There's a comfort in Christmas decorations with no responsibility for putting them up.
For those that are fans of untouched, unadulterated dive bars that opened the day Prohibition was repealed and haven’t dusted since, the term ‘renovation’ can be a sobering reminder that not everything great lasts. Also, those same people, this reviewer included, can sometimes be snobs about the behind-the-scenes workings of a place that exists simply to provide a fun place to grab a beer. And if the atmosphere is enjoyable, why worry about who owns the place and why?
Lala’s Little Nugget is the perfect case study for this push and pull of dive bar love, a 1972 classic that in 2015 was sold to a holding company responsible for the operations of a number of trendy bars across Austin. If the term ‘holding company’ inspires a bit of concern, that reaction is certainly reasonable, but despite all of that historical preamble, Lala’s remains a fun spot to grab a beer. The continued strength, as with many a great dive bar, is relentless adherence to a theme, in this case Lala’s perpetual Christmas décor, from the lighting to the tinsel to the tree(s).
The story goes, recounted in a number of publications over the years, that original owner Frances Lala saw bare walls in a new bar in early December and did what she had to do. And just like anyone who has left their Christmas lights up a little too long, once you hit a couple of months out from the big day, it’s hard to care too much about when they actually come down. At Lala’s Little Nugget, a handful of months turned into the signature of its very existence, the Santa sleigh on the roof a permanent fixture rather than temporary visitor.
Mercifully, the traditions started in 1972 largely emerge unscathed today, the Christmas aura spilling out into a large outdoor seating area created as part of the 2015 sale of the dive bar. Sure, the surfaces are a little cleaner than they used to be and Lala’s now has a web site (perish the 1972 thought), but the bones here remain intact. King among the Christmas decorations is the large red LED board behind the bar counting down the days to Christmas. From the drop ceiling hang countless decorations, including a handful of elves that drop down unannounced at random intervals, a fun display around those who have been drinking.
Outside, the original sign sits atop a squat brick building in a North Austin neighborhood not overrun with development (a rarity for the growing city). What was once the parking lot to the strip mall that houses Lala’s is now the patio, a combination of large sheltered installation and distributed metal tables and chairs throughout the rest of the space. Santa has been given some improved prominence, relocating to the large structure in the center of the patio to oversee the proceedings.
No surface goes untouched by Christmas decoration inside, stockings, vintage porcelain Christmas trees, even a framed shrine to Elvis’ Christmas special can be found across the two rooms. The bar is a dense concentration of light and reflective materials, pervasive red lighting bouncing off any number of bits of tinsel and otherwise. This front room includes the CD-based jukebox (it’s not vinyl, but it’s a win), which includes the types of songs you’d love to sing at 1 AM in a Christmas-themed bar in Texas.
A handful of wooden partitions create sections to the space, a few tables here, a pool table there, enough structure to create a little bit of mental separation while leaving enough open-air to feel connected to the vibe throughout. From what looks to be a short brick building out front, the space is deceptively cavernous inside, enough room when paired with the patio out front to host a pretty considerable Saturday night drinking occasion at Lala’s. And of course, what would a Christmas-themed dive bar be without a seasonal cocktail or two, a Peppermint Hot Chocolate, a Grandma’s Secret Nog, etc.
Hand wringing is generally a silly endeavor, so getting too carried away with the behind-the-scenes sale and purchase of a dive bar can be misguided if what made the bar great remains intact. Lala’s Little Nugget is that bar, a 1972 institution that earned another chapter in its history thanks to the Christmas-fueled legend built by regulars over four decades. And Santa received a better rooftop parking spot out of the deal to boot.