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Somewhere in a godforsaken stretch of near northwest Houston, a very drunk man wearing a Texas Longhorns cap is smoking outside the front door of the strip mall bar on a moist, breezy Saturday afternoon. He sees that I too am rocking the burnt orange, and snarls, "Well, at least your shirt is the right color," as if that was the only thing stopping him from picking the fistfight he really, really wanted to be in.
Some say the true dive bar is an endangered species in Houston. And while it is true that they are somewhat hard to find in Houston's more fashionable Inner Loop districts, quintessential dive bars like the one above still flourish here. You just need to know where to look. Places like Montrose's Pik 'n' Pak and the Aquarium Lounge and Charley's, the infamously Bukowskian lounge on the ground floor of downtown's razed Hotel Montague, are all gone.
And yet, as we've discovered in more than 200 miles of walking through Houston's more neglected areas, there are still hundreds of them remaining. It's just that most are in neighborhoods like the East End, Garden Oaks/Oak Forest and other 'hoods bordering the Heights, and along time-warp, Outer Loop main roads like South Post Oak and Long Point. In those areas, dive bars flourish, sometimes in ramshackle stand-alone buildings or as icehouses, but often, at least on the West Side, in strip malls, where the description "hole in the wall" seems most apt.
For Christie Gutoski, one of the singers in the honky-tonk cover group The Good Luck Band, that's the most important rule of thumb in defining a dive bar in Houston. "Generally, if it's in a strip mall, it's gonna be a dive," she says, and it's hard to argue with her on that point.
But if strip mall locations are perhaps the Houston dive bar's most ironclad defining trait, there are other factors to consider. Age of the bar does help, as does a hint of danger, but once you get past a little initial fear, it should be a place where you can relax. "As a girl, they should be places I wouldn't want to go in without a little bit of backup," Gutoski says. "I don't want to be scared, but if you aren't a little unsettled when you walk in a place, it probably isn't a dive bar."
Other dive bar connoisseurs have other ways of defining true dives. Brad Moore, co-owner of Big Star Bar and a dauntless explorer of Greater Houston's dives, says that there should be an older lady behind the bar and that the toilets should be dirty, the walls covered with graffiti. Joe Lee, owner of local dives Roll-N (where the clientele is no longer dive-y, even if the bar remains so) and the Lone Star Saloon, has a view that focuses more on ambience than sanitation, or lack thereof. He says the interiors should show a lot of wood paneling, and that there should be lots of antique-type objects, if not actual antiques, lying around. "The light should be low, too," he says. "Not dark, but low light."
Lee says the definition of a dive bar has changed over the course of his long life. "Used to be a dive bar was a place that was falling down, dirty and full of disreputable people," he says. "When people started calling the Roll-N a dive, I got upset. But then when I saw how many people started coming in, I said, 'Well I guess you can call it any old thing you want to.'"
Drinks in a dive bar should be both strong (if mixed drinks are even served; many of the best dives in Houston are beer/wine only) and economical, and the beer should be virtually all domestic. At the purest dive bars, ordering a trendy-but-inexpensive brew like Lone Star will get you laughed at — the true-blue dive denizen likes Bud or other big national domestics and regards everything else as either cheap swill or namby-pamby crap. There should be a bulwark of regulars at the bar at all times, and it's best if they each have their own official unofficial stool. One of the regulars, the most grizzled, wizened and possibly drunkest of the bunch, is often thought of and occasionally even referred to as "the mayor." He might or might not have owned the joint at some point. At some dives, revered regulars even have tables marked with an inlaid plaque.
Dive bars should open at or before noon; hell, often the very best ones open at seven a.m., the better to draw in both just-off-the-clock shift workers and maximum functional alkies on their way to work, breath mints in hand and thirsty of soul. In Houston, dive bars often take the form of icehouses, though corporate-owned icehouse chains (Woodrow's, we're looking at you) need not apply for true dive bar status. If there's anything from the broad spectrum of pickled food items — except for plain old pickles — on the bar, it's pretty likely you are in a dive bar. There should be graffiti in the bathroom and these scrawlings should be memorable. And so should your nights in a dive bar — at least those parts of them that you can remember.