In Deep Dive, VICE asks writers around the world to explain how their favorite bar represents their city’s history and culture.
It’s a blazing, painfully bright Saturday morning at the D&W Lounge in Houston, Texas (911 Milby St.) and the joint is already humming along sweetly with jukebox tunes. The smell of slow-smoked meat wafts on the Gulf breeze from a nearby barbecue joint, taunting the drinkers in the venerable bar. That is, until a man arrives unannounced with a greasy paper sack full of an assortment of foil-wrapped tacos from Laredo Taqueria, one of Houston’s finest such establishments, and one located way across town, in another gentrifying barrio. “I waited an hour and a half for these,” he says, merely as a statement of exasperated fact, while offering them to total strangers, both inside the dark-as-night bar and the shaded patio with picnic tables.
The jukebox is already in fine form, churning out Tejano, old-school Texas honky-tonk, swamp pop and funky Chicago soul, much of it courtesy of that morning’s impromptu DJ: local music hero Nick Gaitan. After getting his start holding down the low end on upright bass for ska-punk-Latin heroes Los Skarnales (at their peak, the best bar band in Texas), Gaitan moved on to front his own band (Nick Gaitan and the Umbrella Man), when not thumping that bull fiddle for Nikki Hill after years of service doing the same for Texas honky-tonk god Billy Joe Shaver.
Gaitan grew up not far from the D&W, and though the neighborhood around it has changed tremendously over the last 15 or so years, it remains an island of authenticity, a bastion of true Second Ward soul.
Like New Orleans, historically, Houston’s inner city was divided into wards, each of which had its own identity: First Ward, downtown. Third, Fourth, and Fifth Wards: impoverished and African American, launching pads for the likes of many of the city’s most famous politicians, athletes, writers, and musicians. Sixth Ward is a weird little enclave of artists and preservationists that has managed to keep a 19th Century vibe in a city that devours its past like few others, while the Second Ward—El Segundo Barrio, as it is sometimes called—is the city’s most historic Mexican-American neighborhood.
It’s home to the original Ninfa’s, the restaurant that put fajitas on the map, first for Houston, then for Texas, then for America and the world. And aside from a few other spots like nearby Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, few institutions have been around El Segundo as long as D&W, aside from what used to be the Maxwell House coffee plant, a 16-story roasting facility that closed this year. Once open around the clock, the plant was the reason D&W owner Keith Weyel has always maintained a 7 AM opening hour and 2 AM last call—every minute Texas law allows. It made sense to catch those third shift workers on their way home in the morning, and it was also a hit with weary cops and assistant district attorneys—it’s always felt like a place where you might stumble into Texas versions of The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty and Bunk Moreland, maybe a little worse for drink. And they might just be sitting right next to and laughing with barrio toughs they’ve locked up on multiple occasions.
And the decor? Amazing. There’s nothing quite like it in Houston. Downtown’s ancient La Carafe—a possibly-haunted cave-like structure built before the Civil War where the walls sprout history like dandelions and the wax-dripping candles behind the bars resemble stalagmites—beats it for genuine old-timey feel, but Weyel’s place bests even La Carafe for its unique vibe and originality. The bar’s stage—there’s frequent live music, often provided by Gaitan and his friends—is done up in a Chinese motif, complete with Buddhas and a print of Warhol’s vision of Chairman Mao. There’s taxidermy, including a Canada goose near the front door whose head sports a crudely wrapped bandage over its eyes: “We wanted our customers to know that the goose saw no evil when they walked in,” Weyel explains. There’s a shrine to Marilyn Monroe, and what at first appears to be a red-tablecloth-draped table with a Day of the Dead altar on it.
“That used to be the pool table,” Weyel explains. “I got sick of people fighting over it, so I decided to make it into something pretty that nobody would want to fight over.”
Weyel is a second-generation bar owner, son of the man who once ran another nearby dive—the Harrisburg Country Club. That “country club” name is tongue-in-cheek, a blue-collar east Houston mockery of snooty west Houston. When Houston, up to then a snoozy, yellow fever-ridden cotton port, went hog wild with money after the oil boom and the excavation of the Ship Channel in the early 1900s, most of the city’s cash fled west, founding what were then suburbs (but are now urban enclaves) like Montrose, River Oaks, the Houston Heights, and West University Place, leaving the Segundo Barrio behind. (In fact, in the 1980s, city leaders built a gigantic and hideous convention center on a long north-south line on the east end of downtown, one whose purpose seems to have been both to house large gatherings and to effectively wall off the eastside rabble.)
You see the eternal Houston at the D&W.
Then as now, the actual soul of the city stayed on the east side. In today’s Houston, the closer you get to open saltwater, the closer you are to the city’s true nature: despite what you might read in the tourist brochures and glitzy websites full of profiles of “hot chefs,” it’s really a city that hums along on international trade, much of it coming from the Port of Houston, on the city’s neglected, but rapidly gentrifying east side. The principal thoroughfares are either named after the city’s earliest pioneers (like the Milby Street on which the D&W stands), or direct you to Houston’s predecessor/one-time rival town in the area (Harrisburg), or lead you to the sea—like Navigation and Canal. And that hulking, now-empty coffee plant is a hopefully temporary reminder of Second Ward’s one time-importance in international trade: this was where the trains dropped off the beans the ships had brought in from Colombia and the Mexican highlands, there to be parched and roasted and delivered to a grocery store near you.
You see the eternal Houston at the D&W. There are the two white-haired Hispanic gentleman on the patio at a table nearby, most likely in their 80s, clinking longnecks formally under clouds of cigarette smoke. There’s the scraggly-bearded, sandy-haired former Navy man, showing off the melanoma scars and blemishes on his forearms and a fresh gash on his bandaged hand. (When a reporter buys him a beer, the ever-vigilant Weyel gently remonstrates: “His limit is five. You bought him his sixth. We told him it was his lucky day.”) He’s sitting at a table with three exclusively Spanish-speaking young men who seem to be freshly arrived from Mexico, all while Gaitan’s programmed jukebox spits out country classics like Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms” and that astoundingly on-the-one funk/soul jam “Mighty Mighty” by criminally neglected Chi-town genius Baby Huey.
“It’s a real neighborhood joint,” Gaitan says. “The kind where you don’t know who you will run into but somehow it's someone you know or at least that one of your friends knows. The hours are unlike a lot of other bars because of the morning shift that has been in place a long time for night workers. That also makes it a great place to day drink. That also brings its own kind of crowd too because hell, when a good day drinking crowd gets together, anything can happen.”
If you wanna go where everybody knows your name, and maybe plunk down some good money on the latest flavor-of-the-month chef’s pop-up dinner while you're at it, you'll need to head to west Houston’s so-called dive bars. But if you wanna go where you will get some of the city’s best tacos for free from a total stranger, you'll need to go to east Houston—and start out day-drinking at the D&W.
As Gaitan puts it, you will run into people from all walks of life there: “It encapsulates the soul of Houston because people from all different walks go there on all sides of politics, social groups, interests, ages, and the law amongst each other and sometimes with each other. It's a real good Houston hang mostly because of the people In it.”
Sometimes, especially in the summer, you wonder why the hell you keep living in Houston. There’s the traffic. The utter disrespect for the past. Terrible radio, by and large. The absolutely inhuman heat and humidity, from May through September, at least. Plenty of crime. We have giant cockroaches that fly through the air. All of that fed in to a marketing campaign about 15 years ago that acknowledged all of this broiled metropolis’s shortcomings. “Houston: It’s Worth It.” What does make Houston seem worth it are the people, and you won’t find a more interesting or generous bunch than those at the D&W Lounge.
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John Nova Lomax is a senior editor at Texas Monthly and the author of Houston's Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the Bayou City. Follow him on Twitter.