Hard Luck Lounge Is Closing
A wellspring of songwriting talent and cheap beer exits the Eastside
By Kevin Curtin,
1:25PM, Mon. Nov. 4, 2019
Hard Luck Lounge, the dimly lit, working-class watering hole that doubled as a clubhouse for Austin musicians over the last five years, will shut its doors after November 23.
Co-owner Denis O’Donnell confirmed the closure to the Chronicle with a message of positivity, saying, “We did exactly what we wanted to do” and that he’s proud of Austin for embracing the business.
“This bar had a lot of heart – that’s our brand – along with cheap drink and good times,” he added.
Despite O’Donnell characterizing the venture as a “hang, more than a venue,” music played an important role at the Eastside tavern, whose name successfully (and intentionally) scared off bros. Boasting a microscopic interior and sprawling backyard, the Hard Luck hosted live entertainment five night a week. Most performances took place on the property’s patio stage, but intimate sets featured in front of the jukebox inside, where no more than 20 spectators could stuff in and witness penetrating show.
The music calendar, largely booked by general manager Tyler Hautala, emerged as an incubator and proving ground for Austin songwriters. On Tuesdays, the joint featured a song swap hosted by Tate Mayeux and later Cory Johnson. Four songwriters would take turns trading songs, which took on a voyeuristic quality because the audience got to observe artists working out material in person.
Marquee composers including Carson McHone and David Ramirez counted themselves staples at the corner of Seventh and Springdale, as did Shakey Graves, who played unannounced shows there. Of the eclectic mix of acts that graced the outside stage, Ben Ballinger, Cass Brodstad, Rattlesnake Milk, Country Willie Edwards, Mrs. Glass, and Clyde & Clem’s Whiskey Business were among the house favorites.
Additionally, the venue hosted many all-day benefits, including a fundraiser in April 2018 for displaced workers of the fire-damaged Casino El Camino. That show saw elbow-to-elbow crowds watching punk bands play and raised five-digits in donations.
When O’Donnell and partner Marshall Mchone – two-thirds of the White Horse ownership – opened the Hard Luck in 2015, they hired their friends as bartenders and there’s been remarkably little employee turnover thereafter, making it a “where everybody knows your name” kind of place for patrons. O’Donnell especially took delight in employing Bob Quiroz, a 40-year veteran of the Eastside Mexican-American bar scene, as a day manager, because he could blow customer’s minds with authentic Austin history.
“You don’t get that at a lot of Eastside bars anymore,” O’Donnell notes.
Ultimately, the Hard Luck’s unique layout presented financial challenges for the operation because it made business extremely weather dependent. Had O’Donnell and McHone been able to secure a longterm lease on the property, they’d have expanded the interior bar, but a long contract continually escaped them in negotiations with landlords. O’Donnell admits that they endured one rent increase during their time at 3526 E. Seventh, and that the monthly bill increased again when their lease ended last month.
That said, he casts no blame on the landlords. Instead, he chalks it up to the Eastside gentrifying into a more expensive place to do business.
“Being a working-class beer joint on the Eastside is becoming more of a square peg in a round hole situation,” he allowed. “I’m not going to sell you $10 cocktails. I don’t know how to do that and I don’t want to do that.”
The final show at Hard Luck Lounge, scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 23, is expected to feature performances from songwriters and bands who’ve been staples at the venue over the last five years.