Ice House

Where Have All the Dive Bars Gone?

Charting the demise of the Inner Loop dive bar, an increasingly endangered species

By Sarah Rufca Nielsen October 24, 2016 Published in the November 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Rest easy, Blanco's.

Image: Google Maps

As Houstonians, we consider it a God-given right to live within five minutes of a gas station, a Mattress Firm, a place that makes good breakfast tacos, and a bar so seedy and unassuming, we feel overdressed in our laundry-day outfit. Where else but a dive bar does one learn to curse colorfully, play pool and enjoy $2 beers?

And yet over the past few years, Inner Loop dive bars have become a downright endangered species, pushed aside by rising real estate prices, trendy bars and the never-ending march of gentrification. We’ll particularly miss the most recent victim, Kay’s. So let’s pour out a Lone Star for the dive bars we’ve lost, and order a round at the ones still standing—for now. 

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Kay’s Lounge, Rice Village

Opened: The building dates to 1944, and Kay’s started serving beer and wine in 1962.
Closed: Sept. 2016
Known For: The giant Texas-shaped table; former regulars like Dr. Red Duke
Ruined By: The pressing need for more patio homes
Where to Go Instead: Rudyard’s on a quiet night; The Big Easy if you don’t mind exchanging country for the blues; Alice’s Tall Texan

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Ruthie's Place, Montrose

Opened: 1981
Closed: Jan. 2016
Known For: Ruthie, who remained a fixture behind the bar on Sundays through her nineties
Ruined By: The cruel and unyielding passage of time; the death of Ruthie
Where to Go Instead: TK Bitterman's

EJ's, Montrose

Opened: 1974
Closed: June 2014
Known For: Delightfully unpolished drag shows
Ruined By: Greater gay acceptance in mainstream bars; Grindr
Where to Go Instead: Tony’s Corner Pocket; TC’s; Michael’s Outpost

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Blanco's, River Oaks

Opened: 1982
Closed: Nov. 2013
Known For: Regular performers like Gary P. Nunn; $4.95 Blanco’s burgers; being the last and most beloved honky tonk in Houston
Ruined By: Annexation by neighbors St. John’s School
Where to Go Instead: Gruene Hall, maybe, or Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar Bar in Bandera—yes, you have to head all the way to the Hill Country to replicate the experience.

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Roll-N Saloon, River Oaks

Opened: 1969, called the Roll-N since 1972
Closed: Jan. 2010
Known For: $1 shots every time a train rolled by blowing its whistle
Ruined By: A landlord that opened a nicer bar in the spot (The Railyard) rather than renew the lease
Where to Go Instead: Lone Star Saloon—same crowd, just downtown

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