Before there was the Loon, 3531 McKinney Avenue was occupied by Joe Miller’s, a hangout for high-profile media guys, like sports–writer Dan Jenkins. There, the late Louie Canelakes made a name for himself as a bartender. And Cliff Gonzales, tall and strapping, with the speaking voice of a country singer, would stop by on occasion. He’d go by after working with his cousins at Primo’s Tex-Mex a couple of times a week to sip a Johnnie Walker Black. After Miller died, Canelakes opened his own place, Louie’s, and Miller’s wife decided to close the bar. In the spring of 1992, when the opportunity to open a bar in Joe Miller’s space arose, Gonzales jumped on it. He renamed the bar The Loon.
Unlike other bars, Gonzales’ first venture into the nightlife industry didn’t have a bright neon sign announcing its arrival. It had a green awning above its door, and that was it. Gonzales, an Oak Cliff native, wanted it to be a word-of-mouth, neighborhood joint, and the easygoing, unpretentious atmosphere drew people in, to the point where three generations would shoot around the same pool table. A guy could walk in for lunch at 11:30 am, be one of two customers in the entire bar, and all he would need to say is, “I need my warmth” for the fireplace to turn on. Even if it was 60 degrees outside, Gonzales wouldn’t hesitate.
“It’s just common sense,” Gonzales says. “Treat people the way you want to be treated. Try to give them something good to eat and drink at a reasonable price. It’s pretty basic.”
It wasn’t long before the bar attracted people like Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki, back when they lived across the street. Gonzales calls them “salt-of-the-earth” guys and points to a time when he had a kid named Ramiro working for him. Nice boy, but he ran with the wrong crowd. Gonzales told Nash, who sat Ramiro down for some life advice. “Here was this great basketball player from Canada who speaks perfect Spanish,” Gonzales recalls.
Years later, the night after the Mavs won their first-ever NBA title in June 2011, the team celebrated at The Loon. Mark Cuban let bartenders hold the trophy. At one point, everyone raised glasses and sang an extremely off-key version of Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” “It was a hoot,” Gonzales says. “It was wild.”
His niece, Rebecca Hernandez, handles all the bookkeeping and emails. But, really, everyone at the 22-year-old bar is family. There’s M.I. Blackwell—doorman, floor manager, and good friend—who’s worked at the bar for 18 years, same as a guy named Martin Garcia. Then there’s John, who used to sleep on the bench in front of The Loon. That was his home. Now he’s Gonzales’ right-hand man and jack-of-all-trades. He washes cars for the customers, has a key to Gonzales’ house, and cleans up the bar in the mornings.
At 59, Gonzales is a soft-spoken man with a tough-guy exterior—all salt-and-pepper hair and black shirts. The third- or fourth-generation Mexican-American (he’s not sure which) looks like he could throw you out of the bar at any second, but he has a tender spot for those in need. This has led to charity golf tournaments and an annual Christmas party for about 100 families in Oak Cliff who can’t afford to eat.
“I’m not here to judge anybody,” he says. “I always give them another chance. I could’ve been dead about 12, 14 years ago. But by the grace of God—and I believe that with all my heart—he changed my life. That’s why I don’t worry about anything anymore. I just figure what’s gonna happen is gonna happen.”
This explains why, when the notice came in December that The Loon had to leave to make way for a CVS Pharmacy, Gonzales wasn’t as outraged as his regulars. Instead, he sees it as a blessing. He’s hoping the next location will be in Uptown and have a patio.
“I’m sad to move, and change is not something I enjoy, but I’m looking forward to it,” Gonzales says. “I have such good people around me, I think it’ll be an easy transition.”
Once mid-May comes and The Loon has to shut its doors, Gonzales hopes to have a new place ready; he’s currently choosing from three locations. He’s not sure if he’s keeping the same name, but he sure as hell will keep his people. And Dallas, without a doubt, will follow.
“Stay tuned,” Gonzales says. “Somethin’ good will happen.”