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Saying Farewell to State Bar, Downtown’s Opulent and Historic Martini Lounge

Fond memories of epic tabs and rowdy nights as State Bar closes.

'Martinis...remember when there were martinis and gorgeous people all over this place?"

Gazing across the long expanse of the second-story lounge, it's hard to picture the scene as anything but tame. Only a handful of people are at the bar, while most of them are relaxing in the small sitting nooks that serve as bar tables, martinis in hand.

It's a well-behaved crowd, this one, but contrary to how it may appear on this Saturday night, it wasn't always so anticlimactic in this bar. Having spent many Friday and Saturday nights in this place, we know better. We remember when downtown Houston was on its way back up during the '04 revival, and State Bar (909 Texas) was not sedate. It was rowdy.

State Bar could have been mistaken for an old bank lobby.
Photos courtesy of State Bar
State Bar could have been mistaken for an old bank lobby.

"Remember the days when the lawyers would just line this bar?" one patron reflects. "The egos in this place, man. I swear, I once saw this guy just throwing glasses behind the bar when he was done with them, and the bartenders just laughed. I guess he was spending that much money in here."

Everyone seems to have a story or two about this bar. Next to us, a group of well-dressed middle-aged men are lounging on a group of leather couches, reminiscing about State Bar's glory days. Back then, it would fill to the brim with the booming voices of important attorneys and well-heeled downtown executives, some of whom apparently threw glasses for fun. And now, after 16 years playing host to prominent politicians and the Houston elite, State Bar will close its doors forever. Tonight, May 31, is its last night in operation.

"Those were the days, my friend," says another onetime regular. "The drinks — man, could they drink. The bar would be stacked with glasses, and the bar tabs. I would have hated to be on the receiving end of those."

Those tabs must have been epic.

The lacquered finish of the long wooden bar, the pièce de résistance in this cozy, den-like room, is as shiny and well-kept as it was during the Enron boom. In those days, State Bar would fill with the loud boasting of the old-boys club lining its bar stools. Owner Max McElroy filled his place with furniture and memorabilia he purchased from the old Rice Hotel's Capitol Club, aiming to replicate that historic bar's upscale, selective atmosphere. He succeeded.

But then, McElroy is well-versed in what it takes to run a bar that caters to the society crowd. He earned his stripes after a number of years as a bartender in assorted upscale establishments, and now owns not only State Bar but neighbor Shay McElroy's (909 Texas, Suite A) on the other side of the building and McElroy's Irish Pub (3607 Sandman) in Shepherd Plaza as well. The contrast is striking — the others are lively Irish pubs compared to the dignified lounge in the old Rice Hotel, one of Houston's true landmarks — but you can see McElroy's influence in both.

And with State Bar's closing comes a new establishment, too: Johnny McElroy's will open soon on Waugh, one of Houston's fastest-growing areas. Considering the success of State Bar and the two McElroy's clubs, there's no doubt it too will bring consistent crowds to the area. Max just seems to have that touch.

His touch with bars had a hand in reviving the downtown scene, after all. After State Bar opened in late 1998, its consistent draw and steady reputation, coupled with the Metro light rail and the 2004 Super Bowl, created quite a buzz about the area. New bars popped up and shut down all around the Rice building, going the way that most do, but State Bar stayed consistent until now.

Those days are long gone, and State Bar has seen much less foot traffic in recent years. Downtown has lost ground to trendier, more concentrated areas like Midtown, and the steady flow of bar patrons with fat wallets and big egos slowed, even for an institution like this.

Its closing is a disgrace, says one of the men on the couches, and we quietly agree.

After all, State Bar's dark wood finishes and regal bookshelves fit the mold of a place meant to impress important clients. Its aesthetics feel born of old money, from the pretty settees to the magnificent floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the center of the city.

At times, it feels like something borrowed from another century when opulence reigned supreme, meant for important folks. Unfortunately, those big-shot patrons are long gone, and State Bar will close its doors for good in just a few hours, taking with it the stories told within its walls.

As the men continue to reminisce, a steady line of patrons make their way in and out of the bar, stopping by for one last drink and a little chat on the last night. Fond memories still linger for the aging, important barflies who once flocked here.

"It's a shame that this place is closing," one of them says. "I can't imagine downtown without it, you know?"

 
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