Impossible to put into words, holiday decorations or not.
Stepping into Donn’s Depot is stepping into a movie, the cast of characters all assembled, the backdrop familiar yet intriguing, each day something a little bit different, each story slightly unique. And if that sounds like lofty praise for the Austin dive bar, it is praise that doesn’t go far enough to accurately capture what it feels like to not just drink here but experience a chapter in the lives of regulars as famous within the walls of Donn’s Depot as any celebrity.
As with most things Austin, the story starts compellingly, original owner Bob Ogden purchasing and moving an entire Missouri-Pacific rail depot from Mcneil, Texas, to what was then a rundown plot on the outskirts of Austin. A year later, rail cars were added to the structure, named Mcneil Depot Saloon at the time, one of the cars converted into what is still the women’s restroom at Donn’s Depot. Part of the magic here has always been live music, musician Donn Adelman commissioned by Ogden early on to provide regular entertainment.
In 1978, Adelman went ahead and purchased the bar, humbly renaming it to Donn’s Depot and setting off an uninterrupted period of family ownership with wife Arleen and son Matt that continues today. Live music only grew in importance over that time period, Adelman commanding one or two nights a week with other rotating and guest acts performing nearly every night. The music varies of course, but Donn’s Depot is probably fairly described as an Austin honky tonk hub, much of it due to Adelman’s performances honed as an Austin fixture as far back as 1961.
Live music is the consistent thread through many a Donn’s Depot night, but it is the cast of characters that make up the bar’s regulars that provide its heartbeat. On this reviewer’s recent visit, longtime regular Howard Cook was the only other patron at the bar, a Donn’s Depot staple since 1985. After a drink at the bar, Cook relocated to a small table with a reserved sign, his daily perch to share the day with countless other regulars, some of whom have been visiting Donn’s for decades.
What Cook referred as “the Jeopardy crew” is just one example of the way Donn’s Depot cultures revolves around its regulars, devoted Jeopardy watchers convening every weekday at 4 PM to catch the day’s edition (and often a YouTube replay of a past show as a warm up). During the COVID-19 pandemic that threatened the future of the Austin dive bar (it was saved by GoFundMe contributions), the Jeopardy crew navigated those uncertain waters by congregating in the bar’s parking lot to watch that day’s episode.
The commitment to decoration within Donn’s Depot is intense, never more so than during the holiday season when nutcrackers, tinsel, paper snowflakes and countless other items takeover the space. Put up early in December, the display is kept intact until the end of February to accommodate late-season holiday parties. Nestled among the decorations, framed photos of famous musicians and painted railcars can be found, but they are outnumbered by plaques and images commemorating and celebrating regulars past and present. Some of those pieces are labeled “Chick Magnet” in honor of Donn’s Depot mainstay Shelly Kantor, now past the age of 90 and still game to provide a dance lesson or two when called upon.
To touch on the space itself, Donn’s Depot is immense, a menagerie of rooms carved out of rail cars and tail ceilings, much of it centered around the stage and grand piano found in the main room. An open floor plan interspersed with columns, Donn’s Depot feels like a winding, unfolding story, the stage giving way to the dance floor giving way to the many, many seating areas that line the building. Low tables and chairs capture new views in every corner of Donn’s Depot, many of the tables, like Cook’s, topped by signs reading “Reserved” for regulars with familiar seats they’ve held for decades.
The Donn’s Depot floorplan is almost overwhelming, a sensation multiplied tenfold by the sheer density of holiday decorations covering every possible railing, wall, ledge or flat surface inside. Tracing the original structure is an exercise in deciphering each individual element, a roof here, a railcar there, everything coming together to create something not just Austin-is-weird interesting but wholly unique. Every glance, every walk around the space reveals something new.
It is foolish to attempt to capture Donn’s Depot in a few short paragraphs, the Austin dive bar innately enthralling thanks to its backstory, its people, its meandering, cavernous space. Holiday season or not, the structure provides something fresh with each visit but more importantly so too do the people, the living Donn’s Depot community at home within the walls that have soaked up every tradition, every story, every visitor.