There’s a new honky-tonk horse in the running in Austin’s growing East Side bar scene. Lovable manager of Hole in the Wall, Denis O’Donnell, has moved east, taking up residence at 500 Comal to open The White Horse. A project co-owned by O’Donnell and Nathan Hill, the East Side’s newest bar-slash-music-venue opened on Dec. 9 to droves of excited patrons... even without booze.
Though a liquor license was still hanging in the balance, O’Donnell opened as planned, and thanks to buzz that had been building for weeks, the booze-free grand opening of The White Horse was brimming with support from Austin’s indie country music scene and general music enthusiasts.
Early patrons have already dubbed it the “East Side’s Hole in the Wall,” which provides an accurate caricature of the folks you’ll find there, but not the space itself.
If you’ve spent any time at Hole in the Wall or the other country music mainstays in Austin, you should feel at home at The White Horse. You’ll recognize a few bartenders and you’ll know some bands from Ginny’s or Hole. And the crowd? At least for now, it could be accurately described as Denis O’Donnell’s loyalists.
Denis will be there, too. A welcome site as you walk in, his signature cowboy hat stands tall behind the bar as he introduces himself to and shakes hands with his new patrons, excited to welcome them into his new space.
The White Horse’s space is much more attune to a 70s lounge than any of the “West Side” honky-tonks with which it will be compared. The main room has two pool tables, one long central bar, a corner stage and room for dancing. It’s outfitted with recycled tables and chairs — they could easily come from a nearby Tex-Mex joint — each table topped with a glowing lowboy candle.
The aesthetic is dark, music-driven and accented by old neon signs that have likely hung on the walls for decades when it was just another eastside nightclub.
With its music-driven roots, The White Horse plans to have some of Austin’s best, if overlooked, musicians on stage every night of the week, free of charge. The current lineup features lots of names that are also playing other local haunts: Brennen Leigh, Mike and The Moonpies and Roger Wallace have all played since The Horse got its official liquor license last Wednesday.
However, The White Horse isn't genre-exclusive: It will also feature The Bob Hoffnar Orchestra for a weekly jazz night each Sunday.
And if you happen into the bar before the live music starts each night, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the jukebox, at least I was. The mix is good, heavy on artists of old who often fly under the radar, like Leon Russell, with some Tejano sprinkled in. I bet there’s a proper nod to ol’ Doug Sahm, too.
With only a week under its belt, The White Horse seems to be running strong, thanks to O’Donnell’s inherent charm and connection to one of Austin’s largest music subcultures. In a sea of indie hangouts, it’s nice to find Austin’s modern honky-tonk scene laying down some new roots on the East Side.