It’s 5:30 on a Thursday night, and Johnny LaTouf, owner of the Skylark Lounge, is lighting candles for one of the bar’s signature events, a weekly happy hour by seasoned jazz pianist, torch singer and Austin institution Margaret Wright.
The small votives and tea lights flicker through tiny colored glass stars and vintage tin cutouts. The garage sale candles are one of many details that add intrigue and ambiance to the dimly lit East Austin hideaway tucked into a ramshackle old building in a row of body shops and used car lots on Airport Boulevard. The bar opened 13 months ago, and with a friendly vibe and regular appearances by Austin blues legends, it’s quietly emerged as both a popular neighborhood gathering spot and a finely curated homage to old school East Austin culture.
“I grew up (in Austin),” LaTouf, now 55, says. “My whole life. I’ve never lived anywhere else.”
Although LaTouf’s boyhood home wasn’t in East Austin, he was introduced to the then starkly segregated black side of the city early. His father abandoned the family when LaTouf was a child, forcing his mother to support herself and her six sons. Ruth LaTouf spent 35 years standing up in the composing room of the Austin American-Statesman, where she worked as a typesetter and later a proofreader. The job had her working odd hours, often at night, so she hired a woman named Alice Mae Turner to help with the boys. “She was an African-American woman who was our second mom and raised us,” LaTouf says. “So when my mom worked, she taught us all about the community over here.”
By the time he was a teenager in the ’70s, LaTouf was able to slip into East Austin haunt Ernie’s Chicken Shack, where artists such as Blues Boy Hubbard and Miss Lavelle White kept the scene hot. When he came of age and started a career as a businessman, LaTouf naturally gravitated to East Austin. He owned a couple of convenience stores on East 11th and East 12th streets and in the ’90s operated a string of pre-cell phone communication hubs, Pinky’s Pagers, before moving on to a successful career in commercial real estate.
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He never had any interest in owning a nightclub, but something about the little dive on Airport Boulevard struck a chord. “I walked into this bar and I felt the history,” he says. The space was a lumber yard before becoming the Airport Bar and Grill, a neighborhood hangout for black folk, and later a lesbian bar called Bernadette’s. LaTouf decided to “grab it and try to preserve it.”
He was determined to create a space that caters to both sets of the bar’s former clientele. He wanted to fill a vacuum for East Austin natives alarmed at the way black and Hispanic entrepreneurs were being pushed out of the neighborhood, watching the local culture “getting obliterated off the map.” He also wanted to welcome the area’s newer transplants and tourists looking for an authentic Austin experience.
“The other bar people in town told me ‘Are you crazy? You cannot have a bar that is going to have gay people, African-American people, Hispanic people and white people coming to it. You need to figure out what your demographic is and you need to go for it,’” LaTouf says. But he was committed to the diverse vision.
To try to lure back the bar’s regulars, he kept the original furniture, while adding subtle upscale touches to refashion the bar “in the scheme of a really cool old speakeasy or juke joint.” Searching for a solid music staple with roots in the neighborhood, he reached out to area churches. A contact at St. James Episcopal referred him to Margaret Wright, a singer and pianist whose storied history can be traced back 40 years through upscale venues like Cedar Street and the Driskill to gay bars like Rusty’s and Rain. With a warm stage presence, a haunting voice that aches with fragile soul and phenomenal piano chops that find her meandering through jazz improvisations into songbook standards, she created the bar’s first staple events in her Thursday and Friday happy hours.
At first. Wright played to no one, but slowly both music fans and neighborhood groups celebrating birthdays, anniversaries or even funerals began to show up. LaTouf trained his staff to make sure everyone who walked through the door felt welcome and to share the bar’s story, both its rich history and his vision for the future, with anyone who would listen.
LaTouf expanded the bar’s music program by booking East Austin heritage acts such as Blues Boy Hubbard and the Texas Eastside Kings, some of the top blues talents in the city, acts with decades of experience who were left without a home base after the closures of East Austin venues and, more recently, Antone’s. Naysayers, including some from Clifford Antone’s inner circle, warned LaTouf that he’d never turn a profit playing the blues, but he was undeterred.
“It’s different,” he says. “We’re not looking for people to blow the bar out for us to make a ton of money, but we are looking for a place to bring musicians that didn’t have a place to play.”
In addition to the blues, the bar hosts singer-songwriter Dickie Lee Erwin on Tuesday nights and has a monthly residency called Girls with Guitars that features top female talents such as Patrice Pike performing alongside up-and-comers. On Tuesday, the bar will a new all vinyl hip-hop monthly with appearances from DJ Digg and DJ Jester the Filipino Fist.
After a year, the Skylark is still not profitable. LaTouf supplements the register each month to keep the bar afloat, but the club is on a steady upward trajectory. June was his most profitable month yet and LaTouf is optimistic that July’s income will beat it; he’s not concerned either way. His strategy for the bar always involved a slow growth. “I put money into it to keep the integrity of what we’re gonna create,” he says.
The bar, which serves only beer, wine and setups, is in the process of applying for a liquor license. They also just completed kitchen renovations and are debuting a new menu designed by LaTouf’s best friend and small stakes owner Patrick Gannon, an Irish chef who trained under Emeril Lagasse in New Orleans and is on the culinary staff at the Governor’s Mansion. For now, the food offerings are basic bar food, with a selection of custom sandwiches as the centerpiece, but LaTouf hopes to expand into more creative cuisine. Like everything else with the Skylark, LaTouf is focused on taking a methodical approach, not selling out and doing it right. It’s a labor of love, his own work of art.
“I can’t sing or write or build a building, but I can do this. I can make things like this happen,” he says. More importantly, he sees all of his earthly work as a memorial to Ruth LaTouf, who died in 2001. “Whatever we build is a reflection of what she was.”
The Skylark Lounge is located at 2039 Airport Blvd.