It's one of those rare but perfect summer nights when, for at least a few hours, it actually does feel like the livin' is easy. It's hot but not oppressive. And I need something to wet my whistle.
It isn't a speakeasy, but from the first time I followed my friend Chuck through the red door of The Windmill Lounge, I felt I'd been let in on a secret. "This is where bartenders come to drink," Chuck said.
High praise for a place that looked for all the world like a dive, I thought. But the drinks were damn good, and the vibe was slow and easy.
Five years on, not much has changed. The neighborhood has gentrified by degrees, but I see no high-end cars in the small gravel lot near the train tracks. A small patio sits off to the side of the unassuming white-brick building, topped by a neon windmill, but the tables are empty.
The happy-hour crowd is thin: not surprising for a Monday night leading up to a long weekend. A pair of twentysomething women briefly squint at me, then return to their huddled chatter. The guy next to them shifts his attention back and forth between his phone and the bar's TV. In the middle of the room, a group of six are engaged in conversation that has them pulled into a loose circle of heads around a table, each head bobbing back every few minutes to take a tug of beer.
I gingerly perch on an empty barstool next to the guy with the phone. Almost immediately, a man who, according to my friend K., looks like "a mad scientist," greets me.
I stick out my hand and introduce myself as "a friend of Chuck's." The mad scientist cackles, which is the reaction I've come to expect as a friend of Chuck's. "Well, it's nice to see you," says the mad scientist. "What can I get you?"
Multiple-choice questions: they stump me every time. "Uh ... can you make me something with gin?" I falter. It's a dumb answer, but the mad scientist grins, says sure, and gets to work.
The mad scientist is Charlie Papaceno: bartender, co-owner and mainstay of the Windmill. He's making me a Summer Rain, he says as he pulls out a tall glass, but he's torn between two different recipes. Would I like to try them both? I would.
Tonight's soundtrack is a mix of the bar's storied jukebox, serving up John Prine, Lucinda Williams and Guy Clark, a baseball game on the TV and whatever the table of six are discussing. What I don't hear? The screech of a blender. I watch as Charlie, wearing thin black gloves, pulverizes a lime with a mortar and pestle. A few minutes later, two frosty glasses of Summer Rain stand before me.
The first glass is nice and bright and unmistakably cucumber-y. I nod my head in approval. But then I sip at the second glass. It's not as sweet, much more subtle. Delicious. I peer in the glass and see small chunks of celery bobbing under the ice. Perfection. I sing its praises to Charlie, who thanks me, then turns his attention to the guy next to me.
Guy Next To Me has stopped looking at his phone and fixed his attention on the TV. In an accent I can't immediately place, Guy Next To Me asks, "Why doesn't he run?" Charlie looks up; the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees are tied in the sixth.
Charlie offers a quick overview of America's pastime. "Oh. So that's why they call it baseball," says Guy Next To Me. "Yeah," says Charlie, looking amused. "Because of the bases."
Guy Next To Me notes that they're at least using a real ball, as opposed to that American football. I involuntarily bristle, but Charlie just laughs. "No, really," says Guy. "I can't even understand why they call it football."
"Well, the players use their feet. And a ball," Charlie counters. Guy shakes his head no. "That's not a ball," he snarks.
Charlie looks briefly incredulous. "Of course it is." "No, no," Guy says. "By definition, that is not a ball. It isn't round."
"Where are you from?" I blurt. "Germany," Guy answers. It's dark, so maybe he doesn't see my involuntary eye roll.
The international sports debate ping-pongs back and forth until the red door opens again. German Guy returns to his phone as a tall grad student from nearby U.T. Southwestern approaches the bar and asks, "Do you make something called a Gin Garden?"
"I heard it's amazing," the grad student enthuses. "My friends outside say it tastes like spring in a glass. Can I have three?"
The mad scientist's gloved hands move again, and soon three glasses are filled with ice, and a concoction that tastes like spring. Even though it's July.
To each his own, I reason: It's all good at the Windmill.
And it is.
Amy Franklin tells stories about drinks and drinking and bars. Have a bar she should visit? Leave it in the comments.