By Jef With One F
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It's a tiny, rectangular space slipped into a shopping strip off U.S. 59, near Greenway Plaza and a Mattress Firm. There are only three TVs inside, one impressive 65-incher flanked by two smaller ones. Limited seating is at the rear of the room. And Swagger can hold only 81 people, according to the fire marshal, anyway.
The place is unassuming from the outside and easy to miss, but fortunately, Swagger's nearly unlimited versatility makes up for its limited size.
It's a tricky proposition, converting a space probably intended for a Quiznos into a noteworthy bar, but drawing on 30-plus years' experience in the nightlife business between them, Ed Micheaux and Dennis Haskin were able to do just that.
"It's set up so that everybody can go in and grab ahold of something that they can really enjoy," says Haskin, 45, who became the sole owner after Micheaux gave up his half.
That's a pretty spot-on explanation, missing only the part about how "everybody" is Swagger's predominantly black, 28-to-65-year-old customer base. There's nothing flashy or ornate enough to give the lounge a distinct persona, so Swaggerians are able to apply the label of their choice to the bar.
If you'd like to say it's a discreet lounge, sure, it can be that. There are some black-and-white photos hung up and love seats in the back, and even a brick wall for just a hint of pizzazz.
If you'd like to say it's a neighborhood-ish hangout, sure, it can be that. Open seven days a week from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., Swagger has a set of regulars who come in during the week to listen to unofficial DJ Stephen Guidry cut through an iTunes library of 50,000-plus songs while ordering $4 you-call-its and playing cards and dominoes.
If you'd like to say it's a semi-posh bar, sure, it can be that too. Swagger's lineup of bartenders includes attractive girls with names like Chi Chi, Josephine and Keila, and occasionally professional sports players can be found here.
Swagger can be all those things because, ironically, its nonidentity is its identity. Hedging its bets like that is a coy move, and a smart way to utilize the impersonal character of its strip-center location. The clientele seems impressed enough.
"It's a real cool place," says a guy who asks to be referred to as Jimbo from Klip Joint Records. "I've been coming for about a year, I think. It's somewhat upscale, and it's small. It's a good place to meet people."
Swagger's customer base is just as varied as the labels it can take on. One recent Saturday night at midnight, there were people in suits inside, people in jeans, a guy in shorts and several members of a motorcycle club called the Motor Psychos. These guys weren't nearly as menacing as their name sounds, although they were wearing black leather vests with skulls on the back.
"I always say that people come and tell me that Swagger is the coolest bar in the city," says Haskin, sounding about as impartial about his bar as Houston rappers do about their own swagger. "You can come for good drinks, good music, pretty girls; that's just the case."
Objectively, it's probably not the coolest bar in the city. Unless you think it is. Then it can be.
Hat-tip time: DJ Blacknificent, a regular spinner at Swagger and a member of the GO DJ troupe, is pretty fantastic. For one, he hit a set of late-'90s hip-hop that put Biggie, Tupac and Dre back to back to back. Okay, it wasn't the most creative thing we've ever heard a DJ do, but it was damn effective. And for two, his name is amazing. He combined an ethnicity with an adjective. Not enough people do that. Think about how much respect you'd get at your office if you told people that rather than call you "Bill," they were now to call you DJ Whiterrific. Or instead of "Emilio," you preferred DJ Puerto Ricawesome? You'd be running that bitch in no time. Guaranteed.