Wild on Washington

The three-mile stretch of avenue is Houston's place to be if you're young, white, single and ready to party. At least for now.

Still, almost every month, a sign announces another new spot on Washington, with doors opening about a month later.

Soon a shot bar, Salt, will open next to Pearl Bar, and word came recently that the Corkscrew, on the strip's eastern edge, is shutting down to make room for an "organic bar" and an '80s club called Trixie's.

To hear some people talk, you would think there is nothing but misery down on Washington, an endless sea of fights, flirting and lawmen pulling over drunks in front of bars packed with vapid Sims-like people devoid of personality and interesting conversation. That's not exactly true.

It's hell on drivers making their way through the busy drinking corridor, with tipsy pedestrians crossing the street every few feet. The city would probably make enough money on jaywalking tickets over a weekend to finally get rid of those pesky red light cameras.
Son Lam
It's hell on drivers making their way through the busy drinking corridor, with tipsy pedestrians crossing the street every few feet. The city would probably make enough money on jaywalking tickets over a weekend to finally get rid of those pesky red light cameras.
Talk about road rage: Seeing your own vehicle up on one of the tow trucks' flat beds.
Son Lam
Talk about road rage: Seeing your own vehicle up on one of the tow trucks' flat beds.

Monday to Wednesday nights, when most of Washington's weekend crowd is home in front of the TiVo, the street still has a lazy charm. At the corner of Washington and Thompson, Pearl Bar's old-school signage combines with the dim street lights out front to create a vivid, dirty urban snapshot.

It's actually worth the hassle of parking or valeting your car at the hulking wooden muscle of Sawyer Park to gaze at the downtown skyline from the sports bar's second deck. And across from Pearl Bar sits the Dubliner, which on regular weeknights is a sleepy, red-tinted dive straight out of a Tom Waits song.

The cigarette exhaust from the smokers outside wafts inside every now and then with the whoosh of a passing car, and the music-minded bartenders keep the Internet jukebox refreshed with plenty of Pogues and Rolling Stones.

One weeknight, sitting dazed in the Dubliner's back lounge, we heard the Clash's "Straight to Hell" seep out of the speakers. For those three minutes, we "got" the spirit of Washington Avenue.
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Evolution
By Shea Serrano

Ask more than a few people to give you a synopsis of Washington Avenue's history and you're likely to get some variation of the same answer: You mean that new area where all the d-bags hang out?

This is wrong.

Washington Avenue is actually one of Houston's oldest thoroughfares. Its asphalt covers up former wagon trails and stagecoach routes that led pioneers into and out of a then rapidly growing downtown.

First built in the mid-1800s, the near three-mile stretch of road predates just about everything in Houston besides the Allen brothers' naming the city after General Sam Houston, the yellow-fever epidemic of the early 1840s and maybe the Geto Boys' first album.

Washington has grown as the city has grown. Not so long ago, it was home to esteemed live-music venues such as Rockefeller's, the Fabulous Satellite Lounge and the Abyss. Historically, its recent explosion into prominence is only a bookend to an already meaningful narrative.

With respect to glitz, Washington Avenue began its ascent between late 2007 and early 2008. Up to that point, nightlife in the area could essentially be characterized by one bar: Walter's on Washington. Before Washington boomed, Walter's was a typical Washington bar.

At 12 years old, Walter's is now the avenue's longest-standing nightlife establishment. Its management knows exactly what type of business model they want to follow, a big part of the reason it's stayed open while other venues like Silky's (now the Dubliner) and Mary Jane's (which became Pearl Bar) eventually shut down.

"I always wondered what took so long," says owner Pam Robinson when asked if she ever had any inkling that her venue would ever be surrounded by anything that could be called "swanky." "[Clubs] got pushed out of Midtown or Downtown, so they ended up here."

In early 2008, a few upscale Washington venues were already open or rumored to be "opening any week now." But when the Drake, Citizen Lounge (now District Lounge) and Pandora all opened within a few months of each other, the character of Washington Avenue (if not Houston nightlife in general) really shifted.

"Our talent lies in finding a good place and coming up with a good idea," says Adam Karam, who opened, and is in the process of selling, the Drake through the Van Delden Group. "We saw an opportunity with the location, and it worked out for us."

Since there was little to no competition around, those places operated with impunity. They came in, invested a fair amount of money and started charging $20 for valet parking. They openly flaunted their "We Only Let Pretty People In" swagger, and no one called them on it. Instead, the glitterati showed up in droves.

As Midtown lost its luster, Washington became the unapologetically posh spot for those who wanted to be seen out at night. In other words, it became d-bag central.

For anyone with a sense of self-­awareness, Washington was almost unbearable from about March 2008 to about July 2009. A night out meant you would be bombarded with guys dressed like they really, really liked electro-rap novelty duo LMFAO and girls dressed like they really, really wanted to sleep with guys who really, really liked LMFAO.

But Washington is beginning to trend downward now. That seems like it should mean the corridor is getting less hip by the day, but that's not true yet.

Washington Avenue is at a point where the growing number of bars has combined with the strip's relative newness to create a supercenter of nighttime entertainment. The bars and clubs bring in just enough commuters to dilute the strip's a-hole concentration without siphoning away any of its stylishness.

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