Leon’s Lounge, the watering hole at Main and McGowen that has been a focal point of Midtown life for nearly seven decades, is about to open another chapter in its colorful history. For most of those years, the surrounding area was as gritty as a vintage pulp novel, until the developers and young professionals rediscovered the area about a decade ago and laid the foundations for the upscale, urban-chic Midtown we recognize today. A couple of weeks ago, the building was leased by a partnership headed up by Duane Bradley, owner of the popular pair of local bars known as the Davenport. Now a new liquor license is the only thing keeping Leon’s from reopening, which the old lounge is expected to do early next month.
After the previous tenants, Under the Volcano owner Pete Mitchell and his wife, Vera, opted not to renew their lease this past January, the abrupt nature of their departure (and the way social media can rapidly blow things out of proportion) caused Leon’s lovers to assume their beloved bar was gone for good. But just days after the Mitchells left, the building’s owner, Scarlett Yarborough — daughter of Leon’s namesake, who opened the bar in 1947 — vowed, “Leon's is never going to close; not as long as I'm alive.” Bradley is a longtime customer of Leon’s himself.
“We used to go in Leon's all the time, not when it was all nice and when the neighborhood was all sketchy,” he says. “Back in the day of Gallant Knight and Leon's, Ken Bridge [founder of Pink’s Pizza] and I used to hit all the dive bars, and Leon's was one of our favorites.”
Furthermore, Bradley’s business partner is an old poker buddy of Leon Yarborough, he says. When Leon’s was up for lease five years ago, before the Mitchells were in the picture, Bradley says, they thought about working out a deal with Scarlett back then, but held off because they were already running another bar in San Antonio. But when Scarlett approached them after the Mitchells left, Bradley says, he and his partner decided the time was right, and Scarlett even agreed to let him use some of her old family photographs as decorations, including one of her mother singing in the bar.
“My idea is to take it back to the original Leon's as possible, whether it's through pictures or through my memory, or through my idea of what a bar from that era would be like,” says Bradley, who owned the punk-rock bar Laveau’s on West Alabama before opening the first Davenport in Shepherd Plaza almost 16 years ago and adding a location in Clear Lake nine years later.
Tuesday afternoon, we walked by Leon’s and noticed some people moving a truckload of barstools and other furniture into the bar. Bradley says the space needs a little remodeling but nothing excessive: paint, retiling and some light construction work like rebuilding the outdoor deck. He plans to remove the kitchen area the Mitchells installed to create more space in the bar’s back room; “we’re not really food guys,” he admits. Drinks-wise, Bradley says he simply wants a “whiskey and beer bar.”
“Basically, it's going to be a lounge,” he says. “It’s going to be as much American whiskey and other [similar] alcohol as we can fit in there. We're not going to do draft beer, but we'll have as much of the local craft beers in cans and bottles as we can cram in there.”
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Bradley says he’s happy to leave the craft cocktails to the specialty bars, but hopes to introduce a variation of something he saw in Philadelphia called a “Citywide Special,” or a can of PBR and a shot of Jim Beam for five bucks. Something like a Lone Star and shot of Jameson’s or something comparable here; “that’ll be the hook,” he says.
For added attractions, Bradley says he’s open to the idea of having music at Leon’s, but isn’t quite sure yet: It could be DJs or live jazz or rockabilly, something appropriate to the Leon’s vibe. (“We'll kind of play with it and see what works.”) But there won’t be any TVs or bar games. The booming neighborhood around the bar ought to provide plenty of entertainment, he figures.
“What I think has happened to Midtown is it's turning into Manhattan,” Bradley says. “It's crazy. You look around and there's cranes. For so long in Houston, there wasn't any gentrification of the Montrose, but now look around and there's cranes and constructions on every street corner.
“It's crazy,” he continues. “I’m sure we'll hate it once we become so busy that we can't drive or park anywhere, but right now I think it's super-cool.”