An open floorplan can still feel like a labyrinth.
The timeless struggle between dive bars and the gentrification of their often overlooked neighborhoods provides the backdrop to Houston’s Big Star Bar, a 2008 entry to a Heights district of the city that has seen immense investment since that time. As upscale offerings sprout up around Big Star Bar, little has changed at the brightly colored, sprawling dive bar complex that remains as lowkey and as unbothered by nearby developments as ever.
Big Star Bar’s vibe was captured instantly in microcosm by the hurricane that sent a tree through the building’s roof two days after opening in 2008. Faced with immediate catastrophe, Big Star Bar did what a dive bar does and rolled with the punches, dismantling the tree branch by branch to fuel near-nightly bonfires that signaled to the nearby community that Big Star Bar was open for business. Smelling like a campfire become the unofficial badge of Big Star Bar honor at that time, setting the tone for the Houston dive bar’s ongoing operations.
The bar’s ownership group has grown over time, today including Charlie Fernandez, Arian Owns, Pam Pellegrino (girlfriend of founder Rich Prater who passed away in 2012) and Brad Moore, a veteran of the bar scene in Houston responsible for a number of businesses that fall into the same come-as-you-are category embodied by Big Star Bar. Ownership has not come without its hiccups of course, Big Star Bar announcing in 2019 that the property’s owners planned to sell the structure, leaving the Houston dive bar without a home.
No ill will was expressed by Moore and partners at the time, recognizing that long-term landholders in what was once a less-than-desirable part of town had every right to profit from the newfound notoriety of the neighborhood. While making final preparations for a sale, the owners expressed a change of heart, ultimately deciding to continue ownership of the plot, extending Big Star Bar’s lease and providing relief to the Houston dive bar’s dedicated following.
To say that the Big Star Bar space feels organic is an understatement, the deceptively cavernous structure a hodgepodge of string lights, mismatched furniture and checkerboard flooring distributed across a number of distinct seating areas. The tone is set outside, bold blue paint set against a large red star painted on the building’s exterior playing off the a mural that includes Houston’s city skyline on the adjacent fence. The gravel parking lot would normally be visible from two small windows set into the building’s front wall but in true dive bar fashion, the windows have been boarded up to ward off any suggestion of daylight inside.
Walking through the space feels like walking through a set of vaguely connected theme rooms, the red room with deep, cushioned couch and old-school television giving way to an array of pinball machines outside of a dedicated pool room. Low ceilings solidify the shoebox-like setting, white wooden pillars occasionally breaking up the flow of the assorted drinking areas as if multiple outdoor porches were at one point covered over and given makeshift floors.
Seating options are numerous at Big Star Bar, vintage couches mixing with traditional low tables in and around what look like church pews and a pair of padded booths. An analog, CDs-only jukebox provides a source of illumination along one wall, adjacent to the space’s bar area, a short, curved counter confined by a pair of pillars. Wall decorations run the gamut here, from old birthday party decorations to traditional tin beer signs. Bursts of stickers can be found along a few of the Big Star Bar interior doors as well as the white bathroom tile now covered in both stickers and graffiti in keeping with dive bar standards.
The Big Star Bar backyard extends the available drinking space, the grass dotted with picnic tables and an illuminated carport used as makeshift, string light-laden shelter (covered in stickers, of course). Everything at Big Star Bar exists because it was always meant to be there, from the sit-down cocktail-style Pac-Man machine inside to the painted cat murals that line one of the property’s fences. And that kind of unassuming, it-is-what-it-is vibe is no small accomplishment given the changing nature of the Heights and its increasingly expensive set of bars and restaurants.