Last Call

Celebrating Alice's Tall Texan, Houston's Kindest Bar (Seriously)

The venerable watering hole will close for good at the end of the month, but the memories remain.

By Timothy Malcolm August 13, 2020

Alice Ward sits inside Alice's Tall Texan. She's closing her bar for good at the end of August.

Image: Marco Torres

Let’s say it’s just before midnight on a Saturday at Alice’s Tall Texan. The regulars are long gone for the day, and the hipster kids who’ve read about the Main Street bar are deep into their last ice-cold chalices of Lone Star and Shiner Bock. Owner Alice Ward presides over it all; in 15 minutes she’ll start shooing people out.

Then the door swings open, and in steps Felipe Galvan and his band of Latin ska-punk rebel rousers Los Skarnales. The members of the band, a Houston institution for more than 25 years, settle in around a table. Ward huffs.

“She looks like she’d be ready to go, then there’d be [expletive] 10 of us,” says Galvan. “She’d go ‘Agh!’”

So Galvan and his bandmates would chug beers and down shots quickly so as to not further upset Ward.

But they weren’t the only ones to feel her wrath at last call.

“If you didn’t hurry up and get out of there … oh my God,” laughs Debbie Martinez, a 30-or-so-year patron of Alice’s Tall Texan, who at one time was visiting up to five times a week with her husband, Hector. Martinez remembers a trick Ward would play to get people out quick. “She’d turn the air conditioner off.”

Ward says there’s a very simple reason for all this.

“It was time for them to go so I could have my drink,” she says. If she closed at 1 a.m., she could quickly drive over to the Shiloh Club on Studewood for her lone vodka tonic of the evening.

Galvan wrote a song about being kicked out of the bar. Called “You’re Cut Off,” it led to a music video shot at the Tall Texan. Ward and longtime employee Suzanne Espinoza even made a cameo, each poking brooms toward the camera as if to direct the viewer to the exit, as they had been doing for the last many years. Los Skarnales was set to premiere the video at the bar during its St. Patrick’s Day party, naturally on March 17.

But on that day all bars in Houston were instructed to close because of the spread of Covid-19.

“Damn,” says Galvan. “How ironic, man.”

After Gov. Greg Abbott reopened bars in May, the Tall Texan came back for a few weeks, but it closed again in late June once Abbott backtracked. On July 30 Ward announced that the bar would close permanently, shuttering after August.

Immediately fans and former patrons of the Heights bar, also called the Tall Texas Drive In, reached out to mourn the end of an era and celebrate a community fixture that hosted birthday parties, holiday events, plenty of Astros watch parties, and was responsible for more than a few wild nights. A lot of that is because of the woman behind that bar pouring the cheap beer and sometimes, when it was time, yelling at people to get the hell out.

Ward, who was working as the bar's manager in 1984, took the Tall Texan over from her boss Roland Smith, who had to let it go because of an opportunity at a brewery. She kept a lot of things the same, like pouring cheap Lone Star and Shiner Bock from the tap into either a mug or a frosty goblet or chalice (read: chALICE), and giving patrons free rein to pop a quarter into the jukebox. She didn’t like every song that came out of it, though.

“My mother hated ‘Free Bird’ after a while,” Ward's daughter Dina Ward says of the classic 1973 Lynyrd Skynyrd song. “On the old jukebox she had ‘Free Bird’ taken out, but they put in an internet jukebox, and they put it back in there.”

There was plenty of old-school country, and sometimes Ward would sneak some Frank Sinatra in the mix. Local Tejanos played their namesake music. In later years “hipsters,” as just about every regular calls them, would sing along to modern pop. One song that became old fast: “Tennessee Whiskey” by Chris Stapleton.

“It started out nice, but it lasted so long,” says Ward. “It was played constantly.”

Because it had been around for decades, the act of drinking at the Tall Texan was essentially handed down from generation to generation. World War II veterans, baby boomer retirees, middle-aged Houstonians, and younger drinkers could all be spotted drinking Lone Stars at the same time. 

"I've seen generations in the bar," says Espinoza. "I mean, my grandpa used to come there and my dad came there. I can imagine that Alice has seen way more than that."

Maybe because those younger crowds continued to show, it seemed as if the well would be in operation forever. In recent years stories online were written about the Tall Texan’s stature as a top dive bar, a place for cheap cold beer, great conversation, and a community of people that united through potluck parties, for the good times and the tough ones. It was the kind of bar that was just too hard to find these days.

But July proved a challenge in multiple ways. Having to close after just a few weeks of being open hurt the bar's bottom line. Worse, some of the Tall Texan's regulars died, like Rhoni Black and both Papa Juan and Alicia Parra—less than three weeks apart, no less. Papa Juan died July 11, and about two weeks later, Ward announced the bar’s closing.

The Tall Texan asked folks to visit July 31 and August 1 to buy up whatever canned and bottled beer was left, with complementary chalices and mugs going along with every six-pack purchase. The lines were out the door and around the block.

“I don’t think any of us expected that sort of response,” says Dina Ward, who's the bar's social media guru. (Alice Ward has some knowledge of the internet: “Facebook and YouTube and whatever you call all that stuff.”)

There will be a few more chances to say goodbye. From 3 to 7 p.m. Saturday, August 15, the Tall Texan will sell growlers-to-go from kegs of Lone Star and Shiner Bock, and if there’s no sellout, it’ll open at the same time Sunday to finish off the sale. Bar memorabilia like signs and fixtures will go up for sale from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. August 22.

But what about Ward? What is the matriarch of Houston bars going to do now that her place is closed?

“I wanna try to get back into my bowling,” says Ward, who at her peak averaged in the 140s. Plus, annually for 25 years she and her girlfriends traveled to major national bowling tournaments, visiting places like Niagara Falls and Indianapolis. She’s not sure whether she’ll be traveling in the future, but she’s excited to spend some time on something that isn’t running a bar.

Still, no matter how much her customers irked her over the years, no matter how much she heard “Free Bird,” and no matter who walked into Tall Texan, she’s going to miss it terribly.

“I know I’ve met a lot of people, and I got some good friends at the bar,” she says. “It’s gonna be sad not to be seeing those same people every day.”

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