People Issue

Charlie Papaceno: The Cocktail Kingmaker

In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 30 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Mark Graham. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

If you packed up Charlie Papaceno and his many bottles of booze, carefully encased them in bubble wrap and shipped them off to some upscale cocktail lounge or cozy beachfront bar, the place would have instant regulars. That's the thing about Papaceno: He mingles well.

Papaceno owns the Windmill Lounge, the dim but lovable dive on Maple Avenue. He co-owns it with his ex-wife, actually -- a distinction that overtakes most stories about the place. But as Dallas' craft cocktail scene evolves, it's Papaceno's deft hand that the city's bartenders watch to learn the nuances of the game. He is the barkeep's barkeep.

Which makes sense, really. Growing up in southeast New York, Papaceno was basically born into the business. "My godfather and his brother owned two bars, Garcia's and the Demerest Hotel," Papaceno says. "I used to stop in Garcia's for ginger ale on my way home from playing baseball with my friends."

He poured his first drinks at the Demerest, before life took him on a teenage cross-country trek to California and a three-year tango with the Army, during which he lugged a typewriter and small wooden desk through fields on military drills. Eventually he went to college and had a career in TV production in New York City, always dabbling in bartending along the way.

Then, seven years ago, he saw it.

"I drove past the empty restaurant one day," Papaceno says, "and noticed the 'For Sale' sign on the front and literally thought, 'That'd be a cool spot for a bar.' No market research or anything."

He and then-wife Louise Owens opened the Windmill soon after. And over the years they've earned a loyal customer base, including fellow bartenders such as Jason Kosmas (Marquee) and Michael Martensen (The Cedars Social).

"He makes you feel at home," says Kosmas, who co-owns Employees Only in New York City and wrote a book, Speakeasy, about cocktails.

"He's experienced a lot in his lifetime, which makes him very adaptable," Kosmas adds. "When he talks to people, he can figure out who they are and what their comfort level is. Probably the biggest compliment you can get from Charlie is when he starts making fun of you. It's never malicious. It just means he likes you."

See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.