Welcome back to Last Call, where we visit watering holes around the world to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers, learning everything from how to get over a broken heart to what drink orders will get you laughed out of their bar.
As you pull up to the Dry Creek Saloon, a tree house-like bar perched in the Hill Country of Austin, Texas, bartender Angel Altenhofel will warmly eye you from the bar. Her husky voice greets you with a "Hi, sweetie" as you walk in.
The bar's infamous original owner, "Crazy Sarah," ruled over this place with an iron fist, unafraid to roar at customers like Willie Nelson when they failed to bring their empty bottles downstairs. Known as the meanest barmaid in Austin, age didn't mellow Sarah, who worked here until she was 91. An old newspaper obituary for the former owner now pinned to the wall is unapologetically headlined "Crusty Bartender."
The Dry Creek Cafe & Boat Dock (its other name) is something of an Austin institution. Historically existing as a hangout for everyone from cedar tree cutters and hippie student boozers in the 60s to Willie Nelson and local mailmen, this watering hole has survived Austin's contemporary real estate boom and the influx of hipsters who have moved in.
Even though Sarah is long gone and the Austin Hill Country surrounding this space is disappearing into the city's most expensive real estate, the spirit of Dry Creek remains unchanged with Angel tending bar—only the third bartender to have ever worked here since the 50s.
MUNCHIES: This bar has quite a reputation as an old-school Austin, pre-hipster bar. Angel Altenhofel: This bar originally opened as a cedar chopper joint for rough Austin rednecks who cut cedar trees here for a living. They opened the front room here in 1953, and in '56, Crazy Sarah behind the bar bought it from her brother. That's when it became Dry Creek. She worked here till she was 91 years old—the oldest and meanest bartender in Austin. She died six years ago last month.
So how would you describe this bar for people who haven't made it here yet? This is definitely a dive bar, a little beer hangout where nothing changes much. The stairs used to be more rickety, and the nails in the benches that cut you on the ass are gone, but the bones of this place haven't changed. We have the last 45 [RPM] record jukebox in a bar in Austin. Some of the records have been on there 40, maybe 50 years, and we only have new ones on there because the old ones died. I like some of the bluesy ones and songs like "The Wild Side of Life" and "San Antonio Rose." They're the ones I remember, the old country people, but I've got old brains, what can I say.
And in the summertime when it gets hotter, we are not air-conditioned, so it kind of weeds out the tough ones.
What about the drinks? The beers, they've changed a little over time. We even have some Austin beers now. It probably costs a little more, but it's probably still the cheapest in town, or pretty darn close to it. Everything costs $2.75.
Do people sit around, drinking for hours while spilling their hearts out to you? People don't ask for advice much, but the regulars, we all talk about everything. You can catch a lot of stories. Some of them have been coming for decades and decades and decades. You hear about their families, anything and everything. We have got generations of families that come out here, some just a few times a year, some who haven't been here for 20 or 30 years. The longest I've had is 48 years. People like it because nothing changes because of the place that it is, and the fact that Sarah still haunts the place.
We think she's messing with the lights.
So how long have you worked here? I've been here for three years, but I've been coming here since the mid 70s. Back then, this place was pretty much the same, maybe just an old refrigerator instead of the bar box, and the old stove where Sarah used to cook hamburgers when she felt like it. You had them how she made them.
Back then, I lived down in the double arse curve [where the river bends at the bottom of the hill]. I lived there just because it was cool and out in the country. Austin in the 70s was a cool little town.
In your mind, what has changed about Austin? Oh god, it's just overrun. Back then there was no traffic, and you could afford to live in Austin if you were just a regular working stiff.
Till the late 80s, none of these big houses were out here, there were a few little places: Sarah's trailer and 12 or so converted army barracks that were rented out. It was all just trees, country. But Austin was so much littler and cooler, and didn't run over into every little town around here.
So how did you get this job? I was unemployed for quite a few years, disenchanted with having to learn to use a computer. Then I was at a funeral and heard that the guy who took up after Sarah was planning to leave. At Sarah's last sister's wake, I got the job. So I heard about the job at a funeral and got it at a wake. That was my middle finger to computers. I'd worked in bars for a quarter century, but I'm only the third full-time bartender that's [ever] worked here.
This bar is called the Dry Creek Cafe and Boat Dock, but you don't do food and there isn't a boat dock? Sarah would cook hamburgers, and there was a little dirt road to a tiny boat dock down there, but it's private now. Although there is a guy that comes and does BBQ on a Sunday, someone read something last year that said that we sold seafood, so one of my regulars brought a can of anchovies, which are there on the bar, so we're covered for the next time someone asks.
In terms of your customers, do you ever see anyone famous? I don't think I have served anyone myself. Sarah, I don't know when it was—decades ago—had Willie Nelson out here. He was making some noise and she told him to put his guitar in the truck. When he didn't like it she told him maybe he'd like to follow it on out there. I haven't seen him myself since then [laughs], I don't know if he knows Sarah has died and it's safe to come back…
How would you describe the rest of your regulars? It has not really been locals, because there haven't been too many people that lived locally around here. But we have people coming in from around the world. Apparently, this place is on the internet and stuff.
They've got the 100 best dive bars in America and people say we are fourth or fifth on the list, though I can't tell you because I haven't looked. But we get all ages and all kinds. Beer distributor guys, we got a Ferrari mechanic, a mailman. Some of them bring their kids and their dogs, and they are lucky I don't make them put their children on a leash.
It sounds like you're as tough as Sarah. Oh I can be! I learnt how to be nice for a living for a long time, but I can channel Sarah, too. You have to be tough working in almost any bar. It's kind of expected almost. They got to bring their bottles back down or else its "don't make me channel Sarah on you." Oh yeah! God gave me mean green eyes for a reason—they have served me well over the years.
Is it a happy life working here, since it feels like hanging out in a tree house? That's what I always say. Open to the elements and the bugs that come in with them. I'm 63 and work six days a week, 4-9 PM, and when we have a really busy few days, I think I'm getting too old for this shit, but all the regulars help me out.
But working to 91? No, I hope I don't live that long. I may not be as tough an old bird as Sarah. Although I can't afford to live too quiet a life, in a bar, it's not like you get retirement.
Thanks for speaking to me, Angel.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in May 2015.