Houston Heights dive bar stands out on the changing pad

Two days after the Big Star Bar opened in 2008, Hurricane Ike hit Houston. The powerful storm ripped through the Gulf Coast and tossed a large tree through the roof of the bar. The owner fixed the roof quickly but left the tree on the property.

The Heights, like much of the city, had no electricity. But the bar had wood, lots of wood. For months after the lights came back on, Big Star staff burned branches every night on a Sears-purchased fire pit that drew neighbors and became the new joint’s signature.

“It’s kind of the genesis story of this bar,” co-owner Brad Moore said. “If you smell like a campfire, you probably went to Big Star that night.”

A lot has changed on this block in 14 years, but back then the heights had not reached peak levels of gentrification. Big Star’s neighbors, with the exception of Cedar Creek and Hubcap Grill, were rows of industrial warehouses.

Today, the 19th and 20th Street strips are home to Bungalow Heights, a treasured restaurant in a beautiful old house with swing sets on the patio. There’s Drift, one of those massive new multi-level bars with lots of flat-screen TVs. Next door, the owners of Drift are building a similar-sounding bar called Heights Social. Another door down there is the next bar “Welcome to Austin in the Heights”. Soon, the owners of the Clé nightclub will open a concept on the 20th.

Big Star stands out, or rather, it fades into the landscape: a small bright blue structure that you may have driven and not noticed, a dive bar that looks like a dive, creates a community like a dive and full of stories like a dive.

Before Big Star, Moore worked for a long time at Montrose mainstays Rudyard’s and Poison Girl, before opening a few bars himself on Washington Avenue, before it became a “Bud Light wonderland”, he said. declared. Then he came to the heights with his business partner at the time, the late Rich Prater. Today, Prater’s girlfriend, Pam Pellegrino, co-owns the bar with Moore and runs it daily, along with two other bartenders they’ve given shares to over the years, Charlie Fernandez and Arian Owens.

Big Star Bar is an authentic dive bar with decor to match.

Emma Baller

When Moore walked into 1005 West 19th, he was surprised by the lack of windows and remembers thinking it was their kind of place. He and his friends were all musicians, bartenders and people in the restaurant industry. “That’s where the artists and the cooks went,” he said.

As more restaurants and bars opened in the heights, their own staff flocked to Big Star for after-work drinks. That’s how Kyle Allred became a regular. Now an English teacher at Lamar High School, he was a barback at local joints like D&T Drive Inn at the time. Allred grew up in Houston but lived in Austin for a long time. When he returned home in 2012, he turned to Big Star for his string lights, the mirrors all over the walls and the jukebox — CD only, not digital, Moore points out — that catered to his musical tastes. . The people selling drinks behind the bar played in the local indie bands he followed.

Ironically, Allred says Big Star looked a lot like what Austin was like when he lived there, but that’s not so much the case anymore. Calling it “an Austin refugee bar,” he says, Big Star brought it back to the city’s music community of the late ’90s and early ’00s.

“You enter another world when you enter Big Star,” Allred said. “There are no flat screens, the televisions date from the early 2000s.”

A few big gray TVs like the ones you had in your living room growing up are positioned around the space. Moore says they play movies or shows that sound good without sound, like “The Simpsons” and Turner Classic Movies; “relevant sports, not just random sports;” and they don’t play “dumb bullshit” like, according to him, “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Family Feud.”

Big Star's patio is much larger than one would expect looking at the front of the bar.

Big Star’s patio is much larger than one would expect looking at the front of the bar.

Emma Baller

Big Star’s decor is eclectically quilted. Behind the bar, two mannequin heads are tucked under the liquor shelf, stickers and notes in different mottos line the walls, and the ceiling above is covered in Jängermeister labels that an artist-bartender has started to stick to it one day. A small piece of equipment is dressed in a handwritten Sharpie note: “Plug into power strip only. Plug melts when plugged into wall outlet.”

There’s a pool table out back and arcade games lined up on a wall. Black and white floor tiles throughout give off a kitchen vibe in your first apartment. Exiting leads to a decorated carport (for the weather) and a very large patio that winds around the building, extending farther than the small bar front suggests. At the entrance to the street, there is a mural depicting, among other things, the Houston skyline, Marvin Zindler, and two cats.

The late Special Agent Ting Ting Stu, Big Star Bar's resident cat died in 2022.

The late Special Agent Ting Ting Stu, Big Star Bar’s resident cat died in 2022.

Big Star Bar

Like any good dive bar, Big Star has housed resident bar cats. Special Agent Ting Ting Stu, a gray tabby cat, is the prominent feline in the mural; he died of an unknown illness earlier this year. His protege, a black cat named Willie D, was killed by a raccoon during lockdown. They are both survived by Orange Julius, also known as OJ or Chonker, a big ginger cat.

In 2013, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh took to the airwaves against same-sex marriage by making a now-famous argument about the slippery slope: “Soon you can marry your dog.” Big Star’s reaction was swift. Ting Ting married local artist-bartender Chris Beekman – the one who painted the mural – in a special ceremony at the bar, presided over by Moore.

A drag queen performs at Big Star Bar in the Heights in June 2022.

A drag queen performs at Big Star Bar in the Heights in June 2022.

Emma Baller

Countless life events have been held at the Big Star Bar over the years, the remains of some displayed on the walls along with other trinkets and keepsakes. Birthdays. Weddings, felines or others. Celebrations of life, including one for Prater, who died in 2012. On a recent evening in June, a group of friends enjoyed candlelight cake and a drag show. Moore’s wife, puppeteer and costume designer Camella Clements, hosted puppet shows before the couple moved to New Orleans.

Allred also recalls significant events from his time as a Big Star regular. The bar sometimes held a “second New Year’s Eve” for service industry professionals who were still working on December 31.

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in August 2017, Allred said Big Star became a hub where people without power or cell service came to consult and see who needed help. He welcomed a friend of his, whom he had met at the bar, because he had lost his house.

A few months later, the Astros scored a much-needed win for Houston by capturing the World Series title. Allred was at Big Star that night, watching the game. “It was a really fun time to see Houstonians who’ve waited their whole lives for this to happen, whether we cheated or not,” he said.

Big Star Bar has red flashes of mood lighting throughout.

Big Star Bar has red flashes of mood lighting throughout.

Emma Baller

In 2019, it seemed like the end for Big Star, as its owners announced the bar was closing. The owners had decided to sell the building, but then changed their minds. Moore explains that they had very cheap rent over the term of a 10-year lease that expired, after which the rent increased and continues every year. But he doesn’t blame the owners, a Latina mother and daughter who have owned the property for a long time and deserve the money, he says. “Of course the rent has gone up. Things have changed and we’re not going to complain about that,” he added.

As for Big Star’s new, fancier neighbors, Moore says he has nothing against them. “I have no animosity towards ‘Newstonians’ or anything,” he said. “The khaki crowd in the pleated golf caps, they have to play too, you know.”

After a decade of going to the bar, Allred has a unique way of describing the changes around it: it’s like you’re on a TV show that’s aired for 10 seasons, and you’re one of the only characters remaining originals. In the midst of a rapidly changing Heights, Big Star may be one of the few remaining bars where everyone knows your name.

“Bars are a community hub,” Moore said. “It’s where people form their bands, or foment revolution, meet people, fuck people, get married, divorce. It’s a beautiful thing.”

About James K. Bonnette

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