Dallas's Most Authentic Dive Bars
The bar door swings open, and orange sunlight, hazy with cigarette smoke, briefly lights the sparse, dingy environs. On the hardwood bar top, a half-dozen dice tumble from a Yahtzee cup, landing close to a smudged envelope stuffed with cash. Near the door, a paunchy, graying man holds a stream of receipts that stretches across the tops of a pair of eight-liner video slot machines. Conversations halt mid-sentence as every head turns toward the two strangers who enter. Of the handful of customers and staff, my wife and I are the youngest in the room by some 30 years.
We just want to kill a couple of hours, not stumble into a geriatric gambling den. But the prospects of finding another Oak Cliff bar open at four in the afternoon on Easter Sunday seem slim. So we head for the bar, grab two stools and order a couple beers. A bored-looking bartender, seeing us as a distraction from the TV he is watching overhead, asks for ID to issue our membership cards. With the paperwork hassle out of the way, he pulls two Coors cans from a grimy Styrofoam ice chest, pops them open and grumbles, "Four bucks."
Dim, lawless and—most important—cheap, that bar remains my dive bar touchstone 18 months later. During our hour-and-a-half stay, strangers made us feel like regulars, offering us smokes, sharing details of their lives—the bartender even gave us a chance to buy into the dice game and compete for the envelope's prize money. We passed when his only explanation of the rules was a vague, "You'll get it as you go along."
No, I couldn't get one of my beloved craft beers. Yes, my clothes reeked of stale cigarettes and cheap liquor. And bar smells aside, I felt like I needed a shower after my conversation with an urban cowboy who mentioned how much nicer his neighborhood was "before it got so much color."
But finally, after years of sampling well-worn neighborhood bars and pre-fabricated faux dives strewn with thrift-store kitsch, I had found it: my own personal dive.
And yet, defining just what makes a bar a dive is a tricky endeavor. Ask me and I'd say it's got to be a dark, seedy hole-in-the-wall that flaunts laws against vices such as gambling, smoking indoors and selling alcohol to minors. Others might take it further, claiming that any self-respecting dive must maintain a minimum of two unsavory characters, each sporting outstanding felony warrants or missing body parts bitten off in bar fights. You're not in a dive, they claim, unless there's a feel of danger to the place, a palpable sense that the friendly drunk next to you might suddenly shatter a bottle and twist the jagged end into your eye just because you asked about his misspelled tattoo.
But must it really be the kind of place you wouldn't take a date, your mother or your grandmother—even though she's the alkie in the family? Or can "dive" be a term of endearment, used to describe one's favorite neighborhood saloon? Is its location limited to the grittier parts of town or forgotten strip centers? Or must there a sign behind the bar that says, "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone ordering a banana daiquiri"?
We asked readers of our food blog, City of Ate, to comment about their perception of what constitutes a dive bar. Everyone held strong opinions but—other than universally acknowledging the dive status of Ships Lounge—there was no consensus. One person's dive bar is another person's honky-tonk is another person's neighborhood bar.
Says Johan, "A dive can't be created, it just is. In fact, a dive doesn't know it's a dive."
Dallas Dude defines a dive bar as a "home bar...They are the safe havens from the hucksters and glitz...Once inside, you retrieve your libation from the not-so-friendly but very accommodating tender, you recognize everyone in the dive and greet them as your fellow dive-masters."
And Handsome Lance Manion says it's "a place with low ceilings, serves a stiff pour with a bowl of some slightly stale but edible snack like popcorn or pretzels, and a bartender/waitress that sneers at you when you light up a cigarette but doesn't dare kick you out."
We also surveyed musicians, artists and restaurateurs to get their take on exactly how they defined a dive bar: "That's a good question," says Chris Zielke, co-owner of Bolsa and Smoke. "I guess it's a bar with no pretenses that is simply about selling booze."
Zielke has tended bar at several of the city's upscale nightclubs and has slung drinks at City Tavern and the late Ben's Half-Yard House, both of which fit his "dive" definition. Sure, there can be food—even good food—as long as it's simple and affordable. Just hold the white tablecloths. He cites The Loon and the Cock and Bull as two dives with excellent grub.
As for the element of danger, Zielke says, that just comes with the territory when you have cheap booze: It attracts a seedier clientele and encourages people to drink more.
"I've seen a few fights [at dives], but I've seen a lot more at high-end nightclubs. Even at Dragonfly [at Hotel ZaZa]—there were a lot more fights there than working at a dive bar."
He names Ships, whose management will kick you out for loud cussing, as an example of a perfectly safe dive bar.
Julie Webb, who co-owns Waxahachie's Webb Gallery, is something of a dive-bar connoisseur. In her travels, she searches for dives rather than hipster bars. But she doesn't glamorize dirty, rundown bars, she says, figuring that a staff that bothers to pick up litter and replace burned-out bulbs is more likely to run a friendly place. She also appreciates the funky aesthetics that small-business owners come up with when working without a large budget. "You want it to look somewhat make-do and folky," she says.
But local country singer Tommy Irwin, who's played in his share of dives, believes a dive bar requires no maintenance—only a down-to-earth feel. "It seems like it's been there for years, but it's always got the coldest beer and good friends," he growls between puffs on a Marlboro at The Grapevine. "But it could also be a redneck bar you don't want to have any part of."
Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous "I know it when I see it" definition of pornography could easily extend to dive bars. There may be no single physical characteristic that determines dive status, but two things that ensure a bar's not a dive are high prices and high-maintenance people. If your clientele consists entirely of Polo-clad, manicured 25-year-old Parkies, you're not a dive. Got that, Time Out Tavern? Likewise, even if you attract an eclectic crowd, the presence of $4.50 draft beer makes it hard to classify a neighborhood sports bar like Lakewood's First and Ten as a dive.
If agreeing on a concrete definition of the term "dive bar" is impossible, classifying dives is a bit more manageable. There are dives in Dallas for every barfly, whether male or female, old or young, straight or gay, drinking alone or in a pack. Dallas is an equal opportunity dive-bar city, and all that separates you from one is the will to dive.
Gay, Straight orWhatever Dive
3902 Maple Ave.
Not even Greg Louganis in his prime combined "gay" and "dive" as seamlessly as The Grapevine does now. With a Web site that actually brags about its mismatched chairs and glassware, the place veers perilously close to the pitfall of pre-fabrication. But thanks to the cheap drinks and genuinely screwball clientele, the bar manages to carve out its own niche in the realm of authentic dives in its own flamboyant way. There's even the touch of danger that can get the adrenaline pumping, at least momentarily, if an incident on a recent visit is any indication:
A young woman pushes her way past a group waiting outside the two unisex bathrooms. "Ooh, I'd love to cut that bitch," remarks a longhaired, burly 30-something man.
As his remark registers, others nearby turn to cock an eyebrow or affix him with an accusing glare, as if to ask, "Did you really just say that?" Sensing the stares, he expounds: "Her hair! I'd love to cut her hair. It's so long! She could use a good cut."
Anywhere else, such an addendum would have sounded like cowardly backpedaling. But he'd already been overheard talking about his passion for hairstyling, so it was believable—though a bit odd.
Or take, for example, the pink-railed, black-felt pool table. It's so damn pretty I wasn't sure whether I wanted to shoot some stick or set up an hors d'oeuvres tray. Yet paired with the stained-glass table light above it, the thing would seem tacky anywhere else. But in this bar, whose design motif of decorative skulls and plastic beads is about as subtle as a Bourbon Street whorehouse, the pool table fits right in.
And then there's the basketball half-court on the asphalt patio outside. Local straight bars could certainly take a cue from The Grapevine on that one: Who wouldn't want to have a few brews and then engage in a game of three-on-three? That said, the "No Physical Play Allowed" sign has probably drawn a few laughs.
As far as dives go, The Grapevine is probably right up there with the Landing as a borderline dive. For that matter, its gayness is arguable as well, as it has won Dallas Voice awards for "Best Straight Bar," because the place welcomes one and all—though I have yet to go on a night when heteros were the majority. Whether it's gay, straight or just not sure, The Grapevine sticks out in the Dallas dive bar scene. And, perhaps unlike the Adam's apple on the girl you're chatting up at the bar, that's a good thing.
Who's it for? People who are open-minded socially—and open-minded about what constitutes a dive.
Dive Where Even Your Grandparents Might Get Kicked Out
1613 Greenville Ave.
Ships Lounge—located in the transitional area between the nightclubs of Lower Greenville and the funky mix of working-class and creative types south of Ross Avenue—may be one of the most widely recognized dives in Dallas. Location is everything, after all. Yet even with diverse crowds drawn from surrounding neighborhoods, the only whiff of danger it offers is the possibility of performing CPR on one of its aging regulars.
"I haven't seen a fight in years," says longtime bartender Tom Forkit. "We head 'em off to the door. People will get in arguments, but that's just people."
Another thing Ships won't tolerate: sleeping. My wife found that out the hard way during a family outing to the bar with my brothers, a few buddies and my incorrigible, wine-soaked, nicotine-stained grandfather. Bored with our begging him to tell one of his outlandish stories—like the one about his father getting kicked out of a saloon, driving a brand-new car through the storefront and demanding one last drink—she rested her head on the bar's vinyl-cushioned edge to catch a few winks.
"You can't sleep here, ma'am, you'll have to leave," announced our bartender—and like that, we got kicked to the curb. Could be he'd earlier overheard Grandpa call the place a "goddamned dump," and out of respect for an octogenarian, he was waiting for a second violation to come from someone younger in our group.
But Ships is quick to forgive and forget. A recent visit (sans Grandpa) found the place cozy and welcoming. It dates back to the '50s and has been owned by Charlie Red for around 30 years. Red may be the reason there are few patrons disturbing the peace at Ships. One barmaid says he's been known to break his own no-cussing/no-fighting rules when it comes to enforcing order. But he's also the kind of peacekeeper who's willing to buy a round for the house after enjoying a few himself.
Ships shows every second of its age in its attitude and catch-as-catch-can decor. A cramped walkway separates the bar from a row of tiny booths, a set-up better suited to quiet conversation than group commotion. Holiday decor aside, the "Unted We Stand" banner behind the bar—if anyone's noticed the missing letter, they haven't done anything about it—is probably Ships' most recent decorative flourish. As its name implies, there's a nautical theme, from the anchor design upholstered to the blue padding on the front door to the submerged treasure chest painted on a closet in the back. Pieces of the glossy black ceiling are peeling off in sheets, and the men's and women's closet-sized restrooms share a common sink. Don't bother pulling out your plastic here: The antique brass cash register is just that—a cash register—ready to make change for the Best of Dallas®-winning jukebox stocked with classic Motown, country, soul and blues.
And while it may be beer and (boxed) wine only, Ships is a great place to watch the Cowboys, as happy hour prices ($1.25 drafts) apply during the game. There's a sizable flat-screen behind the pool table but the older regulars seem to prefer the smaller set by the front door. One of them even bought a round for the house after the 'Boys sealed their victory over the Falcons. It may be difficult to make it through an entire Cowboys game without blurting out a curse word, but the possibility of a free beer makes minding your language worth the effort.
Ships is the kind of place its loyal patrons can depend on. The sign says its hours are 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day, but Forkit says that whoever opens will usually relent for the early birds waiting outside. And every day means every day—Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter. "Oh yeah, we'll be open," Forkit promises. "We don't close for anything."
Who's it for? Anyone—except, ironically, sailors, if the old saying "curse like a sailor" has any truth to it.
9661 Denton Drive
"Let's git Schmitz-faced!" advise the shirts worn by the waitresses at Club Schmitz. With $1.75 drafts and $8 pitchers, you'd have to be a cheapskate not to do so. That said, it may not be such a great idea to get completely wasted, as getting into or out of the torn-up parking lot and navigating the construction-created detours in this dicey part of northwest Dallas requires some semblance of sobriety. On my first visit to the club, I ended up having to make a six-point turn to get into the Schmitz parking lot when I ended up off-roading into a DART construction area—and that was before my first drink.
Just as the fading "Club Schmitz—Beer, Good Food" sign outside suggests, the inside is a time capsule full of yellowed beer promos, mismatched ceiling tiles, well-worn pool cues and a classic shuffleboard table. Aside from a big-screen TV, a few framed magazine articles, a picture of Dubya and the Golden Tee and Silver Strike video games, there is not much here to indicate that it's no longer the '50s. Even the food prices—$2.75 for a grilled cheese, $2 onion rings, $4 to $5 for burgers—hark back to a different era. The place offers ice and mixers if you want to bring in your own liquor, as it only sells beer.
On one recent visit, a young couple on a date occupied the shuffleboard game for much of the evening, pausing only to eat cheesy tater tots and sip from plastic mugs of beer. And as far as I could tell, they were having a great time. Whichever of them thought to have date night at Schmitz had the right idea. You know you've got a low-maintenance keeper if she or he can enjoy a night of cold beer, greasy food and bar games in a somewhat seedy area near Webb Chapel and Harry Hines.
Who's it for? Couples and families—there's even a high chair.
5818 Live Oak St.
To call the Landing a dive is sort of like calling a laptop DJ a musician. The crowd is mostly younger, and it's hard to qualify anything in Lakewood—an area full of trendy restaurants and yuppies who call themselves bohemian—a dive. Plus, the place's slogan, "An Upscale Dive," presents two problems. First, many would make the argument that it's a contradiction in terms. And second, there's the matter of self-identification: A dive can't know it's a dive.
But in the Landing's defense, the food and drinks are cheap, and the place welcomes all to come and slump into one of its booths dimly lit by a vintage Bud lamp. Decoration is mostly of the sentimental variety, with photos of beloved regulars and a shrine to the late, beehived waitress Lucille. The CD jukebox—not one of those Internet things, thankfully—is heavy on local bands, indie-rock and classic country. It's a rare and heartening sight to see Baboon, Squeeze and Johnny Cash rubbing shoulders, though the impeccably selected music also raises the issue of an all-out hipster takeover.
But on any given night, there'll be at least a few old-timers and punch-clock types yelling at whatever game is on and pounding back liquor like it's the eve of Prohibition. And in a weird cultural paradox, if the oldsters were to stop coming in, the hipsters would fear for their dive-bar cred and stop coming as well. And if that happened, it will once again be the domain of the colorful characters who order cheap beer, not because Pabst Blue Ribbon and Lone Star are this year's ironic trend, but because that's what they can afford.
Who's it for? If you can't name your favorite album by Waylon Jennings, Big Star or The Pixies, you might be out of your element.
Dive Where You Could Take Mom (If She Doesn't Already Work There)
6524 E. Northwest Highway
Pity the band that competes for patrons' attention against the raucous games of darts, shuffleboard, pool, cards and shit-talking on a Saturday night at the Copper Spur Saloon—especially if the band in question, a marginally talented cover outfit, is playing for free as an "audition" for possible future gigs. Judging by the crowd's indifference, this freebie will be the cover band's one and only appearance.
It's a tough crowd, but maybe they're just following the lead of owner Nell Scarborough, a stocky gray-haired woman whose quick movements belie her years. She watches over her customers like a mother whose children long ago stopped disappointing her and have since become a source of amusement. When a player at the card table requests a cup of coffee at midnight, she makes no effort to oblige.
"He wants a coffee," she shouts across the room, smirking. "What does this look like, a Starbucks?"
"Hey, Nell, I'll have a decaf latte," blurts out a regular seated near the shuffleboard tables. Others join in, hooting and calling out ridiculous orders.
"You people think this is a Red Lobster?" Scarborough yells to nobody in particular. "This is a beer joint!"
Red Lobster probably wouldn't hide a franchise behind a Tejano club in a potholed parking lot across from Keller's on Northwest Highway. But there's no hiding the beer—cold, cheap and American—or the constant din of clinking bottles pounding against tabletops or shattering in trash cans. Of course, with happy hour prices including $3 wells till midnight on some nights, the harder stuff isn't an uncommon sight.
As much as Scarborough seems to enjoy ribbing her patrons, she looks out for them too. Minutes after I enter alone, she approaches me, an obvious outsider, and begins to quiz me, somewhat aggressively: Where was I from? Where did I hear about the bar? What bars did I usually frequent? Did I work nearby? She seems content with my answers because she replies to each with an enthusiastic, "Well, there you go!" She takes her regular seat at the bar, the stool nearest the front door, and recounts our conversation to a middle-aged guy sitting next to her, making no effort to lower her booming voice.
I figure I'd better make myself look busy. There are no empty chairs at the card table and the video poker machine doesn't take singles, so I put a dollar in a Cherry Masters 96 eight-liner and draw out the experience with minimum bets. "For Amusement Only," the disclaimer warns, so I try to look amused.
A drink or two later, an attractive 40-ish blond waitress visiting the bar on her night off stops by to make sure I'm OK. She says I look lost. I must be. Of the couple dozen people in the bar, the only other two around my age appear to have come with their parents.
Who's it for? Best enjoyed with a group of drinkers who realize that mechanical bulls are for tourists.
Dive With Character(s)
2110 Greenville Ave.
Ever overheard one of those loud discussions between a woman and a man, where you can't tell if they're about to get into a fistfight or start making out? Those seem to be a regular occurrence at The Winedale Tavern.
On the night I stop by, a twitchy 30-something blonde with the taut body of a young lady and the haggard countenance of an elderly woman who seemed to have a wrinkle for every regret, eagerly offers a seat to a friend and me. "Sit next to me, I don't mind," she rasps as we headed toward the lone billiards table.
A country song comes up on the jukebox, and the blonde gets off her stool, leaving her Miller Lite behind, to wriggle and shimmy alone in the small space between the bar and pool table. Her jeans are so tight, we could count the change in her back pocket; her gyrating hips hike her blouse up enough to reveal a faded, indiscernible small-of-back tattoo.
With neither of us interested, she sits down again next to a young Hispanic dude and loudly declares, "My old man can't handle me, so I had to go out with my Mexican friend."
A drink or so later, she gets up and sits down next to a gray-ponytailed guy dressed entirely in denim. The volume of her slurred conversation gradually escalates to a yelling match, until the ponytailed guy's final declaration that, "Well, no matter how good it is, somebody's tired of it." Her "Mexican friend" grins, as if to agree.
"Talk about white trash," mutters the barmaid in a heavy Texas drawl as she scoots to the back door for her third or fourth cigarette of the hour.
It's impossible to imagine such an exchange occurring anywhere else within a couple of blocks in either direction. The Winedale is improbably sandwiched between a fondue shop and a techno nightclub on Lower Greenville, just a stone's throw from a new hookah lounge to the south and an organic food store to the north. You wouldn't think that in a Lower Greenville bar scene replete with $30,000 millionaires, frat boys and sorority girls, poseurs, voyeurs and just plain regular folk, there would be room for such characters. But they'll have a home as long as the Winedale is open.
The chalkboard advertises $3 Sea Breezes, an oddly cosmopolitan drink for such a dump. So when the barmaid returns, I ask if they have any other drink specials.
"Oh, that's leftover from last night," she says, and picks up a rag, pondering whether to create another drink special. She puts the rag down. "I guess I could do any vodka drink for $3." The free-poured vodka tonic strikes that fine balance between generous and too generous, ensuring I'd feel it but not get so blotto as to nix another one.
As entertaining as this crowd is, the club also has karaoke nights as well as open mic performances by acoustic acts. Open mic host Mark McCulloch is another type of character altogether. He's a pro at dealing with delays between nerve-racked or ill-prepared performers, with his arsenal of groaners to keep the crowd entertained. "If you're ever in New York, just remember there's a light at the end of the tunnel," he says. "Unfortunately, it's New Jersey."
Who's it for? If it's been a while since you've taken your medication, you'll fit right in.
Dive Bar That Will Make You Feel Like A Regular
2424 S. Cockrell Hill Road
We walked into Cooper's as complete strangers, but by the time we left an hour and a round on the house later, it was amid promises to return as soon as possible. The bar's advertisement in Latin Life Magazine isn't kidding when it claims, "Now looking for new members!"
From what bartender Jose and longtime regular Larry could remember, the place has been at its current location at the corner of West Illinois Avenue and South Cockrell Hill Road since relocating from West Davis Street in 1983. The CD jukebox reflects the diversity of the neighborhood and clientele, with a random assortment of discs from Freddy Fender, Vicente Fernandez, AC/DC, Al Green, Robert Earl Keen, Rolling Stones and Johnny Cash. Thursday-night karaoke is similarly mixed, Jose says, with regulars choosing blues, country, rock and Tejano from a comprehensive Internet playlist.
Conversation between the regulars, the bartender and us newcomers ranged from how the smoking ban symbolizes governmental intrusion to the price of a cord of post oak firewood to just how quickly you can get used to the sound of gunfire at night in Oak Cliff.
One 50-ish ex-military man claims he could tell by the sound of the gunshots on certain holidays that a neighbor was using a .50-caliber machine gun to celebrate.
"It goes, 'budda-budda-budda,'" he explains. "And those shells are expensive. I don't know where he'd get them. I hear it sometimes at New Year's or Christmas, but not always. I figure he can't afford the bullets every year."
The laid-back approach to repair in the men's room is evidence of the easy-going manner of the joint, with tiles missing and the toilet tank lid replaced with a whitewashed piece of plywood rather than porcelain. However, there are signs that not everyone in the place is always so friendly, as a couple of fist-shaped holes scar the inside of the door. Above the broken wood, some anonymous wag wrote, "Don't hurt me, I'm only a door."
Who's it for? Neighborhood folk with a sense of humor about life in Oak Cliff.
Dive Bar For Karaoke Stars
2843 W. Davis St.
Phillip Jester, the former GM of Lee Harvey's, is moving up in the dive-bar world. He and his business partner Ken Arkwell purchased this 42-year-old northwest Oak Cliff watering hole from longtime owner Dennis Wood in September, assuring regulars that he wouldn't change a thing. Except maybe slapping on a coat of paint. And adding an enclosed back patio for smokers. And bringing in the occasional band or DJ. And adding some art to the back room to make it an inviting lounge area. And offering food from Party Maker.
But Jester promises that Tradewinds' bar staff and its revered biweekly karaoke night will remain intact. In fact, he's trying to more frequently book D&D Karaoke, the husband-and-wife karaoke jockey team whose charm and collection of oldies and country classics can get even the most reluctant performer to work the room.
Tradewinds karaoke nights are a must for people-watchers. Singers of all skill—and sobriety—levels belt out golden country oldies or strut their stuff through cheesy Neil Diamond showstoppers. The audience's age may not skew as young, now that Wood's toddler is no longer careening around the legs of bar patrons on his tricycle, but grizzled neighborhood regulars still sing alongside the younger artists and business owners who have found work a few blocks east in the Bishop Arts District.
A friend introduced Jester to the place a couple of years ago, and thanks to its proximity to his Oak Cliff home, it became his home away from Lee Harvey's. He proudly calls the place a dive, a term he uses with great affection. "A dive is a neighborhood bar that's been around for years and years that has the same clientele and has been doing the same thing," he says. "It can't be too polished. It's got to be well-worn."
A dive, he continues, should be a neighborhood meeting place. To emphasize that, he added "Social Club" to the Tradewinds name and plans to bring back the tradition of potluck dinners. Although Jester quit his post at Lee Harvey's with plans to open a restaurant, he says Tradewinds will not be that restaurant. That would be too radical a change for the dive he loves in its current form. "With Tradewinds, I figure I'll make a little bit of money over a long period of time," he says.
Who's it for? Anyone who can sing along to David Allan Coe's "You Never Even Called Me by My Name."
The Oldest New Dive
2720 S. Zang Blvd.
"Well, I didn't see this pretty young thing walk in," exclaimed one of the regulars when he turned from the video slot machine and spotted my wife, who'd waltzed into the place unescorted a few minutes before my arrival. "She's hotter than Church's chicken!"
A remark from a man old enough to be her father would seem creepy at most clubs. But at O'Malley's, a singlewide-sized bar on a sliver of land wedged between Zang Boulevard and Interstate 35 in the heart of Oak Cliff, it just seems like a harmless compliment.
Whatever change prompted the addition of the word "New" to the club name on the painted brick column that has served as the dive's sign since the '60s, it has long been forgotten. Nothing about the place—not the evil-looking leprechaun mascot by the door, not the faded orange siding on the exterior of the club, not the "Free Drinks Tomorrow" sign hanging above the liquor bottles, not the gray-haired barmaid—looks new.
O'Malley's hits every dive-bar stereotype as if it runs through a checklist every morning before opening. Eight-liner video slots? Check. Lingering cigarette stench? Check. Undersized, cramped bathrooms? Check. Leather-faced old-timers who look as if they've been perched on the same spot at the bar since the Nixon administration? Check and check.
Who's it for? The Irish—and anyone else. Despite the name and the leprechaun, this is no pub. It doesn't even serve Guinness.
All-Hours Mixed-Use Dive
4319 Main St.
Though its East Dallas neighbors are almost entirely businesses catering to Hispanics, the crowd at Starlight might be white, Hispanic or mixed depending on what time you go, explains Gilbert, the bartender. "When we first open at 7 a.m., it's a white crowd," he says. "Then the girls come in, and it's mostly Mexicans, like them. Then it'll be mixed later."
"Mixed" describes the clientele at 11 on a Sunday night. A sad-faced white woman with a black eye whines for a free drink, claiming Gilbert owes her money, until he relents and gives her a can of Coca-Cola. She slinks out. About a half-dozen young Hispanic men play pool—all Mexican-American save one Honduran, who is the butt of the others' friendly jokes. Gilbert laughs, revealing a smile with more gaps than teeth, and translates for my wife and me.
"He said, 'I laid money on the table from here to here,'" Gilbert recounts, holding his hands about a foot apart. "And one of the other guys said, 'Yeah, you put a quarter here and a quarter here!'"
Two middle-aged Hispanic women come in, one of them talking excitedly about the AC/DC concert she'll attend the next night. She feeds a dollar to the jukebox, and "Hell's Bells" blares through the bar, deafeningly loud.
Gilbert says sometimes the place makes him a bit skittish: The Internet Rock-Ola jukebox may randomly play songs after he's closed. Other times, the ice machine will dump a load of ice into the bin, shattering the after-hours silence. His jittery nature is understandable once he describes how a gang of muggers killed a bar patron at another club just down the street after the victim refused to give up his wallet. Still, his paranoia is not without its lighter moments.
"One time, another bartender was reaching into the ice bin, and the door slammed down onto the back of his head," he says. "Then he stumbled over there [pointing to a timed mister system], and right when he did, it sprayed him in the face. He was going around screaming, 'Augh, they clubbed me and then they Maced me!'"
Who's it for? Those unfazed by loud jukeboxes and those who drink their breakfast.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.