Among the diverse spectrum of styles that define American dive bars, the year-round Christmas-themed bar sparkles like no other. And in Austin, Texas, it’s Lala’s Little Nugget that sets the gold standard. The late Frances Lala, who died in 2017 at 86, opened her namesake bar in 1972 in Austin’s Crestview neighborhood. A condition of selling the bar to its current owner in 2015 was that the signature holiday décor representing what they call a “North Pole oasis in Central Texas” would remain in place.
A quartet of reindeer towing Santa in his sleigh is perpetually frozen in takeoff mode on the rooftop. Among the many ornaments and garlands of holly and tinsel adorning the wood-paneled walls, you’ll find a Christmas light–bordered, late-era Velvet Elvis, framed holiday-themed magazine covers, movie stills and vintage advertisements. There are decorated stockings for the regulars hanging on the wall, snow globes on the bar top, and of course, the iconic leg lamp from A Christmas Story. Along with the usual beer-and-a-shot combos, Lala’s offers holiday drinks like the Reindeer Water (tequila, triple sec, lime, sparkling water), Grandma’s Boozy Eggnog and a Gingerbread shot composed of Irish cream and butterscotch liqueur topped with Fireball.
There are a number of devoted regulars at Lala’s, chief among them the 64-year-old music-loving, disc golf devotee Michael Pollei, better known as “Hippie Mike.” He’s been coming to Lala’s for the past 15 years and is as much a fixture of the bar as the twinkling Christmas tree that stands year-round next to the over-sized Santa chair where guests love to pose for selfies. The native Texan has lived in Austin since he was 5 years old, but his devotion to Lala’s has an added layer of convenience: The “little townhouse” he was able to buy a decade ago is only three blocks from his favorite bar. Pollei retired last year from his longtime job at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, an Austin institution that dates back to the 1850s, and where he still volunteers. “I was what you called a residential teacher,” he says, “working with high school–age boys teaching them cooking, cleaning, shopping and social and basic daily living skills. I did that for 38 years and worked with hundreds of students.”
Pollei paraphrases former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s quote about liberal Austin being a blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup, but isn’t 100 percent on board with the city’s unofficial slogan, Keep Austin Weird. “I’ll be honest, it kind of ticked me off in the beginning, but right now I don’t really care,” he says. “If it’s gonna be that way, be that way. I always thought Austin was unique. I didn’t really get that ‘weird’ thing.”
He’s cautious about the “big-city woes” like homelessness, crime rate, gentrification and the transformation of his hometown into a big tech hub. “It’s a never-ending battle. Folks are being pushed out. That’s disheartening,” he says. But Pollei continues to take an optimistic view about the future of Austin, focusing on the local lakes and parks he loves to visit and hitting up live music and concerts (he saw The Rolling Stones for the sixth time during a recent Austin show). Of course, his beloved Lala’s, and the staff and regulars who have become like family, remain a constant in his life. Once a week, Pollei brings a fresh bouquet of flowers to the bar to present to the bartenders and servers. It’s an added flourish in a room full of festive decorations, but the ritual allows Pollei to show his gratitude to his favorite bar and the people who make it feel like home.
How did you get the nickname “Hippie Mike”?
They gave me that name about four or five years ago at Lala’s. I just walked in the door and the manager at the time, Danny, just yelled out, “Hey, Hippie Mike’s here!” and it just kind of grew from there. I used to call him Sheriff Dan. We had a lot of nicknames around the place. I grew up here in Austin and it’s a very liberal city. Back in the ’70s and ’80s there were a lot of us hippies here. I used to have really long hair and I wear a lot of tie-dyed T-shirts. But I’ve got a little country in me also. I got a little Texan in me, you know.
Do you remember your first time at Lala’s?
I think my first time at Lala’s was about 1978. My girlfriend turned me on to it. I tended to hang out in pretty good old honky-tonks, and some of them were a little rough. I liked Lala’s because I could take my girlfriend there and half the time there wasn’t blaring music. It was a nice place. I went for a while off and on because I lived pretty close, then I moved across town so we’d only go in occasionally. About 15 or 16 years ago I bought a house in Crestview and Brentwood close to the bar and decided, let’s go back in and check it out. I’ve been going ever since.
How often can we find you at Lala’s?
Well, after I retired, I started going in a little more often. I probably go in maybe three times a week, sometimes more. It depends. Usually in the middle of the week then maybe on Friday or Saturday. I have a group of friends that are regulars also. Not as long as me, of course, but we have a large group. We like to get together and hang out. We have Thanksgiving together; we have Christmas dinners together. We have a white elephant Christmas party coming up. They’re a little bit younger than me, but some [are] as old as I am.
What made you become a regular there?
Back in the day, before Frances sold it, it was more Crestview and Brentwood neighborhood regulars. I got to know a lot of people: UT professors, people who are retired, educators, people who do all sorts of things. Now it’s a lot of computer folks. But honestly, I only live three blocks away. The proximity is really good and they know me and it’s like family there. When people pass away, we have memorials. It’s one of the few neighborhood dive bars left in Austin. They’re all over town, but this is a really special one. Especially this time of year.
What makes a dive bar a dive bar?
I used to say Lala’s isn’t a dive bar. My perception of a dive bar was the way we were back in the ’70s. Roadhouse, rowdy, bikers, cowboys, hippies smoking pot in the parking lot. Honky-tonk music, rock and roll, shooting pool. There’s not many places like that left anymore. Dive bars aren’t what they used to be. We call it a dive bar, but who knows, maybe it’s just a good neighborhood bar.
What do you think makes someone a good regular?
A good regular tips well. [Laughs.] You know, talk to other people there. If you’re friendly, easygoing and pleasant, you’ll be appreciated. You’re not just another sucker buying a drink on Sixth Street. You want to come in feeling welcomed.
Do you have a favorite time to go to Lala’s?
I used to go at night. When I was working, sometimes I’d get off at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. and I’d go by Lala’s and see some regulars, shoot some pool, see some local celebrities. Now that I’m getting a little older, I usually go around 7 p.m. and I’ll stick around for an hour. Their happy hour is from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. but I don’t care about that. It just depends. If there’s a bunch of regulars I might stay for a while longer. I’m getting older. I’m not out until the early morning anymore.
Who are some of those local celebrities you mentioned?
Well, there’s a guy named Dale Watson. He’s an old-time honky-tonk singer here in Austin. Very popular. I’ve seen Jessica Alba here, but that was years ago when she was in that Tarantino movie or something. Quentin Tarantino likes to go to Lala’s when he’s in town, and Robert Rodriguez [too], but I’ve never seen them here myself.
But what was really cool was when I got to shake hands with Robert Plant. It was on a Thanksgiving, actually. Lala’s was pretty packed and I was shooting pool and then this older hippie couple with long hair came in and it was Robert Plant and Patty Griffin. I was a huge Led Zeppelin fan and people kept coming up, buzzing around him, and anyway, I wind up sitting right next to him at the bar but it just didn’t hit me who he was. I was floored when the bartender leaned over and said, “Michael, do you know who you’re sitting next to?” When he was getting up to leave, I knew I couldn’t miss the opportunity to say something. So, I said, “Thank you for coming to Lala’s, Robert. Hope you enjoyed it and please come back again sometime.” He said, “Yeah, I think we will come back, but it’s getting late,” and he put out his hand and I shook it and thought to myself, “My god, he’s got huge hands.” [Laughs.]
What do you love about the bar?
I’m single and I’m going through some health issues, and they just make me feel like family. I like the atmosphere. I love that they have a really old jukebox. You know, I just feel at home. All these folks are just good friends and good people to know. It’s nice to have a place like this because you don’t see a lot of these places anymore. And slowly, unfortunately, we’re slowly dwindling—the old timers.
What’s your go-to drink at Lala’s?
I take whiskey shots occasionally, but mainly just beer. I’ve had to tone it down. I used to do Margaritas. Lala’s was also pretty famous for their Bloody Marys. But now I’m pretty much a beer drinker: Coors, Bud Light, Corona. Just depends. I’m an old-school Texan. They know what I like there. When I come in, they basically get a glass and put some salt on the rim, pour in my beer from the bottle and add a lime. I know that sounds weird, but a friend of mine’s father turned me on to that years ago and I like it.
Do you have a favorite feature of the bar?
The pool table. It’s been there forever and I’ve been playing on it for the past 15 years. I know every nook and cranny on that table and where it’ll land, where it will go. It’s good to get with some friends or play with strangers and just have a good time and talk and reminisce.
If I gave you some money for the jukebox, what would be your top three picks?
Lala’s has a great jukebox. They were voted one of the best jukeboxes in Austin. No. 1 is always Al Green, “I Can’t Get Next to You.” That’s the first song on the jukebox. Then there’s Elvis, “Burning Love.” That one gets people moving. And I play Roy Orbison for the ladies, and, of course, it’s “Pretty Woman.”
You’re really into music, aren’t you?
I like just about everything. Rock and roll, country, the blues. Back in the ’70s, I was getting into the punk scene a little bit. My girlfriend liked disco so I would please her by going to the disco clubs back then.
What’s one of the most memorable concerts you’ve attended?
I’ve got millions. The time I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd at the Palmer Auditorium here in Austin back in the ’70s. It was about three months before the plane crash. We actually got to party a little bit. I shared my smokes with them and they shared their whiskey. There’s a place called the Armadillo World Headquarters and one show I saw there that really sticks out was AC/DC, at their very first U.S. show in 1977. They opened for Moxy.
Is Christmas your favorite holiday?
I really like Thanksgiving, but anything to get the family together. But Christmas is nice.
What’s your favorite Christmas song?
“Jingle Bell Rock.” Elvis Presley version.
What’s your favorite Christmas movie or holiday special?
It’s a Wonderful Life is my favorite Christmas movie. I’ve probably seen it a hundred times, easy. And I’ll probably watch it two or three times every Christmas season. It just means a lot to me. You’ve got to realize, life can be rough but you only get one time on this rock. So, you better enjoy it.