The Price of Fame

Everyone who plunks down a significant amount of change to open a bar or club wrestles with this week's question.

Popularity means sales, which translate into success. And success...well, we had to look it up, but it sounds worthwhile. Yet according to our American Heritage dictionary, achieving success is never easy. So many establishments fizzle in this market that bar owners often label the people of Dallas as "fickle." At one time crowds waited in line at Paris Vendome. Only the creation of "Naked Sundays" saved once-hot Nikita from the "whatever happened to" file, resting place of former hot spots such as Passport (still open), Umlaut (operating under a new name) and Purgatory...oops, that, um, hasn't happened yet.

In fact, some owners dole out wads of cash to consultants in an effort to attract attention to their wavering spot.

And here we are addressing the question pretty much free of charge.

Hmm...Welcome to the first ever pay-per-view Burning Question. Although we have yet to consult our legal department (editor's note: They no longer accept Dave's calls), we're almost certain that by reading this far, you've agreed to our terms, which, by the way, guarantee nothing.

After all, success in the nightlife industry often seems like a game of chance. Cool spots with access to parking and a decent vibe may falter, while run-down dives rake in millions each year. "Some places are popular in spite of themselves," says Phil Natale, bartender at Sense. "They just caught on." The Loon, for example, grosses close to $2 million in liquor sales alone, without the glitz of high-end locations. It becomes a more perplexing question when you compare current hot spots, such as Lush, to places with a year or two of success--Candle Room comes to mind--to standbys like Old Monk.

"But usually when a place is popular," Natale adds, "there's some reason behind it."

For a new establishment, attracting immediate attention means catering to the so-called fickle 500, the group of Dallas barhoppers who bounce from one hot spot to the next. "You survive off the fickle 500 in the beginning," explains Brandon Oxley of Republic. "But it's a crowd you don't want to keep."

Longevity, he claims, depends on developing a good concept, whatever that means, and sticking with it. Bars in Dallas typically experience an immediate rush followed by a moderate slide as the fickle 500 trickle away. But to panic as cash flow settles is to invite failure. A neighborhood dive, in other words, should remain dank and dark, even when receipts plummet. An upscale lounge shouldn't change door policies when crowds shrink.

"Tinker with the concept, but don't compromise it," agrees Jack Freysinger, bar manager at Cool River. "A totally different crowd will drive off the people you want in the bar."

Often when popularity fades, the owners start running drink specials, loosen the dress code or restructure their staff in an effort to regain momentum. But, warns Jonny Mars at The Idle Rich, "a bar is only as good as the people that populate it," which means an influx of 20-somethings from Lower Greenville will likely cause trendy lounge types to scamper off toward a quieter, dressier venue.

"Clientele, that's ultimately the product," Natale points out. "People want to be surrounded by a certain type of people."

Probably explains why patrons scatter when the Burning Question crew enters a bar.

"Sustainability is where people feel cool and comfortable and where people know you when you walk in," says Leann Berry of Ciudad. That's why door guys check for a specific look, why the jeans-and-T-shirt crowd elbows into Duke's rather than Dragonfly, why bartenders cater to regulars. It's a rule that holds true inside the rustic walls of Old Monk, where patrons value the relaxed atmosphere, and at the upscale establishments.

Definitions of comfort, you see, vary widely. Music, lighting, décor and crowd all affect a patron's perception of comfort.

So, all that being said, two factors really create and sustain a bar's popularity. (We suppose we could have said that right off, but there's such a thing as getting your money's worth, you know.) First, a professional staff will often help an establishment ride out the ups and downs. They make patrons feel welcome, keep drinks flowing, know the difference between bourbon and Irish whiskey, and more.

"Everybody who opens a bar has a vision," says Jason Queroga, bartender at Dralion. "But it's all how your staff goes out and promotes the place."

Matthew, poet laureate of Dallas nightlife and doorman at Lush, credits Tristan Simon's hiring policies for the success of Simon's hot spots, Cuba Libre, Sense and Candle Room. "Tristan was the first guy who brought legitimacy to the bar scene," Matthew explains. "He brought the best staff in"--Natale, Monika Watkins, Shawn Egerton, Brandy Gomez--"and revolutionized the market."

On the other hand, a great staff and a positive buzz will never compensate for the one element that truly packs people in year after year. "Atmosphere is important, that sense of energy that makes you a part of something," Freysinger says. "But women, that's number one."

The most popular bars cater to women and keep them coming back. Good-looking women at any bar (outside Cedar Springs) attract men; what else explains the sustained success of strip clubs?

As Matthew points out, "Guys will forgive you for waiting 30 minutes in line, waiting 20 minutes for a drink, having a $10 cover, paying $6 for a domestic beer. They won't forgive you for not having women inside."

And that's our answer to this week's Burning Question. Bars achieve popularity by seducing women, making them comfortable, encouraging them to return night after night.

Now send us $500 in cash.

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Dave Faries
Contact: Dave Faries