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‘Biggest little bar’ in Texas

By Judith Pannebaker BCC

Fresh off a successful eighth annual Cowboy Mardi Gras in February, Bandera resident James McGroarty recently received another pleasant surprise. The “biggest little bar in Texas” went national - again.
In the April-May issue of American Cowboy magazine, McGroarty’s enterprise, the 11th Street Cowboy Bar, has been named one of the “Best Cowboy Bars” in the west.
Bandera’s out there
“I didn’t even know we were in the running,” McGroarty said during a recent interview, “but I think it’s great. Anything to get Bandera’s name out there.”
He received the unexpected good news while attending the Houston Stock Show.
Apparently a woman visiting her father, who owns a ranch above Medina, learned about the accolade after receiving her copy of the magazine. “Since she had never been in the Cowboy Bar before, she came to take a gander at it and wanted to meet the owner,” McGroarty said. His friend, Hank Burns, put her in touch with McGroarty.
“She told me she was proud of what we had accomplished in Bandera and stopped by the bar again to drop off the magazine,” he said.
The American Cowboy article by Gavin Ehringer listed 22 bars scattered over Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Orgegon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wyoming and Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
Made the cut
“We were one of only three bars that made the cut in Texas,” McGroraty noted. “The others being The Crystal Bar in Alpine and Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth. I feel we’re in pretty good company.”
Billed as the “biggest honky tonk in the world,” Billy Bob’s boasts 127,000 square feet, an indoor bull riding arena and 42 bar stations - and that’s no bull. About the Crystal Bar, Ehringer noted: “This is the best (perhaps the only) reason to visit a dusty, hot cowtown in the barrenness of west Texas, where cows outnumber humans by far.”
Ehringer described Bandera’s “biggest little bar in Texas” as featuring “cowboy music and lively Texas two-steppin’.” Well, it does and much more.
When McGroarty purchased the watering hole in March 2005, it had a capacity of only 145 patrons. He immediately set about putting his stamp on the place. Just 46 workmen and 66 days later, the space had been transformed with a state-of-the-art outdoor stage, spacious dance floor, several more serving stations, cooking pits and eventually an iconic vintage windmill.
“We now have a capacity in excess of 2,000,” McGroarty said.
Hits keep comin’
“Since the magazine came out we’ve had increased emails and hits on our Facebook page. It helped put the name of Bandera out there and that helps everyone in the town.
He continued, “I know some people think I’m in this just for my own financial gain, but if that’s what they think, they don’t really know me. We all have to work at this together to be successful.”
McGroarty went on to describe an “expanding and far-reaching” sense of culture that is developing around the bar - most recently manifested during the ever-growing Cowboy Mardi Gras.
“People come to Bandera for the Harleys and horses, for the cowboy culture, not just for a bar. But, if you take away the cowboys, Harleys, horses and the music, what do you have?”
If nothing else, a great bar, according to American Cowboy Deputy Editor Tom Wilmes, who noted in an email that everyone at the magazine had fun giving their input to the “Best Cowby Bars in the West” article.
“This was a not a scientific process by any means,” Wilmes wrote, “rather we started with a list submitted by Gavin, took a straw poll among our staff and asked for input from editors at some of our sister publications, such as Horse & Rider, Spin to Win Rodeo and The Trail Rider, among others. They’re a pretty well traveled bunch”
‘Cowboy to core’
After that, the watering holes were whittled down to ones included in the article. “We knew we wanted to show some geographical diversity and reflect bars that were ‘cowboy to the core’ - so that knocked out some of the flashier, more commercial chains.”
Since Bandera is the “Cowboy Capital of the World,” Wilmes said the magazine would have been remiss not to include the 11th Street Cowboy Bar. “That said, there were a few like Luckenbach, Gruene Hall and the Grizzly Rose in Denver that could have made the list but didn’t this time around,” he added.
Wilmes continued, “We’ll likely revisit this subject again and it seems to have satisfied what we set out to do - celebrate the West’s best cowboy bars, create some debate and start a conversation and, most of all, have some fun with it.”
Whatever the criterion used, McGroarty is happy with his bar’s inclusion. He thanked the editorial staff at American Cowboy for their generosity, noting, “When a national publication includes us in the ranks of the great honky tonks, that’s an honor and one we never expected. The others are clearly in a league of their own. We’re still here on earth and Billy Bob’s and The Crystal Bar are in the new millennium.”
Next on tap
That being said, with summer almost here, the good times at the 11th Street Cowboy Bar continue, including McGroarty’s popular Wednesday Steak Night.
“One Wednesday, we had two flight attendants and two airline pilots hop a flight from Philly to San Antonio and then they drove to Bandera just to come to steak night,” he recalled. “They learned about it in the Delta in-flight magazine.”
His bar has also been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the Houston Chronicle and Austin American Statesman. “It would have been impossible for a regular private business to have made it into all those publications.”
Next on tap for the affable entrepreneur is sponsoring the 11th Street Cowboy Bar’s seventh annual Chili Cook-off, slated for Saturday, April 2, during the Thunder in the Hills Bike Rally. “We’re going to close off 11th Street and have a great time. Proceeds and donations from the all-day event will be earmarked for the Bandera County Boys & Girls Clubs,” McGroarty said. Then it’s on to the challenge of making the National Day of the American Cowboy, under the direction of the Frontier Times Museum, “the biggest cowboy celebration in the United States.” Set for Saturday, July 23, McGroarty, who is in charge of marketing, called it “a great venue for Bandera.”
Can’t wait to see the write-up in American Cowboy on Bandera’s best ever mid-summer western-centric celebration.