Given the size of the city, it is surprising how little information is available pertaining to which of Houston’s many bars is its oldest. New Yorkers have argued for years whether the Bridge Café, Pete’s Tavern, or McSorley’s Ale House is the oldest bar in New York City, and repeated articles in the New York Times on the subject have not resolved the debate. By contrast, Bostonians seem generally to agree that the local Bell in Hand Tavern – which opened in 1795 – is not just the oldest bar in Boston, but also oldest bar in the United States. In Chicago, which has seen the closing of a number of historic drinking establishments in the last few years, Schaller’s Pump appears to be the oldest still operating.
Houstonians’ comparative indifference regarding which bar can rightly claim the title of the city’s oldest may be attributable to the relative youth of the city. A more cynical view is that residents do not take much interest in any aspect of Houston’s history. Regardless, when the Houston Chronicle’s “BarTab” blogger was asked in 2005 if La Carafe at 813 Congress or Leon’s Lounge at 1006 McGowen is Houston’s oldest bar, and stated unequivocally that La Carafe is the city’s oldest bar, not a single person challenged his statement.Now, some definitions. Bars as modern Houstonians know them, did not exist prior to the mid-1960s. Even though national Prohibition came to Texas is August 1935, so called “local-option” laws empowered communities to decide for themselves how to restrict selling of alcohol. Houston was Dry, but bars that served beer-only were not uncommon. In contrast, many restaurants and hotel bars were permitted to serve alcoholic beverages (wine, mixed drinks, spirits) to patrons provided they purchase a “club membership,” however none remain today. In an era before supermarkets and convenience stores, ice houses originally flourished as places to buy ice for refrigerators of the day, and eventually evolved into neighborhood grocery stores. Patrons and store owners found that the neighborhood ice houses’ open-air setting, like public taverns in other U.S. states and Europe, were conducive to social interaction. Gradually, beer was served at many, although there are no records document this evolution.
For this project, we considered bars that have operated the longest under the same name, in the same building, and in the same location. Changes in ownership and short-term suspensions in operation are acceptable.
And then there’s Leon’s Lounge. The original occupant of the building at 1006 McGowen was a bar called either “La Bamba Bar” or “La Bomba Bar” (the city directory is not consistent) from 1949 to 1954. Leon Yarborough bought the property in 1953, but may not have changed the bar’s name immediately, as the city directory first lists “Leon’s Bar” at the address in 1955. The bar’s name changed to “Leon’s Lounge & Bar” a few years later, and appears to have operated continuously at that location, under that name, until 1984, when the city directory shows the building as vacant (this appears to have coincided with Leon’s death, upon which his daughter, Scarlett Yarborough, inherited the building and business). The bar is listed again soon thereafter, under the name “Leon’s Lounge”, and has operated at the same location ever since.
Nevertheless, based on the facts discussed above, Leon’s Lounge has a particularly strong claim to the title of the oldest bar in Houston. Unlike a restaurant or an open air ice house, Leon’s falls cleanly into most people’s definition of a “bar.” And though the businesses that evolved into Leon’s and Marquis II both began in 1949, with only short (if any) interruptions of operation since, Leon’s has never changed locations and, indeed, is still operating out of the same building. That building may not be as old as the Kennedy Bakery, but it became a bar more than 10 years earlier than La Carafe.
While not boasting any objective, distinguishing feature, Leon’s feels most like Houston’s oldest bar. Even though the West Alabama Ice House, Kay’s Lounge, and the Marquis have played significant roles in the city’s social history, all are located in newer neighborhoods than Third Ward/Midtown. Leon’s, just off Main Street, lives up to the implicit promise of its battered sign outside. Today, it is a remnant from a long-neglected neighborhood which once thrived where developers now rampage virtually unchecked (with the predictable aesthetic results). Inside, its narrow main room, dominated by a long wood bar, is decorated with old stained?glass windows that, rumor has it, were salvaged from one of the many Main Street mansions in the area torn down around the time the bar opened. One of the two back rooms boasts a pool table; the other, a second ornate wood bar, more stained glass, and a piano–at which you may be lucky enough to find Blues legend Little Joe Washington.