Before I tell the story of how I got kicked out of my regular bar, I should begin by saying that I love Valhalla, the tiny graduate student pub underneath Rice University’s chemistry building. It was built as a smoking room in the 1920s (for safety reasons, smoking wasn’t allowed inside the chemistry building) and it became a bar in 1970. It’s incredible that it took them so long, because between the dimly lit interior, beautiful scenery, and wonderful cross-section of humanity, I think Valhalla is the best bar in town.
Valhalla is hard to find, marked only by a red light on a building nestled in Rice’s labyrinthine campus. Inside you’ll find murals of Norse mythology, lewd bathroom graffiti, and 95-cent beer. Outside, there's families, students, and the occasional friendly dog.
Valhalla’s regulars are rich donors and blue-collar janitors, hipsters and bros, nerds and artists, bookworms and cranks—a band of misfits who may or may not share anything in common beyond the fact that Valhalla is a place they all want to hang out.
Every bartender at Valhalla is an unpaid volunteer, and so among them, too, you find a motley crew united by their good intentions: graduate students who need an excuse to put down the books, locals who like meeting people, or crunchy alumni giving back to a bar that’s given them so much. Offbeat and beer-soaked, Valhalla is the bar that most perfectly encapsulates the Rice ethos: work hard, play hard, and don’t take anything too seriously.
One night last week, I went to Valhalla with a group of friends that included my friend Evan. Evan and I went to Rice together, and while he was an undergraduate, he was a campus gadfly, newspaper editor, and campus TV host, and his abundance of personality is most apparent whenever he sets foot back on campus.
It wasn't surprising, then, that a few beers into our night at Valhalla, Evan became the center of unwanted attention. When he tried to place his third beer order, the bartender demanded, “No, you have to take off your tie.”
Ah, yes, the Tie Rule, which decrees that no neckties are to be worn in Valhalla, because it's a place to unwind and relax. Like many of Rice’s more lovable quirks, the Tie Rule was subversive in the 1970s and endures today as a tradition that gives the bar its personality—it might be your dad’s personality, but it sticks around because it’s friendly, harmless, and DON’T TELL US WHAT TO DO.
It’s also about as serious as rules get at Valhalla, whose other dictums include “The Bartender Is Always Right,” “Have Another Beer,” and “If You Need to Throw Up, the Trash Can is Over There.”
The bar displays a collection of neckties, severed just below the knot, flapping helplessly in the breeze. Most of these are very ugly, and I always wondered whether the folks who lost them did so on purpose. Hey, Professor so-and-so just got his necktie cut off! Laughs all around, get this man another beer.
Well, as it turns out, Evan didn't want to take off his tie. He does have a particular taste in clothing—think Professor Henry Jones crossed with Woody Allen—but more importantly, being told what to do isn’t in his DNA. He’s the sort of guy who, were Valhalla to require neckwear instead of banning it, would refuse to wear a tie. And, in any case, he was ordering his third beer. If the necktie was such a big deal, why didn’t someone say something earlier?
Evan could have simply removed his tie. But he wouldn't, because DON’T TELL HIM WHAT TO DO. Unstoppable force, meet immovable object. Words were exchanged. Voices were raised. Beers were denied.
Chagrined and empty-handed, Evan re-joined our group. Being a good friend, I drained my cup and returned to the bar to buy us both another round. The bartender nearest me slouched against the back bar and eyed me suspiciously as he sipped his beer. I opened my mouth to order, but before the words came, he pursed his lips and shook his head. “You’re friends with that guy,” he sneered, gesturing toward Evan across the room
I stared at him, blinking helplessly, then tried to enlist the service of the other bartender, who refused to even look me in the eye. When a third bartender emerged from the back room, I finally was able to buy my friend a beer.
This should have been the end of it, but as soon as I placed the beer in Evan's hand, the entire staff of Valhalla, plus some of their friends, were upon us. “Take off the tie,” the biggest one growled, “or get out.” He was actually thrusting a pair of scissors toward Evan’s throat. “Yeah!” one of their friends, a drunk girl, wailed. We wandered outside.
There, removed from our suddenly unfriendly environs, my friends and I discussed the not-coolness of it all, while Evan mounted a one-man protest atop the chemistry building steps. “Don’t go in there!” he shouted, waving a finger at the bar. “They won’t serve people who wear ties!” Some passersby didn't see what the big deal was, so I tried explaining that Evan’s tie was a religious garment, and that his civil rights were being violated. He’s a lawyer! He can’t take it off!
After a bit of this, one of the bartenders stepped out for a smoke. “Let me buy a beer!” Evan shouted at her. “What’s your name?” she asked, and not being one to relinquish the last word, he replied, “EVAN! AND DON’T YOU FORGET IT!”
Five minutes later, I re-entered Valhalla to use the restroom, and there, in large letters on the whiteboard above the bar, were the words:
Do not serve:
EVAN (douche in tie)
Or his friends
This was followed by a list of our descriptions: “Bald Guy,” “Blonde in Peacoat,” and inexplicably, “Hoodie Bro” (me). It was the end. We were persona non grata at our favorite bar—at least for the night.
I’ll be back to Valhalla. Rules are rules, after all, and one small disagreement isn't going to change the fact that it’s my favorite bar.
As we left, I watched a dog pee under one of the bar tables. The drunk girl who yelled at Evan inside the bar was throwing up on the front steps. I noticed a parking ticket on my windshield. I took it off and threw it on the pile of Rice parking tickets in my backseat. The heart of this alumnus swelled with pride. All was right in the world. Beer had not been served, but by God, justice had!