BOOK REVIEW: Texas Dive Bars. Anthony Head, Photography by Kirk Weddle. Texas A&M University Press
by Andrew Chalk
Why would someone want to go to a dive bar? The image conjures up an eccentric place, the product of an eccentric owner. Food, if it is served, that has not changed for decades. Beer brands are what the owner learned to order and didn’t have a squabble with. Wine? You want wine? You better go find some at an art show (what will you ask for next?). Cocktails are a recitable list of classics.
It is not a formula that thrills me. But so many people do go to dive bars and love them. This book, it is my hope, would leave with a clear understanding of the reasons why.
I met author Anthony Head a decade ago. He was Texas Correspondent for Somm Journal and Tasting Panel. I had started writing about Texas wine two years prior and focused on authenticity. Specifically, whether the wines were made with Texas grapes. Many weren’t, yet had labels designed to mislead consumers into thinking that they were. Asking where the grapes came from was considered presumptuous at that time when almost all bloggers were in the game mainly for free samples and wrote softball interviews and puff pieces about wineries. They resented me, as I wrote for my readers and they wrote to enlarge their own wine closets. I was upsetting their game.
Anthony recognized the difference and, on a wine media trip to the High Plains AVA, interviewed me about my support for authentic Texas wine makers. Kirk Weddle took a picture that made me look like Rasputin (he caught my good side). Anthony Head’s interview was probing and revealing, making me make my case but forcing me to justify it. In terms of journalism, he was a real pro.
That insight shows through in the commentaries on the dozen bars covered in this text. The one most relevant to me was The Goat, as it is in my town of Dallas.
Head captures the atmosphere vividly enough to make you a virtual visitor. The Dali-esque serpentine bar. The “plutonium fueled jukebox” and the curiosity of a cigarette vending machine in place as if to fuel the smoky room that disappeared a decade ago with changes in indoor smoking rules.
The staff have a furniture side too, as in being part of it. The same guy has been GM for a decade. The owner is approaching 20 years in the role. Another fixture is ‘barmaids’. Here, as appears to be the rule with dive bars, there is a long-serving female bartender that all the customers know.
Popular at The Goat is a full schedule of live music (usually Texas blues) on weekend nights that fill up the three-inch tall stage. The locals apparently avoid this, despite an ongoing rumor about Buddy Guy showing up. The night time clientele is more attracted by the music. The daytimers are people who live locally. The atmosphere is relaxing (‘simpatico’ was used to Head by one regular) and some regulars describe people on both sides of the bar as ‘family’.
Maybe that is the secret to a good dive bar. No pressing for change or perfection so no pressure or stress. This book crystallizes that and puts it in a bottle by committing it to the page. If you want to find dive bars in Texas, this is the book to read.
Update 2022-06-27: I was informed that the owner of The Goat, Bill Weiss, passed away a couple of weeks ago. The management said to me "The Goat will continue in the tradition established by Lota Dunham, Sandy, and Bill though and there are no plans to change a damn thing."