The Best of the Bettole: CharBar

Interior view of CharBar.

By noon on Saturday, this side of the sidewalk bordering Houston’s Market Square Park is largely empty, but for three headless mannequins looking out from the window box, tempting the random agalmatophile at the very heart of old downtown.

While two other excellent bettole remain closed at this hour, namely the hard-nosed, walnut-and-vinyl Warren’s Inn and the ancient and pleasantly-off La Carafe, CharBar’s mirrored doors only appear to shut to traffic, running counter to what the electric sign over the bare left shoulder of mannequin #3 might otherwise indicate.

Inside, sunlight reflects off of glass-lined walls, obscuring the contents of the cabinets which run the length of the space. Spartan yet worn, this could be the back room of a strip club in the Eastern bloc, and lurking inside those wood-framed walls, there could be anything: sides of beef? Jars of pickled eggs? Dead dogs?

From behind the bar, squinting into the light to make sense of my surprise of a silhouette, a man sighs into the phone. “Let me call you back,” he drolls in a voice rich and raspy, halfway to a Harvey Fierstein. “I have a customer.”

There’s a mysterious plastic bag slouching on a barstool, a fraying trench coat draped on the chair back behind it. In the greasy, basketball-sized goblet at the curved end of the bar, only three peppermint puff candies remain, daring the foul-breathed; above the entrance at my back hangs the Steelers jersey of Galveston’s own Casey Hampton. A closer look inside the cabinets reveals epochs of fabric bolts and altered shirts. Behind the bar, a small picture frame cradles a photo of two identical dogs. On it, scrawled in fake handwriting, the immortal words “I Heart Dady.”

Alongside Dady’s Dogs, there is a series of mammoth-sized family photos framed under panels of burlwood laminate. Between these, nailed off-kilter to the melamine, a tiny tile reads “Shalom Y’all” in blue letters. The barman, who bears exactly the same name as Detroit-born, Los Angeles-based Michael Shapiro – otherwise known as Poppy, my late maternal grandfather – represents his own Jewish identity with a golden Star of David necklace. Yes, this Michael Shapiro assures, there are Jews in Houston. Jewston! Who knew?

One such Jew named George Meyer, it should be noted, “christened” his father’s peripheral acreage “Meyerland” in 1955 as part of a residential development located just beyond Interstate 610, approximately ten miles southwest of the setting of that which you are reading. In attendance at the groundbreaking ceremony of such, it is said and should be noted, was a long-since-dead and disgraced Californian named Richard Milhous Nixon, who once said of Jewish people, “generally speaking, you can’t trust the bastards.”

CharBar’s menu features a sufficient variety of liquids intended for incremental brain damage, and the cheapest – a 330ml bottle of Anheuser-Busch-founded, San Antonio-based, Pabst Brewing Company-owned Lone Star Beer – runs at precisely four dollars and zero cents, and this is what I order. The barman, whose presumably-rayon shirt is rather summery and loud for this grim and cruel month of December, his beard downy-white and full, fishes in his fridge for the American Adjunct lager without success, offering a Miller Lite in its place.

Several sips into such, a sharply-dressed young man enters the establishment, and Michael Shapiro greets him with familiarity and warmth before disappearing into a back room, with a short, silent, middle-aged woman in a moisture-wicking baseball cap emerging in his place.

We wait in awkward silence for a moment. And another.

Finally, Houston Poppy returns, handing the young man a dark-colored blazer and guiding him in front of a mirror, where he measures the garment from hem to chest to sleeve.

Michael Shapiro, it seems, is a tailor. His father, Duke, was a tailor just the same.

Michael’s grandfather, W.B. Samuelson – who one presumes was also once none other than another tailor – first opened this location in 1936, when it marked the midst of the Houston’s “Tailor’s Row”. Named “Duke of Hollywood” for Michael’s father – who This Michael Shapiro notes had nothing to do with the metonym for the American film industry located in the adoptive hometown of My Michael Shapiro – the shop outlasted both Samuelson and the eponymous Duke.

Captained, in turn, by the young and affable Michael, the shop came upon hard times around the Age of Y2K, when Tailor’s Row was no more, prompting Houston Poppy to give Duke of Hollywood a certain fiscal jolt.

In the subsequent two decades, the establishment has borne two distinct identities: by day, Michael sews and alters the gladrags, clobber, and habiliments of the Houston public. By night, assuming a name taken from Michael’s daughter, Charlien, CharBar trades its shears and thimbles for procurable beverages of varying degrees of flammability. Occasionally, as in this particular instance, the latter function overlaps with former’s timeframe; occasionally during the latter’s later hours, the bar’s second story also plays host to any number of ghost tours ready, one presumes, to exorcise the malevolent spirit of a certain antisemitic presidential poltergeist, should he dare set his phantasmagoric foot on the premises.

As the dapper young coxcomb departs in his newly-fitted duds, another arrives with a new suit in hand, and Michael’s face lights up in welcome. Finishing off my beer, I find myself wishing I might exist in a world where I had a suit or suits to be altered with such regularity: it’s clear that these people love their tailor, and that he loves them back.

No doubt, Downtown Houston suffers for no want of their own high-level bettole, and indeed it may not be the only one in the city sunlighting as a tailor and owned by a wry Jew in his seventies, but I feel confident that it is most certainly the best.

CharBar. 305 Travis Street. Houston.