Louise Owens Talks Craft Cocktails, Toast Points, and 10 Years Behind the Bar at the Windmill Lounge

A decade later and it's business as usual at this Dallas dive.

Louise Owens.
Louise Owens.
Bret Redman

I was greeted by a booming “Hey!” as I yanked open the freshly painted red door to the Windmill Lounge on Wednesday afternoon. I couldn’t see the face behind the voice (my eyes were adjusting from the bright glare of the sun to the dimly lit bar) but I knew that it belonged to Louise Owens. “You want a drink?” she asked as I approached the bar. I hesitated, but only briefly. I was, after all, in one of the best cocktail dens in Dallas.

She mixed me her namesake drink, The Louise: vodka, orange juice, strawberry nectar, ginger, and mint syrup topped off with sparkling wine. Seemed fitting at the time. We took a seat at a table in the back corner as Billie Holiday serenaded us from the jukebox.

She and her now ex-husband Charlie Papaceno opened the Windmill Lounge in 2005. Charlie has since parted ways to open a business of his own, but you can find Louise mixing drinks at the Maple Avenue dive on any given day of the week. “There’s nothing in here without a story” she explained as she glanced around “from the toast points to the curtains.”

A decade and several nods from local and national media outlets later and it’s business as usual at the Windmill Lounge as Owens gears up for the bar’s 10th anniversary party this Saturday.

Tell me about the origin of the Windmill Lounge.

Oh, it’s ridiculous. Charlie my ex-husband had been laid off, he was a commercial services director for Comcast, and my mother passed away the year before and it left me just enough money to send my kid to college, and take a vacation, and this happened. He (Charlie) comes back one day and he says “Do you want to open a bar?” and I said “No!” and he says “Well, that building with the windmill on top is empty…” and I said “Oh, OK, let’s open a bar” and that was it. The place was empty, it had been shut down by the board of health. The people who were here before had a diner and it was disgusting. I was actually just thinking about it the other day, I can’t believe how disgusting it was. And since I’d been writing about wine and spirits (for the Dallas Morning News), I knew that the cocktail business was exploding, I was like “Let’s have a craft cocktail lounge, everybody in Dallas will want to come to that!” and nobody cared.

Do you remember your first day of business?

Yes, the first day was actually a going away party for some dear friends, we had probably 30 adults and 50 elementary school kids with their parents in here. So, that was the official first day, and the first day we were open to the public, oh, maybe 30 people came. And it used to be like on a good night we’d make $500, it was just inching along. But we just knew that it was the right thing and that eventually it would take off.

What kind of cocktails were you making when you first opened?

Pretty much the same ones we’re doing now. Two thirds of our list is classic standard cocktails, and we don’t mess with them. We do classics because they work. It’s something that’s been working for a hundred years, and if you come up with a variation that really works then you need to change the name. Like, they have the boulevardier now, it’s not a negroni made with bourbon, it’s got a whole new name. I looked at our original list and it was old fashions, manhattans, negronis, sidecars, you know, and single malts. It was all the stuff that we liked to drink, and nobody cared [chuckles]. OK, I’d get people who’d care, but it wasn’t like it is now, we’d get people who’d be like “you don’t have Coors Light by the pitcher?! why not? I’m not gonna pay you” and I’d be like “OK, don’t come here then.” But what was interesting is we’d have people who’d be in their ’60s and ’70s and they’d be like “My god, I haven’t had a manhattan or any of these things in years!” because nobody could remember how to make them, or you’d have to be somewhere really expensive like the Mansion or the Dallas Country Club, or somewhere the same bartenders have been there for 40 years. Now you can go to Chili’s and get a manhattan. Well, I don’t know about Chili’s. Everywhere you go now, from Buca Di Beppo to Macaroni Grill, anywhere that’s above fast food has some kind of cocktail menu. Granted, it’s mostly going to be vodka with a couple of things, but at least it’s something besides shots and questionable concoctions.

So, I’ve heard that a lot of the guys who are currently at the helm of the Dallas cocktail scene learned a thing two from you guys at the Windmill Lounge?

Well, Mike Martensen moved here and Jason Kosmas moved here, and Lucky moved in. There weren’t really any other people. There wasn’t like a Dallas group that was already doing this other places. It all sort of came together in like 2008 and 2009. They’d show up to these news gigs and suddenly the place wasn’t open. You know, people were coming to Dallas who’d never been here and that helped a lot. The world was changing rapidly. So they would come in because we had everything up there to play with, they’d be like like “Hey, yay!” and they’d come in and guest bartend. So, that was always fun.

You’re known for having one of the best jukeboxes in town, how did you select the music?

The majority was in our personal collection when we opened, and we would just get new stuff, we’d hear something and we’d go get it. And customers would say “hey, we just heard this band…” How does anybody build their collection? But now that CD Source is closed I have to go to Amazon to find stuff. I would say about half of it we already owned before we started here. About every six months or so we’ll rotate some in or out, but some of it just stays. I can’t get rid of like, David Allan Coe or Willie Nelson. There’s stuff that just has to stay.

What’s the story behind the toast points on your menu?

If you grew up in the south or in Texas and you’re between the age of about 45 and 60, moms would always be like “Oh my god, I have to bring something to this event tonight,” and so they would get a block of cream cheese and put pepper sauce on top of it, and then they’d put Triscuits around it. It’s delicious. Nobody was serving it when we opened, so we called the Pickapeppa people and asked if we could get big jugs of the sauce and they asked “Why?” and we were like “Well, we want to serve cream cheese, pepper, and Triscuits,” and they were like “At a restaurant?” and I go “Yeah! Why not?” So we served it that way for a long time, but then Triscuits starting costing like a million dollars each, and we’d been using Village Baking Co.’s sourdough bread since we opened, and we always had these little ends and of course I’d eat them with cream cheese. But one day we were like “Instead of Triscuits let’s make toast,” and it was so much better. And that is how it came to be.

What have been some of the biggest struggles over the years?

In the beginning it was just hiring anybody. We couldn’t find anybody to work, and the people who would come to work for us, a couple of the kids were like doing it one day a week because they thought it’d be fun and they liked cocktails, but the people who wanted full-time jobs, we had to teach them everything, from what different types of glasses there are, to “don’t put that on the bar rail and then put it into somebody’s drink!” Just basic things. And how to mix drinks, and you know “the customer’s not your enemy, they are your guest.” ….You have to do everything here. Most places you have a bar-back, but this is small, you got to keep up, there are no magic fairies to pick up the cigarette butts that people toss everywhere. You’ve got to be looking at everything, and paying attention, and be in charge while you’re behind the bar. There are no cocktail waitresses because it’s too small, and it’s a learning curve for anybody because most people have worked in a regimented job. It’s kind of like bootcamp for bartenders over here.

So what are you planning for your 10th anniversary party this Saturday?

DJ Joel Gajewski is going to be spinning for us, he’s great. And then we have the Easy Sliders truck coming in, and there will be general mayhem, and drink things, and champagne toasts. Whatever I dream up that day.

The Windmill Lounge’s 10th anniversary party is this Saturday, June 6 from 8 p.m. until 2 a.m.

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