My household and I solely dine out in Austin on Thursdays — early, when the crowds are lighter, which supplies these of us with youthful diners, like our toddler and preschooler, a greater probability to take pleasure in our meal. On one in all these outings in the summertime of 2022, we went to our favourite neighborhood dive bar, Billy’s on Burnet. It was Texas-hot outdoors, so we sat in a again room, the place you’ll be able to let your youngsters misbehave in peace. As our children had been taking part in a deer-hunting arcade sport, I used to be scanning the decorations on the partitions and ingesting a glass of Lone Pint Brewery’s Yellow Rose IPA — the beer that retains me coming again to Billy’s, together with the Inexperienced Bay Packers memorabilia (I’m a cheesehead). It was then I seen a sticker on the window reverse our desk. I used to be struck by its boldness, each within the simplicity of the design — modeled after the long-lasting Lone Star beer label — and what it declared: “THIS IS ONE OF DOUG’S TOP 50 BARS IN AUSTIN.”
I’ve been to lots of bars around the globe, however I had by no means seen something like this. “Who’s Doug?” I requested my spouse, who shrugged and gave our children one other quarter. Immediately, I knew that I needed to discover out who Doug was and what his favourite 50 bars in Austin had been.
Once I got down to uncover this thriller later that December, I began with Billy’s. The bartender denied any data of the sticker, which was in a again room however proudly on show, and responded with a curt, “Hey man, I simply serve beer to prospects.” It wasn’t an ideal begin; he yelled to me on my method out, “Good luck together with your quest!”
Unable to seek out extra details about Doug and his checklist on Google, I armed myself with printed pictures of the sticker I had seen at Billy’s and set out for the town’s best dive bars to see if Doug had anointed them as effectively, and why.
My subsequent cease was Buddy’s Place, a squat, windowless, brick constructing painted solely blue, that resembles a shady-seeming long-stay motel in its austerity and advertises itself with the unlikely slogan, “House of happiness.” To my reduction, the bartender, Lucie, was disarmingly pleasant. Once I confirmed her the sticker photograph, she replied confidently, “Like that one over there,” and walked me to one in all Doug’s stickers, positioned catty-corner to the bar, in plain sight, sandwiched between a Coors signal and a hand-drawn rabbit smoking a joint. No, Lucie didn’t know the way lengthy it had been there or who Doug was, however she recalled that somebody had tagged Buddy’s on an image of this sticker on Instagram. After looking on her cellphone, she confirmed me the web page: @dougstop50barsatx (I hadn’t thought to make use of ATX as an alternative of Austin throughout my very own searches). “These all appear to be dive bars,” she mentioned. “Whoever Doug is, he has the identical style in bars as me.”
Minutes of Instagram-sleuthing later, Lucie thought she had discovered Doug. She scrolled by means of the Instagram feed, picked out somebody she thought could be the web page’s proprietor, and in contrast his face to these of people that comply with Buddy’s Place on Instagram. And he or she discovered him. “In order that’s clearly Doug,” mentioned Lucie. I agreed however didn’t point out that I by no means would have made the connection.
Later, I used to be in a position to get in contact with Doug by means of Instagram direct message, however he refused to fulfill in particular person and requested that I not reveal his id in an effort to “preserve issues extra of a thriller.” With out spoiling an excessive amount of of that thriller, Doug is a person in his late 40s who went to his first bar in Austin in 2009 and has lived right here for almost a decade.
Over Instagram DM, Doug defined why he had began his sticker marketing campaign. After having visited what he believes had been greater than 200 bars in Austin, Doug began bringing associates to bars they hadn’t been to earlier than, referring to them as High 50 Doug Bars. It turned a operating joke, so someday a good friend made him a stack of customized stickers in order that Doug may make his claims official. The design took its cues from the Lone Star label, in honor of the commonest beer at a Doug Bar.
He developed his personal idiosyncratic standards to fee bars, together with drinks (“a wide selection, signature drinks, or drink specials”), costs, bar employees (“pleasant, useful with suggestions, down-to-earth varieties, welcoming of all”), clientele (“only a good combine”), and essentially the most closely weighted issue: total ambiance, an intangible high quality that makes Doug really feel like he belongs. A jukebox or music helps, however neither dwell music nor meals nor leisure is factored in as a result of every place wants to face out by itself as an ideal total bar. “The place would I wish to go at 7 p.m. on any given evening?” he provides.
Doug began posting his stickers in bars in June 2021. He normally goes with associates and works stealthily to keep away from discover from bartenders or different patrons as a result of he has a lot enjoyable working incognito. He began posting his exploits to Instagram to share his “better of” checklist with associates, however some outsiders caught on (his web page has 110 followers as of publishing who don’t know who he’s). He appears to put the stickers someplace that’s “seen however not disruptive or bothersome to the bar proprietor or employees” and sometimes places them close to different stickers, which he considers protected territory. The precise floor they find yourself on doesn’t appear to matter a lot: ATMs, merchandising machines, change machines, ice cream machines, pizza heaters, jukeboxes, breathalyzers, bar counters, lavatory stalls, doorways, home windows, partitions, and my private favourite, one at La Perla that sits beneath a poster of a girl with glasses that reads, “In the event you see this particular person, purchase her a beer.”
Doug stopped tagging in 2021 after just some months and solely made it to 29 bars, however he obtained again at it once more this February and has added 9 new bars this 12 months. He has a grasp checklist of bars (which he declined to share), which has sadly modified barely as companies have gone beneath because of the pandemic and associated challenges. He laments, “My very favourite bars appear to have a method of closing down,” citing his former primary, the Arduous Luck Lounge, and Indian Curler, which closed on the finish of 2022. His present favourite is Yellow Jacket Social Membership, however that’s solely as a result of somebody set fireplace to Crow Bar in September and it hasn’t reopened but. Yellow Jacket tops his checklist as a result of he feels essentially the most welcome there and likes that, whether or not it’s empty or packed, “there’s a snug feeling there.” It additionally has a number of completely different seating areas, which is a top quality Doug likes in his bars.
The frequent theme amongst Doug’s bars is that they’re largely real Texas dive bars, which I might outline as a bar I sometimes wouldn’t take my youngsters to, which frequently seems to be structurally unsound and, notably, already includes a huge assortment of stickers on its partitions. In addition they appear to be bars that broadly refuse to give up to trendiness or to pretensions of modernity, however Doug shrugs this off. “My High 50 isn’t anybody else’s high 50.” He’s simply making an attempt to have time and hopefully assist of us uncover new locations.
Doug’s Instagram web page hints at a resistance to alter and nostalgia for a bygone Austin, which manifests itself in feedback comparable to when he calls La Perla “a dying breed,” writes of the Carousel Lounge, “Mercifully, some issues by no means change,” or when he begs the White Horse in a current publish, “Don’t you go altering.” To me, Doug’s stickers appear to be his method of bestowing an air of permanence on an oft-transitory business throughout a very transformative period for Bat Metropolis. Fortunately, lots of Doug’s bars are nonetheless thriving, and though it won’t be a Michelin star, if he sneaks into your bar and slaps up a sticker that reads, “THIS IS ONE OF DOUG’S TOP 50 BARS IN AUSTIN,” it’ll be one thing to be happy with.