builds a bleached-out, fake-tanned, Little-Boxes-On-The-Hillside neighborhood that is just no damned fun.
“Uptown Funk” begins to play on the jukebox, and not one motherfucker in here starts jamming out. Nobody acknowledges Mark Ronson’s existence for one second. It’s the best kind of bar. The bobbleheads above the bar nod in agreement.
Things have already begun to change a little at The Goat. I noticed the sweaty girls in yoga pants on my way in and thought, “Whatever, man. It’s not like there’s a dress code here. And the cool thing about this dive is that everyone from all parts of the rainbow shows up in here at one time or another. But they do seem kinda young and beardless for The Goat’s usual Father Time demographic.” One of them vapes.
At the bar, a Rangers fan yells, “We loved the fucking zoo! Birds! Birds, man! DUDE, BIRDMAN! I LOVED THAT MOVIE. Shelly hated it, though. Fuckin’ Shelly, man.” The Crazy-Dancin’ Old Guy With All The Keys is sitting there, too, pregaming. I can’t wait for him to start crazy-dancin’. But that will have to wait for live music.
Even the video slots in the corner seem a little confused when more workout people sweaty their way in the door. They brought a veggie pizza — that’s a pizza with vegetables on it for any The Goat Lifers reading this — and proceeded to talk about calories while they placed their drink orders. “Miller Lite, I guess.”
Bar Camper too-loudly explains her drink order to the bartender: “It’s Peach Schnapps and Malibu and Crown!” Hot-In-The-Dark-55-Year-Old-Lady swanks over to the bar and gets a stranger to give her a dollar for the jukebox. She takes her way-too-easy-to-get dollar and her swank to the jukebox and chooses “Let’s Get It On.” It’s 8:58 p.m. at The Goat.
The sweaty visitors are The CrossFit People who moved in next door in 2011. They have begun to get really comfy stopping by The Goat after their workouts. The easy thing to do here would be to disparage the CrossFitters and blame them for the possible hipsterification that could befall The Goat because of their presence, and because they are tweeting their friends that “Taking shots is actually totally Paleo. Come out to The Goat, y’alls!” But making fun of these people is not a The Goat thing to do. Everyone is glared at equally upon walking through these doors. Nobody’s special. And nobody gives any shits. This is where you go to drink away the work week: the focus is on getting drunk, not on the company. And who cares if someone’s counting calories loudly at 9 p.m.? By midnight, they’ll be shooting whiskey and dancing with the band like everyone else.
A woman who has been at the bar since I arrived heads out the door. “Honey, be careful out there!” A sweet don’t-drink-and-drive message? Nope. “There’s a dang tornado watch!”
I just hope we get to keep The Goat forever. And who knows, if a wrecking ball comes to tear the place down, maybe now we can call upon our new CrossFit friends to lift the thing with their bare hands and carry it away so that we can save the joint for a little longer.
“One of you assholes forgot to flush!”
Long live The Goat. — Alice Laussade
Oak Lawn, 5320 Maple Ave.
Being at the Windmill, especially on a busy Saturday night, is sort of like hanging out at the 21st-century Algonquin round table, only much more crowded and better looking. After a few cocktails, I decide that a young woman in a black dress, a sculptor from East Dallas, is Dorothy Parker. She’s talking about her credit score and stepdaughter instead of love lost, but close enough. Later, Harpo Marx is laying it on thick, trying to talk an SMU post-grad into going home with him. It’s only 9:30.
The rest of the crowd, yuppies, barmen and artsy types among them, are closely focused on one thing: their next cocktail. No amount of flapping arms or tapping fingers or expertly placed go-to-hell looks is enough to distract anyone in this packed room from their mission. On a busy Saturday night, people trying to decide between an expertly mixed Manhattan and just taking their pricey whiskey neat pile on top of others, who are debating whether to spring for the top-shelf booze. The rest just order a beer and a shot and slam away.
There’s a wait because, unlike many other bars, the cocktails here are actually mixed well. Your bartender considers proportions while she mixes your Manhattan, and properly measures each ingredient. She knows what aquavit is. When you ask for an apple martini, she politely points you in the direction of an Aviation or another more sophisticated cocktail that won’t make you look like you’re trapped in a 1999 episode of Sex and the City. This bartender, she cares about you, and that is rare.
When that cocktail finally arrives, it’s inching toward 10 p.m., and it brings relief. I couldn’t decide which of the Prohibition-era cocktails to start with and settled on a gin fizz. It’s better than expected, and strong enough to motivate me to strike up a conversation with the other folks around the bar. They’re discussing books or movies or some obscure play that I’ve never heard of, but I’m still certain there’s something I can contribute to the conversation. The crowd here has an almost academic vibe, and that combined with the well-mixed liquid courage is all that’s needed for anyone to start feeling way, way smarter than they actually are. I am not immune.
After talking, debating and arguing for nearly an hour about Wilco and whether or not it’s possible for feminists to enjoy the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, this braintrust of new bar friends orders yet another round of Jameson shots, but it still feels like something is missing. Charlie Papaceno, who founded this bar with his then wife, is gone, of to a different bar in a different neighborhood, and that feels a little sad. Before getting too bummed out, it’s time to go. It’s still only 11:30 p.m.
As the car turns onto Maple Avenue, I think that maybe Charlie got out when he had the chance, before trendy barbecue and pasta purveyors paid upwards of $3 million dollars for the privilege of horning in on all this prime real estate and the people who flock to it. This street is changing, no doubt, but the next time you head toward that bright neon Windmill, everything inside those walls will be the same: the good drinks, the intellectuals, the people-watching. That is, of course, until Trammell Crow’s development company pays someone a hefty chunk of change to tear it all down.
There are many different kinds of bars, but only two matter: the bars that make you feel like an abject failure, and those that reassure you that you’re making the right choices. The crappy college bars and the Cheers bars, if you will. These two types of bars are equally formative for drinkers —— in one, you learn who you really are. In the other, you learn exactly how good you could be. Windmill Lounge is the latter. — Amy McCarthy
Old East Dallas, 4822 Bryan St.
Of all the great tragedies to befall the world, including but not limited to World War I and Liam Neeson’s Taken 3, one of the most breathtakingly beautiful is the train wreck that is Friday night karaoke at the Dallasite. You cannot miss it. Remember that scene in Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade when the guy ages really fast and explodes into powder and bone and the woman can’t look away from the supernatural horror? Dallasite karaoke is that. If you’re in its fiery wake, you will not be able to look away. It’s too glorious, too harrowing — like aurora borealis, or M. Night Shyamalan movies. It will seduce you, then melt your face clean off the bone. Let me provide details.
It’s a gloomy Friday night and the electricity feeding the Dallasite’s sign, an outline of the Dallas skyline, is flickering in and out. Inside, the karaoke stage, not much more than an open space with a couple microphones and monitors, is ready to accept its victims.
At 11:09 p.m., two Dad bros, shirts tucked into belted jeans, go right for the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water,” because what you want to do when you’re singing karaoke is pick a song with a 45,000-minute instrumental. They really let us have that catchy chorus, “I’d like to hear some funky Dixieland,” and all who are alive cheer.
“Someone puked over there,” a woman warns the leader of the “Black Water” performance as he walks to the parking lot.
My gin and tonic is large and perfect, with a big slice of lime.
Sitting at the bar, front and center for karaoke, the following things are seen shortly before midnight: A man-bunned guy lightly raves. A tall man with glasses guides his pregnant companion out the door saying, “Let’s go preggo!” He smacks her butt, and they smile. A short, fit dude, the drunkest person I’ve seen in a while, takes the microphone in between songs and yells wild and strange gibberish into it before his microphone is cut.
“My Girl” is performed, soothingly.
Two guys — one with a Stonewall Jackson mustache and the other with skinny jeans and a cigarette tucked behind his ear — give a searing performance of 2Pac’s “California Love.” The guy with a cigarette behind his ear shouts, “We’re going to fuck this world up!” followed closely with, “He’s getting married in two weeks!” in reference to his friend with the mustache. Then, halfway through the song, Cigarette Ear expertly claims “Motherfuckin’ Uptown can suck my cocktown!” Note: The performance ends with the previously mentioned short, fit, extremely drunk dude taking the stage and pulling up his shirt to reveal his abs.
“What is going on tonight,” says the emcee of Dallasite’s karaoke, with a look of despair.
Following the “California Love” masterpiece, Cigarette Ear approaches me, my Lady Friend and my brother. He introduces himself, and tells me that my girlfriend and I look alike, and that we look great together. He squeezes my shoulder like a lifelong friend, and returns to his party.
Dallasite has a lovingly scary karaoke community, drinks as powerful as ultraviolet light and Jaegermeister flags — what more does one need in a dive bar? During the day, things are quieter. There are burgers and sandwiches on the menu. There’s shuffleboard. Jimmy’s Food Store is across the street, and Vietnam, a buffet-style restaurant, is next door. Standing on the Dallasite patio, it’s easy to imagine it all being bulldozed, with planters, concrete as smooth as crêpes and sophisticated chefs taking over the quadrant. All those things are great, but Dallasite is perfectly bizarre the way it is. — Nick Rallo
Lakewood, 5818 Live Oak St.
It’s Thursday, sometime after 10 p.m., and 30 or so people are shuffling around Lakewood Landing in various stages of drunk. Led Zeppelin is on the jukebox, on the heels of the Rolling Stones, on the heels of a long list of classic rock bands, the ones that were popular when the average American basement looked a lot like the inside of this bar does now. The walls are dark wood and covered in art curated by local beer distributors; the once ornately patterned carpet is fading into a collectively grungy hue. There’s a pool table, and a sway-back sofa nearby for passing out.
The Landing is an “upscale” dive bar, according to the sign out front, but more than that it’s a bar that percolates with creative individuals. It’s an artist’s bar, a theater junkie’s dive. Musicians occupy half of the stools and even pour some of the booze. Some of them play the Double Wide as topless, body-painted girls tease the crowd. Some of them tour the world. Some of them stink, if you listen to the ribbing between gulps of beer.
Filling the gap are the locals, who view Lakewood Landing as a second living room, and the occasional misfits who treat dive bar outings like it’s a weekend safari. Houston is playing the Clippers on three televisions, and nobody’s interested except two dudes in starched shirts camped out in front of the largest screen. They’re pulling hard on bottles of New Castle; they don’t fit in here.
“Give me a Bud Light, a Miller, a Coors Light, a Rumple Minze, a Firewater and a Deep Eddy’s grapefruit and soda,” says a regular in a flannel shirt, shortly after storming in the side door. That’s more like it. A cluster of regulars — commanding a handful of beer bottles and a rogue glass of wine that keeps the jukebox fed — clings to the far end of the bar. The weekend crowd comes and goes, but these guys are always here.
The dive-bar touristas are pouring in now. Two walk in dressed head-to-toe in white. They take their positions at the center of the bar and proceed to give their own performance. “Look at those two!” yells Coors Light from the end of the bar. The couple didn’t notice. The Guy in White cups his date’s back end like he is holding two heavy cantaloupes. She coils her arms around his neck, her colorfully tattooed skin forming a boa.
“Get a room!” one of the regulars yells, as others take turns guessing. “Are they wasted?” offers one as an obvious explanation. “He must be going off to war,” says another, getting closer. This goes on long enough for a few to pull out their phones and illuminate the situation, the cool, white light spilling out like a bucket of water.
“Don’t take our picture!” Mr. White chortles, the situation temporarily chilled. But the white light remains as the regulars fall silent. Even the jukebox is quiet, or at least it seems that way. “She’s headed back to L.A. tonight,” Mr. White offers as an appeasement, confirming one regular’s assessment that the behavior was an everyday airport occurrence.
With his arms raised, stiff like tree trunks that almost reach the ceiling, the regular shouts in victory and the white light dims. Another round of drinks is ordered, the jukebox resumes and the couple in white continues apace. — Scott Reitz
Tradewinds Social Club
Oak Cliff, 2843 West Davis St.
It’s 9:59 a.m. on a Sunday night in Oak Cliff, and I’m gulping whiskey out of a mason jar like a hillbilly who just ran a marathon. The five other people in the bar next to me are doing the same, but faster. I don’t know any of their names. One of them is the bartender. I ask her if I’m the only person in the room she doesn’t know.
“I know you now,” she says. It turns out her name is Kim.
This is the Tradewinds Social Club, where the drinks cost less than a gallon of gas. I don’t catch his name, but the guy who bought my first shot turns out to be a former manager. He moved on to another job a few years back, but still drinks here. I can see why.
Kim tells me the bar’s been here since 1968, and I believe her. From the outside, it looks condemned. Inside, people discuss their favorite bars in sacred terms, and the friendly darkness of Tradewinds rivals any chapel for sanctuary. It’s fitting that the bartop’s edge is padded to comfort the arms of its hunching faithful, like the kneelers of a church pew. Tradewinds is certainly generous with the Eucharist.
To my right is an ancient television set cycling through angles of the bar’s parking lot via closed-circuit camera feed. Am I supposed to find that gritty or hilarious? What, I wondered, would I actually do if I glanced over and saw someone stealing my car? Keep drinking: That’s probably the protocol.
I see no taps behind the bar, and I know better than to ask. There’s a small selection of unpretentious bottled and canned beers, plus all the Kentucky Deluxe plastic-bottle blended whiskey you can drink. They’ve got a couple of nicer bottles up there, but it just doesn’t feel right. I order a Tecate to break up the routine and Kim regretfully informs me that, “Honey, we’re out of lime slices.” I accept a lemon wedge instead. I can’t tell the difference.
I spend the rest of the evening talking to Kim and the other regulars, and after a few hours it feels like I’m getting blotto with family. I honestly think I’ve stumbled upon something rare here. If the folks at Tradewinds are always this nice, I already regret telling you about it, for fear of breaking the spell. Just don’t ruin this for me. I told them I’d be back soon for karaoke. — James Rambin
The Grapevine Bar
Oak Lawn, 3902 Maple Ave.
I’m two champagne cocktails and $6 into my bar tab, but I can’t stop worrying about Laurie and Curt.
The Grapevine’s barware is an eclectic hodgepodge and my cava flute is no exception. A commemorative keepsake from the couple’s (possible) wedding, the etched glass announces a planned matrimony on April 29, 2006.
So how did this glass wind up here? Darker still, why is there a nearly full box of Laurie and Curt flutes stashed under the pool table? Did Laurie leave him on a reality TV show? Is Curt a man of few words? Are they living in Tampa?
Come to think of it, I have a lot of questions about what’s happening at The Grapevine.
What led to the 10 separate warning signs hanging around the basketball hoop, pointing out the venue’s lack of injury culpability in varied conflicting, but equally shouty fonts? Who smashed the hole in the stained-glass lamp hanging above the pool table? Why did that lady bartender pour me a nearly full mason jar of well tequila?
Most curious, did the bathroom stall’s six individually hanging toilet paper rolls evolve responsively? As in, did someone once take a crime scene-style shit here and just … abandon it? Did an employee walk in, say “Never again,” and immediately start drilling five back-up rolls into the walls? Or is everyone at The Grapevine just really good at looking out for us?
We may never know. Those who do — the true stewards of our drunken big data — are the bar’s staff, a motley crew of professional dream weavers and secret keepers. You’ll like all of them, but it’s John who everyone wants to do well by.
Tall, broad and currently boasting a green mohawked ponytail, John is the unofficial overseer of fun. He’ll whip something up, hand it to you, and then you’ll wonder how you ever did without it. And what’s in there? Fuck if I know. The first time I met him, he won me over with pure charisma: “Hey, I’m John — like the toilet.”
I also suspect he’s the safety deposit box of our black-out memories.
I’ve never asked John about the signs, the glassware, the broken light fixture or if Curt and Laurie got down the aisle. Because at the end of a day, none of it matters. We come here to lose information, not to acquire it.
We’ve all abandoned secrets at this bar. Pieces of our lives. Stories. Dates. Heavy doses of gossip. Light injuries. It’s a place to catch up and fall apart. To toast with strangers without asking why. It’s a comfortably worn event horizon, nudging you deeper through boozy time and place.
Tonight I’ll lose a lot of things at The Grapevine: receipts, cash and my favorite tube of lipstick. But hey, that’s the trade. You’ve got to feed the ghosts. The next person sitting in this corner booth will find them all, a discovery that will spark their own batch of questions. And maybe it’s the mason jar of tequila talking, but I really hope Laurie and Curt made it. I’ve just got a good feeling about those two. — Jamie Laughlin
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