First off, Houston Watch Co. is not what it sounds like. It’s a bar located in a historic space in the old Southern Pacific Railroad Building at 913 Franklin that once bore the same name. The building was designed in 1910. Two years later, Houston jeweler V. A. Corrigan opened Houston Watch Company on Franklin to be close to the railroad operators. (For the purposes of this discussion, Houston Watch Co. refers to the current bar while Houston Watch Company refers to the original business established there early in the 1900s)
A former employee who worked there in the '80s wrote that Houston Watch Co. used to be the railroad watch inspectors for 21 different railroads. During that period, it was of utmost importance that railroads operated on the same schedule to avoid disastrous crashes. V.A. Corrigan was the Deputy Time Master for Houston and responsible for keeping the official local time to which all local and railroad clocks needed to be synced.
Before everyone started carrying a cell phone, people could call a phone number to find out the official time . Until the 1990s, Houstonians were getting the answer from equipment housed inside Houston Watch Company.
Eventually, the company closed and the space was sold. The most recent business there was Franklin Street Coffee, which closed in 2008. It took a great deal of restoration work, much of it done by Houston Watch Co.’s owners themselves, to bring the space back to its historical roots.
Co-owner Erik Bogle says the original red oak wainscoting was painted with several layers of paint that he called “an awful salmon-pinkish.” He and another owner, Ryan Clark, stripped, sanded and refinished it. Bogle called it “quite a learning experience.”
The stairs were carpeted and when it was pulled away, original oak was discovered underneath. Unfortunately, the upstairs floor was in too poor of a condition to be saved, so a new hardwood floor was installed.
In random places around the bar there are still huge safes that pretty much still sit where were after the original Houston Watch Company closed. (Believe it or not, the ladies’ room was built around one of the safes back when the place was turned into Franklin Street Coffeehouse.)
The front door of the bar is easy to miss because of the fairly narrow storefront. It’s roughly in the middle of the 900 block of Franklin near where Kitchen Incubator used to be. I walked right past it on my way to another intended destination when a friend popped his head out the door and flagged me down. I’m glad I went in.
The bar menu focuses on the classics with a special emphasis on Old Fashioneds. Three different versions are on the list: traditional, with rye, turbinado syrup, Angostura and Peychaud’s; a sotol version with agave and mole bitters and a bourbon Old Fashioned with simple syrup and bitters. They’re $8 each.
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The Featured Drinks list change with the seasons, but recently it included a Strawberry Shrub with locally grown strawberries, the Sidecar (cognac, dry curaçao and lemon juice) and Robert Burns (Irish whiskey, sweet vermouth and Herbsaint).
Not in the mood for a cocktail? No problem. There are draft beers in pints (16 ounces) and ponies (10 ounces), bottled beer and a small selection of wine as well. The beer list includes Southern Star, Karbach, Full Sail, Brooklyn Brewing Company and there’s cider from Eastciders in Austin.
Don't be starving when you visit. There may be some bar mix, nuts or pretzels, but food isn't really part of what Houston Watch Co. provides. As far as parking goes, visitors will need to find street or pay lot parking. Such is the way of downtown.
Houston Watch Co. has a great environment steeped in history with a speakeasy feel. On quiet nights, it would be great to climb upstairs and read a book and it’s sure to be a bustling hangout on the weekends. It’s a great place to kill some time.