Witness the wild difference between a day drink and a packed show.
For a bar that sits across the street from the University of Texas, it is remarkable how little the stereotype of a college dive bar fits The Hole in the Wall. Usually that kind of proximity would lend itself to a story of college students over decades drinking affordable beer and finding a place to carve their initials. And while that is certainly part of the lore on display within The Hole in the Wall, the story of the Austin institution is primarily one of immense contribution to the city’s music scene.
The Hole in the Wall was opened in 1974 by Billie Cugini and son Doug as part of a relocation from Buffalo, owners of truck stops interested in a corner bar reminiscent of Buffalo’s many such dives. Originally a dry cleaner, the structure was renovated not with live music in mind, the marquee now famous along The Drag initially constructed to communicate food and drink specials. But the space and its college-adjacent location attracted musicians, some of them eventually working their way into playing spot shows in the bar’s front room.
Once the live music ball started rolling, it never stopped, the tally well over 10,000 live acts over the years. The stage in the front room was built in 1983 at a time when the arcade in the rear of the space paid the bills, a cash cow removed in 1984 when the drinking age in Texas was raised to 21, sapping the under-21 game-playing crowd. A reference to the past arcade focus of The Hole in the Wall can be found along the bottom of its iconic sign, reading “Arcade Restaurant.”
The live music scene in Austin and within The Hole in the Wall exploded, forcing the Austin dive bar to charge cover for the first time in 1986 in an effort to yes, reap some reward from live music’s popularity but also control the crowd in someway that was otherwise starting to test the limits of the bar. An excellent retrospective on the bar’s web site goes into some detail on the famous acts that honed their craft at The Hole in the Wall (Spoon, Gary Clark Jr., Shakey Graves), a tradition very much alive today with live music every night across now two stages from 7 PM to close.
And with great music comes great celebrity, some of it sourced from Austin City Limits filming that used to take place directly across the street from The Hole in the Wall. Again, the bar’s web site recounts celebrity sightings in great detail, stories ranging from Courtney Love commandeering the men’s bathroom to Dave Grohl getting a pitcher of beer poured over his head by a particularly insistent fan. Music videos have been shot here, late night hosts have visited and maybe no story better captures the spirit of The Hole in the Wall than Don Henley hiding in a corner to eventually jump on stage and surprise musician Mojo Nixon, playing backup on Mojo’s song entitled “Don Henley Must Die.”
Ownership has shifted over the years sometimes falling in line with a threat to The Hole in the Wall’s very existence. Debbie Rombach, who worked her way up from waitress to bar manager eventually purchased the Austin dive bar in 1998 before being forced to briefly close the bar in 2002 thanks to the building’s sale. Austin Pizza owners James Cashiola and Clay McLaughlin saved the bar, reopening in 2003 before selling the pizza chain and dive bar in to J.D. Torian in 2005. Ownership finally came to rest with Will Tanner in 2007, Tanner surviving a scare in 2015 when community support again saved The Hole in the Wall. A 2022 proposal to extend the streets that border The Hole in the Wall has not yet been enacted but thankfully spares the structure.
Even without The Hole in the Wall’s considerable backstory, this is a college dive bar mixed with a live music venue in the best possible way, historic or not. The bar’s front stage is the more informal of the two setups, another more professional installation found in the bar’s secondary space. The front room is sparse, ready to accommodate a live music crowd at a moment’s notice, with a small bar off to one side. Stickers, graffiti and beer options can be found sprinkled throughout the Austin dive bar, a photobooth a permanent resident opposite the bar.
The Hole in the Wall keeps going, however, the dedicated second stage in back opening up to a sprawling patio area that houses a set of picnic tables, a bit of shelter from the sun and access to an indoor-outdoor pool table setup. A third bar can be found here in a dedicated structure primarily used for karaoke that runs every night from 10 PM to close.
Thankfully, the Austin dive bar’s exterior lives up to the very lofty bar set by its status and unfolding set of drinking-friendly amenities. A long black awning stretches out over the sidewalk, harkening back to the bar’s original conception as a night club. The yellow marquee sign pairs well with the equally yellow paint atop the building, a skyline depicted that includes a beer bottle for a building and a bird carrying a banner reading “Come As You Are.” The front door includes a hidden bit of stained glass imprinted with the establishment date of the bar and though the handle was replaced, it was once a baseball bat as an ode to the bar’s past life as a softball bar.
No single review can capture every layer of the The Hole in the Wall experience, the space very much a product of its robust and ongoing relationship with college students, live music and alcohol. Thankfully, that relationship has endured unchanged despite a pair of attempts to potentially shutter the space, a testament to the Austin community’s appreciation for what The Hole in the Wall offers.