BY MELISSA DEL BOSQUE • PHOTOS BY ALAN POGUE
Outside, the blinking marquee is simple and direct: “Beer.” Inside, the bass notes of Jimi Hendrix’s “Highway Chile” mark the tempo for two women decked out in leather chaps as they do a bump and grind in front of the jukebox. Smoke-encrusted photographs of bikers—some dearly departed, others still marauding the highways—line the tilting walls. Christmas lights lend a festive touch and biker graffiti on the ceiling proclaims the ultimate biker insult: “Tony rides a Jap bike.” Welcome to Beverly’s, the kind of place where guys with names like Big Bear and Terrible Terry wear leather vests emblazoned with names of biker clubs like the Bandidos, or Latin Steel. They swoop in like Vikings on their thundering hogs pockmarked with bumper stickers. (“My money and my kids go to the Texas Correctional Institution.”) For 25 years the Austin biker bar has been flouting the law. But sooner or later even a tough old bird like Beverly’s has to confront the city’s explosive growth and the law of money. Early this year the word was out that the venerable bar on South Congress was slated to become another PetsMart or Wal-Mart. “The landlord’s getting old; he’s got children,” said Beverly Ray, the proprietor who lent her name and personality to the bar for a quarter century. “If they get a good price they’ll sell it,” she told me when we spoke last February. “I hate to leave. But it’s a tough business. You come and you go. You should know it when you get into this business.” After hearing that still another bit of Austin history was about to fade away forever, I decided to check out Beverly’s and see what the fuss was all about. “It’s mystical in its own way,” a wiry-framed guy named Warren told me. Warren, who sports a ZZ Top beard and rides with the Bandidos, was the part-time bartender and bouncer. “People know right away if they belong here,” he said. “Others don’t come back. If you don’t start any shit, you won’t get any shit.” Then he added, “But some people are goofy. If they come looking for trouble, they’ll find it.”
Built around World War I, the old stone building on Congress Avenue and a stone’s throw from Slaughter Lane has long been a refuge for outlaws and those who prefer life on the outskirts of polite society. A notorious whorehouse named Hattie’s was once located just down the road. The infamous bank robbers, the Newton Boys, used to stop by for a cold beer in the days when cowboys tied their horses up front and cattle grazed where I-35 now stands. As land was gobbled up for development, the old-time cowboys slowly drifted away and the bikers came thundering down Congress, inspiring mythic tales of ass-kicking, hog-riding, and beer-guzzling. In the mid-1980s a battle between a group of carnies and a gang of bikers earned Beverly’s a mention in The New York Times (“The Toughest Bar in Texas”). One old-timer by the name of Pappy remembers the mythical battle like this: “We were playing dominoes and one of the carnies pinched a biker’s old lady in the bottom. The whole bar went to pieces like a bar brawl in an ol’ West Town. Everybody was fighting except for Old Man Charlie. “He had a good hand of dominoes, so he just stood up back against the wall with his hands full of dominoes. Didn’t mean shit though, since the rest of those dominoes had been scattered to hell.” As the memories began to flow, spurred on by the beer, the regulars insisted that bulldozers and dump trucks would have to bury them before the bar turned into another strip mall. “We’d be lost without it,” said Warren, visibly angered. “Hell, we don’t need another Wal-Mart, but we do need a Beverly’s.” Another regular named Ronnie became defiant when contemplating the bar’s demise. “They ain’t ever going to get rid of this place,” he insisted. “It’s one of those places where people say, ‘Don’t go in there because they’ll kick your ass’… You either love this place or you hate it at first sight.” On the day that I visited, Beverly was celebrating her daughter’s 42nd birthday. Bikers swaggered around the bar holding pieces of birthday cake on paper plates. As they did, Beverly waxed nostalgic. “I’d like to make it to the 50th anniversary,” she said, her voice trailing off as she began to envision the bar decked out in gold. “You don’t realize what a good time you’ve had until it’s gone.” After my visit, I began receiving e-mails from a friend and longtime patron of Beverly’s. He was depressed about the imminent demise of his favorite bar. In March, he sobbed in a message that what he had long feared had finally come to pass: Beverly’s had closed its doors for good. But that’s not really the way this story ends. Earlier this month, the bar was given still another reprieve. Austin’s explosive growth and the law of money are still at the door, of course. But Beverly’s lives again, thanks to the kindness of a Nigerian car salesman who is storing his cars in the large lot behind the bar—yet another chapter in Austin history and the history of “the toughest bar in Texas.”
Melissa Del Bosque is a writer in Austin.