If there's ever been a place in Austin where everyone knows your name, it's Donn's Depot. I discovered this expansive, albeit quaint, haunt by accident about five years ago and it quickly became my favorite bar in Austin.
I take all of my out of town visitors there after describing it to them as an unusual building made up of an old train depot and rail cars that has free popcorn, a jukebox, live music and plenty of seniors who love to dance. My guests are always keen to go and most have fallen in love with the place and begged to go back.
"There’s no place else you’re gonna find a bunch of railroad cars made into a night club and a train depot," says proprietor (and the bar's namesake), Donn Adelman.
I don't know how anyone could not love Donn's Depot. Every time I walk through the doors, I get the feeling that I've stepped back in time and out of Austin. Of course, certain elements make Donn's very "Austin" — it's a bit of a strange place with an eclectic decor and crowd. But at the same time, walking into Donn's Depot transports me somewhere else, like a neighborhood bar on Route 66.
"There’s no place else you’re gonna find a bunch of railroad cars made into a night club and a train depot," says proprietor (and the bar's namesake), Donn Adelman. "It’s got a unique charm: all the little cubby holes we have all over the place. Where can you go in a box car and have a drink?”
The bar started as McNeil Depot in 1972. The main structure is an actual train depot that was part of the MoPac railroad line. Adelman says the bar’s original owner bought the wooden depot and hauled it to Austin, and a year later added the rail cars that make up a seating area and the women’s restroom.
McNeil Depot had the second mixed drink license in Travis County. Donn Adelman was a regular musician at the bar when it opened, and six years later, he took over the bar, renaming it Donn’s Depot.
After 34 years as Donn's Depot, the place is still packed, especially on Friday nights. Although I only go there half a dozen times a year, every time I'm there on a Friday I see at least a dozen familiar faces.
There's the older gentleman with glasses who dances up a storm with anyone willing. There's the tall, cotton-mouthed cowboy who walks with a bit of a limp and talks to everyone, including the 20-something women who wind up sharing his table. Wherever I look, there are people having a good time, mingling with folks they don't seem to have anything in common with (other than wanting to relax and listen to some good music at Donn's).
Jack and Evelyn Miller, 85 and 84 years old respectively, have been coming to Donn’s Depot almost as long as the bar’s been open. On Friday nights, you can find them snacking on popcorn in their reserved seats at the piano, right in front of their friend of many years, Donn himself.
Jack Miller, a World War II Veteran who brings in his own crackers from Jason’s Deli (because they go so well with his beer), explains how he and his wife discovered the night spot so many decades ago.
“We owned and operated a book bindery, and a salesman from out of town would call on us every now and then and he told us about this place," Miller says. “That was probably 35 or 40 years ago and that was the first we heard of it. Then we started coming.”
“It’s a different kind of venue. I’ve never seen another like it, really."
I asked Evelyn why she and her husband keep coming back after all these years. “I like the people that come here. I like Donn and the people that play with him. And one thing about it is in all this time we’ve been here, we’ve seen one fight — and that’s it — and they were taken outside," she says. "I think they might have had a little too much to drink. I would think as crowded as it is, they would have more fights, but they don’t. It’s just a real good place to go.”
Adelman says the clientele is one of the most unique things about the bar. If you stick around long enough you’ll see the older crowd, and then a little later, the 20-somethings and 30-somethings show up. The generations often mingle, sharing time on the always-packed dance floor.
“[The bar] bridges the generation gap. We’ve got a little old man, about 83 or 84 years old, comes in here and the young girls ask him to teach them how to dance. He’s a heck of a dancer and he’ll dance all night long.”
Besides the regulars, Adelman told me about one special guest that gave an unexpected, and unforgettable, performance in 1989.
“George Strait’s piano player got married. He had his reception here. He’s a friend of mine. We all knew that George would go to the wedding, but we didn’t think he’d come down here. Well, he did. And I was playing with my band for the reception and then George got up and sang for about 30 minutes with his band... I figure I probably got about 50 to 100,000 dollars worth of entertainment for nothing!”
On any night of the week, Donn's Depot has some of the finest music the Austin scene has to offer. But don’t expect to hear any hard rock or rap.
On Donn’s regular performance nights — Tuesdays and Fridays — you can expect to hear 50s and 60s music, country and a little Sinatra. The bar’s lineup includes many regular acts that also pay tribute to yesteryear, as well as country music and singer-songwriters. One night a month, the Depot is home to a 12-piece orchestra.
According to Jack and Evelyn Miller, the place and the music haven’t changed much over the years, and that’s part of what they love. Adelman says one of the factors that makes the venue unique is its longevity.
“We’ve been here a long time. A lot of the people that came in here when I first started playing here, they were quite young. Now 34 years later, they’ve gotten a little bit older but they’re still here; they’re still coming in," Adelman says. “It’s a different kind of venue. I’ve never seen another like it, really."
When you have a longing to revisit the "good ol' days," just walk through the door at Donn’s Depot. Grab yourself a drink, and some free popcorn, and have a seat at the piano. Donn will be glad you came, and so will you.