Converted drive-in restaurants make for fine dives.
Hearing that a beloved dive bar had to shutdown in the face of economic uncertainty only to be revived involves significant mental gymnastics. Usually, that kind of tradeoff means accepting that the space will change significantly while appreciating that the dusty old dive bar can stay open. Charlie’s Star Lounge in the East Elm neighborhood of Dallas blows that tradeoff out of the water, a renovation project that updated the bare basics to stay in business while accentuating the divey appeal of its vintage roots.
Charlie’s Star Lounge rose out of the ashes of revered Dallas dive bar Starlight Lounge, a victim of the global pandemic. Starlight Lounge was itself a formidable dive bar, boasting early opening hours and a beer-only selection that drew exactly the kind of crowd you might expect with those types of calling cards. The hours have been pulled back a bit and liquor has arrived behind the bar, but the structural intrigue of the building first opened in 1956 endures.
The history of the space boasts a set of twists and turns itself, the building running through a number drive-in style restaurant concepts after opening before settling on an alcohol-friendly format 1968. A name change or two later, the Starlight Lounge came into existence before giving way to the global pandemic and its revival. Local dance club owners of The Nine stepped into the picture, buying the space, updating its infrastructure to pass code and mercifully leaving most everything else alone. Most telling, arriving at the space feels like pulling up to a 1960s drive in rather than a 21st century dive bar revival.
Fresh paint was included in the deal, the exterior looking a little bit like the Chicago city flag with a color scheme of blue paint and red stars on white trim. Intriguingly, the outdoor patio space that extends off the front of the building resembles more a prison than a summer spot for a drink. The awning that served as the hallmark for drive in meals for so many decades has been reinforced and preserved, keeping that drive-up vibe alive. Inside, the roof feels low and lights look dim, just the right kind of Dallas dive bar portal to walk through. To the right, the short L-shaped bar, now with liquor, takes up the front portion of the interior space, pink neon overhead shouting “Well Vodka.”
The preserved woodwork shines through here, the area behind the bar the right kind of dive bar clutter, punctuated by a draped Budweiser flag and suspended wooden platforms displaying the can and bottle beer selection. The bathrooms border this area, the set notorious in the Starlight Lounge days as some of the more interesting restrooms in Dallas. They were renovated along with other aspects of the space, taking away a little bit of the adventure of visiting the bathrooms at now Charlie’s Star Lounge.
Much of the rest of the space has been left open to serve as a dance floor that comes into play during the rotating set of DJ nights that visit Charlie’s Star Lounge. This reviewer’s first trip coincided with a professional wrestling cosplay extravaganza, to provide some idea of the other events that sometimes grace this interior multi-purpose space. A wood paneled backdrop and accompanying Star Lounge carved wooden sign provide the right kind of setting for whatever does and will take place here.
The prison-style patio is an amazing addition to the space, a ring of bricks and cinderblock sealed off with metal bars to create a little pocket space with ample shade from the Texas sun. The table tops are the star here, ranging from vintage actresses to professional wrestlers laid out in classic photos and old newspaper clippings. The roof paint job is also impressive, matching the stark colors and contrast of the exterior look.
More than just a dive bar renovation that went well, the work done on Charlie’s Star Lounge has done the improbable, resurrect a dive bar while creating a new, equally compelling dive bar in the process. The space feels divey, the exterior looks interesting and if a dive bar can be paired with a drive-in restaurant vibe, all the better. On the edge of more intense options in nearby Deep Ellum, Charlie’s Star Lounge provides a Dallas dive bar alternative amid readily apparent 1956 roots.