All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their histories while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
They kept the lights low. The fake reindeer mounted above the bar, with Tabasco-red lights wrapped around its antlers, was the brightest thing in the joint. Some of the jukebox buttons were a faded brown, either from a mysterious, crusted sauce or from wear and tear.
Windmill Lounge was labeled a dive, and it felt like one, but really, it was Dallas’ first soul-soothing cocktail lounge long before one could be found on every corner. It was a Dallas cocktail lounge before the concept of a Dallas cocktail lounge existed.
“We were the first,” former owner Louise Owens says, staking her claim. The Lounge was “five years too early,” she says.
“I’ve always stumbled into things early on," she says.
In the '80s, Owens was running a restaurant in the East Village of New York, locally sourcing ingredients before it was cool to locally source anything. Once in Dallas, where Owens grew up, she and Charlie Papaceno, her husband at the time, drove around pointing out rapid Dallas development in spots that used to be grassy pasture. When Papaceno lost his job, and with a little bit of money Owens had received after her mother died (“not, like, playing money or fuck you money — enough to make a difference," she says), they sunk it into the empty building with the windmill on top.
The Lounge became one of Dallas’ best dimly lit spots to grab a real cocktail. In a Dallas Morning News piece, cocktail critic “Mr. Dallas” labeled it a “dive with distinction.” There was a palpable sense of welcome at the bar, like you’d find at a neighborhood dive with a crusty old jukebox.
But this wasn’t a dive; it was something else. It was Our Lady of the Cocktail church. It served paninis with Village Bakery bread that you could devour next to the pull-lever cigarette machine. In 2013, Esquire named it one of the best bars in the country.
“If you couldn’t get along with the drag queen at the bar, then you had to leave. Everybody was welcome and everybody had better get along and if you’re an idiot racist, just shut up if you’re in our presence,” Owens says. If you’d been to the bar during her tenure, you’d know it’s true.
The music you’d hear in the joint often came from Owens' personal collection, a 400-disc Sony CD changer that turned into one of Dallas’ coolest jukeboxes. It was brimming with the good stuff.
“To me, we weren’t a dive bar because we had cocktails and we had toilet paper,” Owens says. She admits, however, that they kept the lights low. They did this because Windmill Lounge was an arm around our collective shoulders. It was a place to land and feel the as-old-as-the-human-race comfort of a local watering hole.
“If I’m day-drinking, I don’t want to be somewhere with windows," she says.
A few months ago, Lisa and Tom Georgalis, owners of the Ivy Tavern, took over the Windmill Lounge. They’re looking to keep the focus on the cocktails and the bar’s attitude while upgrading the menu. At a preview of their new offerings, the chef drops cracker-crust flatbreads like the Blanca, made with mozzarella, white cheddar, nodes of chevre, Parmesan and a creamy Alfredo sauce. The Windmill Dip comes with paper-thin roast beef, caramelized onion and a horseradish-spiked Gorgonzola sauce.
Inside the Windmill, the decor has definitely gotten a reboot. There are sleek black booths and new art — on one wall, you’ll find paintings of women in black lingerie. The jukebox has been replaced with a spot where a DJ can spin, and there’s a digital jukebox on the wall. With the on-the-nose loungey art, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgia for the old ways. Yet for Owens, it was time to move on; the place needed new equipment, and she was ready to pass on the keys.
Cocktails are still the focus at the new Windmill. The teaser menu featured a spot-on Pisco Sour and a Hemingway daiquiri, with Bacardi rum, maraschino liqueur and grapefruit juice, that left me wanting four more. There’s a frothy whiskey sour with Maker’s, lemon juice, egg white and maraschino liqueur, topped with a few hammers of bitters, and a Corpse Reviver with gin, Cointreau and Lillet Blanc. There's also a drink called The Louise.
There may be few updates that tug your nostalgic heartstrings, but the cigarette machine is still there by the bathroom. The reindeer’s still hanging above the bar, and, maybe most important, the lights are still dim.
Windmill Lounge, 5320 Maple Ave.