Fixer Supper

Whither Free Bar Food? (And We Don't Mean Mixed Nuts)

There are still a few places where free home-cooked meals are the order of the day.

By Roxanna Asgarian February 1, 2016 Published in the February 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Image: Shutterstock

On a recent evening at the Rose Garden in the Heights, happy hour comes to an end, and in its place dinnertime arrives. The bar’s namesake tender and owner Rosemarie Pavlicek, who’s had the place for going on 25 years, knows what that means: it’s time to lay out her spread. Tonight, it’s warm sausages and a homemade cheeseball with crackers. The regulars look up from their bottles of Lone Star, games of pool, and conversation and begin to trickle over for the home-cooked food—on offer for free—prepared by Pavlicek herself.

“Some of these old people, lots of ’em live alone, and they come here to talk to people, have a beer or two. Lots of them stay a long time, and they need to eat,” she says from behind the bar. “Some people say, ‘You gotta be crazy to feed people for free.’ I say, ‘It’s your customers, fool!’ You’ve got to give back, and not just keep taking.”

At a time when many big-name bars are known as much for their high-profile food trucks or hopped-up food menus as their drinks, there are still a few places where home-cooked pots of goodness—made by the bars and, in some cases, customers themselves—are the order of the day.

At Sundown Saloon in Timbergrove, game days often come accompanied by a gratis bowl of chili with all the fixings. At PJ’s in Montrose, regulars bring dishes for themed potluck meals; they had fish when the Dolphins played, says PJ, and clam chowder for the Patriots game. And when Cathy is behind the bar at the Ashford Pub in the Energy Corridor, expect a rotating menu of dishes like home-cooked shrimp étouffée and “pasta delight.”

The occasional new entry to the bar scene is participating in the tradition, as well. At Johnny’s Gold Brick, which opened last year in the Heights, there’s often a food truck dishing out $8 slices of pizza, it’s true. But if you pop in on a Monday or Tuesday, as some regulars do, you’ll find a crock pot in the corner filled with red beans and rice. Made in the kitchen at D&T Drive Inn, which has the same owners as Johnny’s, it’s on offer for free. “Red beans and rice is easy, simple, and Southern,” says bartender Justin Ware. “It’s just so they have something to munch on.”

At Rose Garden, every evening brings something different. Some nights it’s hot dogs; others, tamales. There’s no kitchen at the bar, but Pavlicek, who lives across the street, whips the food up in her own kitchen and hauls it over. She’s been setting out dishes for her patrons since opening the place, she says, and doesn’t plan on stopping. “Them new bars,” she opines, “don’t give you a cracker.”

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