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.
A cauldron of soon-to-be bellinis churns with Everclear in the slush machine. It’s not quite frozen; it needs about 15 more minutes. It’s just after 3 p.m. at The Grapevine. The bar is nearly empty, with a few regulars milling around, but it only opened a few minutes ago. The fans are humming on the patio, circulating Dallas summer air as hot and thick as toast. It’s dim, as always, and the walls thump with the drums and guitar of Nathaniel Ratliff and the Night Sweats’ “I Need Never Get Old," the music like a friend draping an arm over your shoulder. The holiday colors of the bar lights, accented in the dimness, say it’s any other day, but in a few days, Oak Lawn’s The Grapevine Bar will celebrate its 21st birthday.
“It was all boarded up and abandoned. The neighborhood was much, much different back then,” owner Michelle Honea says of what used to be a rough patch on Maple Avenue in the mid-90s.
Honea was in school for engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington at the time, and she and husband Richard Fiaschetti (who died in 2003) would zip back and forth from the Sunshine Laundry on Maple. They’d pass the little shuttered building where Herrera’s used to be, chatting about how it would be a great place for a bar.
In the blaze of the Dallas summer of 1996, Honea grouted the bathroom tile of the couple's new bar without air conditioning or a fan. They fixed the place up, selling their car and maxing out credit cards to get The Grapevine onto its feet. Honea was putting in more than 100 hours of work every week, bartending and running the joint, along with school and side work. The couple put the needs of the bar over their own.
“We had zero money. I remember going over to the Taco Bell to buy one taco to come back and have change for the bar,” Honea admits.
I need it so bad, the Night Sweats croon through the bar. The Grapevine’s always been a comfort. Years ago, my soon-to-be-wife and I played pool with a deaf couple we’d met at the bar. They signed with my wife that they were on a date too, and they kicked our ass in pool. The Grapevine is a safe haven; it’s a place where there are strong drinks and cues with strangers. It’s a hodgepodge of a dive bar that encourages you, just by being open and there, to be who you are.
Some call The Grapevine a gay bar, but it's bigger than that. On any given night, it could well be the most diverse bar in the city. The sign on the bathroom door shows the gender-neutral pictogram with the words: “Whatever, just wash your hands.”
Business has grown steadily year over year, Honea says. She quotes Malcom Gladwell, saying she and her husband were in the right place and the right time in history.
“It’s really a unique place that you can’t replicate," she says.
The bar hasn’t changed much since 1996. It's added support for local breweries, but the signature drink, a frosty, Everclear-strong bellini, is still the star. Food trucks park there every so often, and a window out back by the basketball hoop leads straight into Val's Cheesecake's kitchen, where you can buy late-night jars of cheesecake and grilled cheese sandwiches.
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The Grapevine has supported itself without advertising: “Good people telling other good people” is its business model, Honea says. “The credit goes to our staff,” she says.
Alicia Gomez, who’s worked the bar at The Grapevine since its opening, would come in daily to clean things and help close. Everyone calls her Mama, Honea says. At one point, the owners had to implore Gomez to take a vacation. If you’ve frequented The Grapevine, this makes sense: You’re likely family with whomever’s behind the bar.
July 18 is the Grapevine’s official anniversary, but it's holding off the celebration until fall. It’s just too damn hot, and listening to Honea’s stories about construction in the dead heat, you can’t blame her. There will be a party, of course, with a 21st birthday theme at a bar where you need never get old.
The Grapevine, 3902 Maple Ave.