Night Life

Last Call at the Downtown Dives

Downtown's posh spots crop up -- and often fold -- quicker than you can say "metrosexual." No one would argue that the revitalization of our skyscraper-studded stretch of streets is a bad thing, but in their attempt to give birth to a bustling scene, new club owners -- with their big dollars and acid-washed everything -- have all but choked the life out of the downtown dive.

Downtown Houston bars used to be frequented by men who drove trucks powered by diesel fuel; now their customers are men wearing Diesel jeans. Mostly gone are the days of taking a pool cue across the back for eyeing an already taken mare or stepping on the wrong bronco's toes. No, almost all the honky-tonks where such things took place have hitched it out of downtown's comfy confines in what amounts to a low-rent bar version of white flight. There are just a few dive bars left -- 804 Charlie's, the Lone Star Saloon and Leon's Lounge -- and they're all on life support.

804 Charlie's (804 Fannin) is located on the ground level of the historic (and infamous) 80-plus-year-old Montague Hotel, which is the sort of cheap, central, semi-permanent lodging once favored by traveling pimps, pool sharks and other hustlers. The bar it sits atop serves $2.50 domestics and smells a bit of urine and mold. Rumor has it that the tiny stages sprinkled around the bar are where strippers used to collect their income one Washington at a time, and that tipping them enough could get the two of you a room in the Montague, where the party could continue in private. Anyway, that was then.

Today, owner Charlie (he'd rather not use his last name) is very proud of his property's stick-to-it-iveness.

"We've been down here for years and years and years," he says. "I don't even remember the year we opened."

Places that angle nighttime money are closing their doors every day. What's the secret to 804 Charlie's longevity?

"Well, we just have a really good and loyal clientele," says Charlie. "These other places spend millions of dollars to open, and if they don't make their money back in four months they're screwed -- it starts to fall apart. We just run a really tight ship, are good to the people that come in, and it's worked fine for us."

Truer words have never been spoken. On a recent visit to Charlie's, I asked if they still had free games of pool on their upper level. The bartender said they did, and then warned me that some genius had broken off bits of the silky anthill-shaped hand chalk and used it to write unspeakable things on their billiard table's felt. I traipsed up the stairs undaunted, only to be quickly followed by a nice man named Joe who insisted on wiping the phrase "Lick Dick and the Icks" off the table while I waited. I told him that he need not go to the trouble.

"No," he said, motioning toward my girlfriend. "She shouldn't have to look at this. I'm sorry."

Dive bar or no -- he went above and beyond.

Charlie's may not pack 'em in, but slow and steady wins the race. I ask if any big-time developers or investors have been at him to sell so they can turn Charlie's and its connecting bar, the Underground Lounge, into yet another house-beat-bumping club with a million flat-screen TVs.

"People are always talking. Talk is talk," he says. "When it comes time to actually show some money, that's when the talk stops."

Though not affiliated with the Montague, Charlie casually bats away whispers of it being turned into Hotel Icon, Mark Two.

"Again," he says, sounding unimpressed and almost bored, "talk is talk."

They've done more than just talk to Joe Lee, owner of the Lone Star Saloon (1900 Travis). Shelly, the longtime barmaid at the Lone Star, is happy to discuss what might've been.

"Metro offered $2.9 million a couple years back when they started construction on light rail," she says. "We didn't bite. We figured that once they had it up and running, this place would see a lot more business and be worth twice that when it was done."

Have they been busier?

"No, we haven't."

Charlie wouldn't even notice if the cash-heavy crowds on the other side of the velvet rope fell off the planet, but the Lone Star is courting them.

"We've tried to do some things to bring them in," says Shelly, "but none of it seems to be working."

Among these "things" is a new deck out back, which has yet to be used. Pizza is available for purchase, although I have no idea where they might cook it. They have a stellar happy hour, when pitchers of Busch go for a mere three bucks and pool for half a dollar. The jukebox has everything you might expect (CCR) and some things that will leave you scratching your head (Tears for Fears).

Shelly isn't too worried. She's heard that the abandoned hotel across St. Joseph Parkway has been bought and will soon be refurbished. It's going to be really nice, she thinks, and they should see a lot of business after it opens. An increase in interest about the bar will spike along with its property value.

Talk is talk.

Located just outside downtown is the venerable Leon's Lounge (1006 McGowen). If their ever were a Battle of the Dive Bar All-Stars, Leon's would take the gold even if incompetent judges lopped off a tenth of a point.

Owner Scarlett Yarborough was given the bar from her father, Leon, who purchased the property in 1953. It has since been paid for, and at the moment, she has no plans to sell.

The Greyhound station riffraff that frequent Leon's now mix with a tiny contingent of pretty people spilling out of the nearby Red Star, and Yarborough has taken the Lone Star approach and tried to make them feel at home by equipping the back bar area with a piano and sexing up the ambience with candles. Even so, those who wander in out of confusion or curiosity find themselves overdressed and out of place. They usually leave quickly after realizing there's no flavored Bacardi on the shelves or apple martinis in the hands of Leon's common folk. Others might well be turned off by the gaggle of stuffed geese nailed to the pool-room wall in a riotous display of the taxidermist's art.

If a couple of dead birds or the absence of synthetic vanilla flavoring is what's kept you away from these places, you're missing out. Character's the thing. And when there's too much character, they'll wipe the dirty words off the tables for you.

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Brian McManus
Contact: Brian McManus