Although the number of "true" dive bars is shrinking by the day, that didn't stop our own John Nova Lomax from tracking down the best ones left in the city and covering them in last October's feature story, "Dive Bars: A Handcrafted Tour of the Best, Most Obscure Places to Lean on a Stool in Houston."
Now, Lomax has parlayed our readers' fascination with juke joints and beer halls into something a bit more permanent: a book.
Houston's Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the Bayou City is Lomax's magnum opus on the best places to get your Lone Star on without encountering any popped collars, Internet-enabled jukeboxes or organic pomegranate-infused liquor. Or, as the book jacket itself says:
Houston's Best Dive Bars offers opinionated reviews of one hundred of the grittiest drinking establishments in the Bayou City. If you want to avoid the tourist traps listed in those "other" bar guides and find out where real Texans go to get plastered, then Houston's Best Dive Bars is your guide to the delightfully filthy underside of Houston bar life.
"This book is the culmination of 25 (occasionally interrupted) years in Houston dive bars. That's right - I began when I was about 15, at the original location of Warren's. I even have a little note I wrote myself on bar stationary to mark that occasion," Lomax says.
"Dive bars represent the Houston I love, the Houston that resists change, the Houston that revels in its provincialism and doesn't try to be South Beach or LA or New York. Dive Bars are Houston in its own skin, warts and all."
When asked if he planned on following the Robb Walsh model of releasing what seems like a book every year while still writing for the Press, Lomax laughingly replied, "If you mean would I mind showing up as a pundit on basic cable dressed like Indiana Jones and co-owning a shi-shi Mexican restaurant on lower Westheimer, there are worse futures I could envision."
As to what aspect of the book he's most excited about, it's clear that Lomax has a great passion for uncovering both truly hidden gems as well as giving pats on the back to beloved, older joints. "I am proudest of the places I was able to discover for the book, the places that the Yelpsters and so on have not yet found and dissected for the Twitterati," he says. "I did this best in the wilds of the greater Spring Branch area. Unfortunately, I was not able to cover the east side as well. I only have some of the more obvious places in there. This is such a huge city."
"I am also proud of the variety of places I was able to get in the book and still feel comfortable listing them as dives. Basically, if the place does have lots of character and does not put on snooty airs, does not wish it was somewhere other than Houston, does not have a velvet rope or a corporate office, it had a chance of making it in the book."
Further explaining, he said, "Helios made it in. Byzantio made it in too. Those are not most folks' definition of a dive bar, but it fits mine. And I also included plenty of places that anyone would call a dive. I just got to thinking that about a third of the way through that people might get sick of reading about one blue-collar strip-mall dive after another."
On the other hand, Lomax didn't want to get any "urban" pioneers stabbed or otherwise faced with a possibly violent demise. "I also did not want to get people killed, " he says, more seriously. "I have been in places on streets like Clinton Drive near the Ship Channel where this was a concern. I did not think it was advisable to send less experienced people than myself to places like that. You only want a hint of danger in your dive bar, not a definite sense of approaching death."
Starting tomorrow, Lomax will be signing copies of his new book at some of the diviest dive bars in town (none places where you're likely to get shot).
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You can catch him first at Warren's Inn, the longtime downtown drinkery, tomorrow night (August 12) from 6 to 8 p.m. And next week, Lomax will be at The Usual from 6 to 8 p.m. on August 19, then at the Lone Star Saloon -- the bar that politely posed for the book's cover photo -- the next night, August 20, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
The book isn't for sale in stores yet, but you can buy an advance copy for Lomax to sign (or just to keep in the glove compartment of your car) online for only $10, which includes shipping and handling. You can also buy copies at the events.
And although some places in the book are no longer around since Lomax finished the copy and sent it off to the publisher, he has a soft yet gimlet eye toward Houston's constant state of flux:
"I am sad that some of the book is already obsolete. I have heard that the Spot and the Red Hog have already eaten it. Ernie's on Banks is now in Brad Moore's able hands. Even the things that never seem to change in Houston change the minute you try to pin them down or preserve them in amber. But hollering about Houston changing reminds me of when my toddler son yelled at the ocean to stop wrecking the sand castle he was trying to build in the surf: it's futility and hubris defined."