Bayou City

Houston's 10 Best Bartenders at Music Venues

Walk into any music venue in Houston and you’ll encounter many people who are visiting by choice. They’ve paid their cover, bought their drinks and are on hand to support the night’s musical acts. We commend and raise a toast to these people. And we’re able to do that thanks to the bartenders who are hard at work in these venues. Even though they’re on the clock, we felt certain that they too were there in part as music lovers with interesting takes on bands and the fans who follow them. We were absolutely correct.

Their jobs can be challenging, especially when people "forget how to adult" and check their good manners at the door, as some told us. But they all find joy in the work, too. Whether it’s getting the generous tips they deserve, hearing an amazing band from the periphery of an avalanche of drink orders or even just enjoying a late-night/early-morning doughnut, life is sweet for the bartenders we visited with recently.

We spoke with bartenders with years of experience and some who are relatively new to the profession. Notsuoh’s Calin Murphy falls in the latter category. Deep-voiced and long-locked, Murphy told us he’s been bartending about four months now at Main Street’s venerable boho bar, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2016. “It’s been really cool, actually. Before I started working here, I really wouldn’t get out to see shows all that often, unless it was something that I really, really enjoyed,” Murphy admits.

“I think that one thing that’s cool about this place especially is it offers a venue for the more unusual performances," he adds. "For example, there’s a band, Snailmate, they sort of have this really glitchy, extreme high-fidelity sound. It really took me off guard. That’s one of the really cool things about working here; you get shows where you’re like, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard anything like this before.’”

Before he came to Eastdown Warehouse, at the behest of the space’s manager, Adam Rodriguez, Chris LaForge had never worked for a bar. He had worked in many of them, of course, as the guitar hero of Houston’s long-running punk band 30footFall. Rodriguez correctly identified that someone with so much experience in and around bars would offer relevant suggestions.

“He asked me to kind of check the place out and tell him what I thought about it,” LaForge says.

So far he’s added subtle changes, like video monitors to showcase the bar’s drinks and to scroll ads for approaching shows. But he’s also added the important intangible of being a musician, someone who knows what visiting musicians desire in a venue, and he books for Eastdown, too.

“Word is kind of spreading around," LaForge says. "This place is starting to build a foundation. It’s been around for over two years now, and the owner finally got Greg [Waligorski, Eastdown’s stage/production manager] and me, and we’re the first who were like, ‘Let’s do this; we need this.’”

Growing crowds suggest the formula is working. LaForge said he’s been in plenty of successful bars and he sees similarities between them and Eastdown more and more.

“I’ve basically been raised in the motherfuckers,” he laughs.

When Pete Gordon opened Shoeshine Charley’s Big Top Lounge a dozen years ago, he knew who to call to oversee things behind the bar. Since day one, Donna has been there, cultivating the Big Top’s friendly, relaxed atmosphere. She’s so familiar, she’s not compelled to share her last name and we weren’t compelled to ask it.

“It’s a super little bar," she says. "Pete’s whole vision for the bar was to have a place where customers could come and it was quieter than next door. And then it just took a life of its own. It’s not just a place for people to come get away from Continental Club. It’s got its own crowd that comes in.”

For many years, they were coming in to see specific bands, some which are now Donna’s favorites.

“For several years here, every Thursday, I had Umbrella Man play here and they’re a good band,” she says. “There’s a band that’s coming March 26, Tomar and the FCs, and they’re great; they’re out of Austin. The Ugly Beats play over here and they’re really good, too.”

This particular night, Snit’s Dog & Pony Show is revving things up with the blues standard “Got You On My Mind.” It’s tough to talk over the music, so we pay for our drinks and enjoy the music, like any other Big Top regulars.

“We have a very eclectic crowd that comes through here, but they’re really nice people,” Donna says.

Kayla Dodd will celebrate her one-year anniversary with The Gorgeous Gael on Friday, which will also probably be the next day she gets any rest.

“Yeah, I’m hoping they give me a present or something," she jokes. "You can put that in the article if you want to."

Only seconds into visiting with her, we could see why Dodd is perfect for the Rice-area Irish bar. She’s gregarious and makes us feel comfortable — key bartender attributes for any bar, but especially one hoping to emulate an old-world pub for native Houstonians and European expats alike. Still, that’s not what got her the job, she said.

“I walked in for my interview and I had a four-leafed clover tattooed on my foot that I got in Dublin, and they were like, ‘Okay,'" she says. "I said, ‘Do you need to get a look at my résumé?” and they were like, ‘No. You’re Irish enough.’”

Dodd says her favorite visiting acts are singer/guitarist Jeff Canada (“He gets the crowd going and, as a bartender, I need you to get the crowd going, that’s what we like,”); DJ Charlie Brown (“He’s phenomenal, he reads the crowd and gives them back what they want,”); and, The Jig Is Up.

“They’re an actual Irish fiddle band,” she says. “They bring in large crowds because it’s really authentic. When people come into an Irish bar they’re like, ‘Give me a Guinness, give me a Jameson and give me Irish music.'”

McQuiller has what some folks used to call a “fresh face,” which is just another way of saying she’s youthful and exuberant. Those qualities are perfect for Fitzgerald’s, which is being transfused once again with lifeblood from owner Sara Fitzgerald and energy from an enthusiastic new management team. McQuiller tends bar at House of Blues' Foundation Room, and jumped at the chance to join Fitz as a bartender last September. Hired by the recently ousted management group, she's stayed on because working at the venue is more than just a job to her — Fitzgerald is her aunt and McQuiller has history in the club.

“I’m glad to be here back with her and see her in charge and everything," she says. "I grew up here. My dad was a bartender here. My grandma worked the box office, so all of our family has been in here. Over the summers I’d come here, I had pigtails, I’d work in the back where they had the grill. I had my 14th birthday here. So, when she leased it to Pegstar, it was like something was taken away from you – you can’t go home anymore."

She's back home now. McQuiller says she favors shows with local acts for a good reason, one that suits a family that's extended its friendship to music-hungry Houstonians for decades.

"With local bands, you begin to see the same faces; you recognize them and get to make those connections," she notes. "At some jobs, you don’t really get that. Being able to be here now, it’s like a blessing.”

The first thing we learned about Lani Flores is you don’t roll up on her saying, “Hi, we’re here to see Lani” without getting a dubious “Yeah, but who are you?”

Smart girl. Better to be safe with total strangers, even if you deal with them on a nightly basis. Even if you’ll ultimately win them over so completely they’ll return as regulars, as we now plan to. The next thing we learned about one of Ladybird’s best-loved bartenders is she is an avid Houston music fan, with definite favorites.

“I love The Mighty Orq, I think he’s amazing,” she says. “He fills the room and it’s just weird because everyone’s being noisy and rowdy and playing games and whatever, and they just stop because he’s just so dope.”

She calls honky-tonk DJ collective Vinyl Ranch “super fun.” She says Haley Barnes’s voice is “so angelic.” She considers songwriter Tom Lynch “like the male version of Sade.” Whether it’s Vodi, Poor Pilate, Kelly Doyle Trio, The Wandering Bufaleros – which features Ladybird’s owner Taylor Lee and one of Flores’s favorite musicians, Tank Lisenbe – or a host of others, she’s happily able to see and hear everything from behind the bar.

“I think everybody should work in the service industry at least once in their life," Flores says. "It gives you a little more respect for what we do. It’s hard work. It’s a real job, too,” she reminds, with real money to be made doing it. But money isn’t everything.

“I love music, and this whole bar is about music.”

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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.