Bar Beat

Overlooked and Underrated: Finding Bonnie's in South Houston

It spent nearly 25 years in the hands of a woman who started as a bar owner when she was only a few years short of senior discounts, and upon her death, it was passed on to her beautician because she didn't have any blood family, though she seemed to have the other kind in spades. Bonnie's has got some character.

The South Houston dive was the College Lounge for 14 years or so before Bonnie took it over. I've got a soft spot for older women who run bars, whether they're gruff Alice's types or sweet Ruthie's-style women. Extra points if there's a Southern drawl involved; reminds me of my grandmother, who, if she ran a bar, would require a solid source of switches nearby to whip regulars into submission. Self-cut, no other way to do it. I'm surprised the smaller trees in Tupelo have any thin branches left.

But I don't know what Bonnie sounded like. I was about nine months late for that. I could tell from talking to the bartender on duty Tuesday that she is missed. She spoke of Bonnie in a way that made it clear people cared for her, next of kin or no.

As for the bar itself -- Bonnie's is a standout neighborhood place, and one I wish I'd visited earlier. The boxy orange brick structure and the "hell with it, they'll know what it means" back-lit changeable sign ("Go e x ns!"), suggest potential sketchiness.

Walk in, though, and you're immediately at ease. The appropriately dim seating area to the right features a small stage and dance floor, uniform tables, fans shaped like roulette wheels, and a few slot machines (amusement only). It's cleaner and more put-together than your average dive, despite the smoke that continues to soak into the walls (no ordinance here, Dr. Paul would be pleased). There's a microwave in a little alcove, and an internet jukebox (nobody's perfect) lights up its little section of plaster. Top song: "Troubador," George Strait. Number 14: "Purple Rain," Prince.

More importantly, I doubt the horseshoe bar on the left side has ever wanted for conversation. When a friend and I dropped in, the bartender -- some point past 40, and kind as any I've ever met -- enthusiastically answered my questions about the place, while two middle-aged gentlemen discussed global democratic revolutions. The one with the Texas-twinged Russian-sounding accent got animated when he started talking about Ukraine and Georgia. They went on this way for several minutes before they introduced themselves to each other.

Meanwhile, a handsome middle-aged woman with a vanity license plate sat up very straight and sipped her drink with the look of someone doing moderately challenging mental math. I would have liked to find out her story -- already knew her name, she and her license plate pulled up at the same time as us -- but I didn't want to impose. One of the two men didn't mind, though. He bought her a drink (she politely refused a shot) and said something that caused the bartender to remind him to be respectful, almost certainly with a wink.

There's not much to it beyond that. I'm sure things get livelier during events and weekends. There are a few well-placed flat-screens and some notices talking about football games, and the stage looks like it's seen some things (karaoke is Fridays). But even in its casual Tuesday form, Bonnie's is solid.

It's solid enough that I would have at least mentioned it in this piece. And I certainly would have gone there a couple years ago instead of god damn Molly's on FM 518 to meet a then-recent ex for a debriefing session (she was staying on the south side before lighting out for Tennessee). That way, instead of a 25-minute stew on the way home, I could have grabbed a seat at the bar and bitched about, or ignored, my troubles. I'm sure Bonnie's would have obliged either way.

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Glenn Livet