As a toast to Houston on her 175th birthday, I wanted to pay a visit to one of her oldest establishments. A Houston Press (not THIS Houston Press, the other one) article from 1962 called La Carafe "a tiny slice of yesteryear's lamplight era" with "nuances of New Orleans...Greenwich Village...and Paris."
On a day just as hot as I'm sure it was in June of '62, I pushed open the oversize wooden door, allowed time for my eyes to adjust to the darkness and grabbed a seat. Behind the bar was John Rittman, your friendly, pink-haired bartender at this Houston staple. Hank Williams was emanating from the jukebox as if to reiterate that this place is no Spring chicken. I enjoyed a glass of Malbec while talking to John about ghosts (or a lack thereof), our favorite buildings downtown, and the do's and don'ts of riding your bike in Houston.
How would you describe your bar? It was built around 1860 and is the oldest commercial, continually used building in Houston. This place is steeped in history. It was a stagecoach stop, a boarding house that Sam Houston supposedly stayed at and a bordello. It was a pharmacy for about 30 years and then a bar in the '50s. We're a very old, beer and wine only, casual, intimate, small, dark place with lots of character. Everything is antique. Our register is 107 years old and only goes up to $9, so we know our 9 table pretty well here. Best part of this bar? No TVs -- that's hard to find. We have music and conversation; no one's staring at the TV.
Is it haunted? There are lots of stories about it being haunted; people say they've heard or felt something. They say the spirits here are all good-natured, but I'm a cynical, science-minded guy so I don't believe it. I've been here in the middle of the night by myself a million times. I've heard thumps upstairs when no one is in the building and have seen bottles fall off shelves but I just call that old building.
How would you describe the crowd? We get everyone from borderline homeless living-under-a-bridge to blue collar working class to CEOs, lawyers and judges. All walks of life come in here. With no TVs, they all just talk to each other. One of the best things about this bar is conversation.
We pause for John to pour a glass of wine up to the very top for an older gentleman at the bar. The customer carefully lifts glass to his lips and sips; he doesn't spill a drop. "I pour like that because he's been coming here for 30 years. Some people ask, 'How come you didn't pour my glass like that?' and I tell them 'I'll pour your glass like that when you've been coming here for 30 years and there is an imprint of your butt on a chair'".
What are some other jobs you've held besides tending bar? I was a bike messenger for nine-and-a-half years, (John shows me the tattoo on his arm of a guy on a bike in front of the BOA building, his favorite structure downtown.) I got hit by eight cars and two buses. I've been working at La Carafe for eight-and-a-half years, but I was a regular 11 years before that so that's a big job interview. A lot of people stay here, it's like "'till death do you part." We're family. Sometimes we get along really well, sometimes we butt heads, but we're like brothers.
Where do you like to go to get a drink on your day off? When I'm not working here, I come here. This is my second home. Like I said, I was a regular here for 11 years...but Alice's Tall Texan is a good bar.
What is one thing that would make Houston a better city? This town is unfriendly toward cyclists. Bike lanes are few and far between, and there's little understanding of cyclists and their rights.
*Wildcard from the loaded questions box: What's the oldest thing you own and use? I have a restored 1968 Schwinn Lemon Peeler bike. I gave it to my daughter for her 6th birthday, but I still ride it.
La Carafe, a cash-only bar, offers happy hour daily from 4-7 p.m. with $2.50 glasses and $7.50 carafes of house wine. Cool and dark, it's the perfect respite from the heat.
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