The Ever-Evolving Texas Icehouse

Once pre-refrigeration outposts for ice sales, South Texas's historic "icehouses" transitioned into bars and community centers in the '40s and '50s. Today, a handful remain in Houston as evolving bastions of the city's old drinking traditions.

“Actually, I’ll just have a Lone Star this time,” said the young woman sitting at one of the long communal tables that stripe across the backyard at Houston’s D&T Drive Inn. D&T is one of the handful of remaining “icehouses” in Houston that strict-minded enthusiasts might call authentic. She returned the extensive craft beer list to the waitress. “I feel like solving a pictogram,” she offered in explanation, referring to the picture-puzzles found on the underside of the crown caps that grace the “National Beer of Texas.”

At the next table over, a group of business-casual twenty-somethings relaxed over a bucket of Bud Light. I took another sip from my locally brewed SMaSH IPA. Across the yard, the puzzler’s toddler introduced herself to a boy her age and the two were soon playing like fast friends while the respective parents silently agreed to alternate keeping an eye on them. It felt like we were drinking in a neighbor’s backyard, which is kind of the point.

According to D&T co-owner and manager Jason Moore, the Drive Inn has been a fixture of the neighborhood since 1959. As with all pure-bred icehouses, it got its start selling blocks of the cold stuff for the neighborhood’s iceboxes before transitioning into a beer joint in the ‘60s.

That transition is the common thread uniting the historic icehouses of South Texas. Starting as simple shacks storing and selling ice before the ubiquity of home refrigerators, most icehouses quickly expanded their offerings. You could go down to the icehouse to grab a quart of fresh milk, maybe a pack of cigarettes. Eventually, some enterprising owner figured that, with all that ice on hand, he might as well chill down a few cases of beer and get his customers to stay a while, beating the heat a bit while shooting the breeze.  Soon enough, people were coming for the drinks and company as much as for anything else, turning these ad-hoc convenience stores into ad-hoc community centers—a sort of shared backyard for an entire neighborhood.

As modern refrigeration finally made its way to South Texas, the literal icehouses became more figurative, but the people kept coming. More permanent seating spilled out from the garage doors that used to facilitate ice deliveries, the strategically placed overhangs offering shelter from the Texas sun. The “house” part of the moniker became a de-facto service counter, from behind which bottles of beer emerged out of tubs of ice, often served by the half-dozen in buckets full of yet more ice. Yard games like horseshoes and washers offered entertainment, as did the jukebox and pool table likely to be found inside in place of sawdust-packed blocks of ice.

It was as far out as Houston went. It was kind of like a country store, and because people didn’t have air conditioning in the summertime, they would hang out at the icehouse, eat ice cream, drink beer. It was pretty much like a neighborhood hangout from the beginning.” The neighborhood, though, is changing. With only four miles separating it from downtown, it’s prime real estate. The older houses are being torn down, replaced by mid-rise developments and blocks of townhomes. The older residents are being replaced just as quickly. The icehouse is like a last bastion of the old neighborhood.

According to Moore, D&T, which re-opened in current form last year, is “kind of an evolution of the historic icehouse.” At D&T, evolution means 50 rotating taps that share equal time with the iced buckets of American Adjunct Lagers, which somewhat typify the icehouse experience. It also means there’s an actual kitchen serving food and a little extra polish in the décor: A tree from the backyard serves as a community table and lacquered wood has replaced time-worn surfaces.

At the West Alabama Icehouse—a few miles away on the western edge of downtown—things don’t feel quite as new, even though co-owner Petros Markantonis has spent the past 27 years slowly modernizing the place.

“It cost $1,500 to build the icehouse back in 1928,” says Markantonis, whose father bought West Alabama in 1986. “It was a gas station-slash-convenience store when that neighborhood, which is just outside of downtown, was just being built. It was as far out as Houston went. It was kind of like a country store, and because people didn’t have air conditioning in the summertime, they would hang out at the icehouse, eat ice cream, drink beer. It was pretty much a neighborhood hangout from the beginning.”

The neighborhood, though, is changing. With only four miles separating it from downtown, it’s prime real estate. The older houses are being torn down, replaced by mid-rise developments and blocks of townhomes. The older residents are being replaced just as quickly. Markantonis says the icehouse is like a last bastion of the old neighborhood. “These days, though, you have to have a glass-door cooler to put all the craft beers in,” he says with a slight chuckle. “My manager is constantly trying to get me to change things. But I’ve always had this fear that if I do that, if I change things too much, especially the front of the building, that it would ruin the charm.”

It’s not just the old façade, the hatch-windows, or even the ever-present buckets of beer that keep people coming back, though. As Markantonis puts it, “it’s kind of down to earth. You can have your dogs here, you can have your kids here. We have daytime regulars, contractors or painters, then we’ve got the grungy crowd late at night. It’s always been open to anybody to hang out. No pretentiousness at all.”

One glance at the mix of customers and you see what Petros is getting at. Bikers pull in off West Alabama street, settling into the picnic tables that line the front of the slightly ramshackle space. Couples drop by from the surrounding neighborhood, some with dogs or kids in tow. The older regulars take the barstools lined up under the awning. In front, the marquee sign is most likely wishing someone a happy birthday or a fond farewell, as if to imply that the entire place is one ramshackle extended family.

The same eclectic, come-as-you-are community element persists at Moon Tower Inn—which Brandon Young opened in 2010 on an eastern edge of downtown—a barebones bar that nods, however unintentionally, to Houston’s traditional icehouses. “Honestly, I didn’t even have an icehouse in mind when we opened,” says Young. “We don’t have garage doors and pool tables. Hell, we don’t even have an inside. So, I really don’t think of us as such.”

Still, drinking at Moon Tower feels like drinking at D&T, or at West Alabama Icehouse, or at many of the “proper” icehouses that dot the landscape of Houston, promising “cold ass beer” (part of Moon Tower’s semi-official motto) and no bullshit. In many ways, it embodies the spirit that lies at the heart of the icehouse, labels notwithstanding.

When it opened, Moon Tower was only that hatch-windowed booth, at which you would order fancy beer and fancier sausages, and a sprawling yard speckled with picnic tables. “Our neighborhood is off the beaten path, filled with warehouses and is still up and coming,” Young explains. “I’d say at least 80% of our business travels to see us.”

Though it now has an actual bathroom instead of far-flung port-a-potties—whose use always felt akin to a grail quest—and it boasts a tap-wall to rival most bars in town, it’s still a simple operation. In fact, that cobbled-together feeling is part of what makes Moon Tower feel like an icehouse, despite Young’s protestations to the contrary.

While certain features—hatch windows or a garage door, open-air, outdoor activities—are common features of the modern icehouse, mutability is really its defining characteristic. The icehouse is not a purveyor of ice. It’s not a convenience store. It’s not even a bar. The icehouse is what its neighborhood wants of it. Ice was replaced by milk and cheese; milk and cheese by iced Budweiser; iced Budweiser by cask-conditioned ales and modern spins on Frito Pie. These changes have not been swift, and they’ve always kept a hand extended back to the generation before them. Tradition is meant to change, even while it stays exactly the same, and that is what the icehouse is to Houston.

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