They call Charlie Papaceno the godfather of Dallas' craft-cocktail scene. Ten years ago, he and then-wife Louise Owens opened the no-frills Windmill Lounge in Oak Lawn, unassumingly planting the local flag of an ongoing national renaissance on a nondescript stretch of Maple Avenue.
With the easygoing maestro at the helm, the low-key bar became a practice ground and hangout spot for the scene's growing field of practitioners - pioneers like Jason Kosmas, Michael Martensen, Eddie "Lucky" Campbell and Sean Conner. Its homey vibe and quality drinks earned the friendly dive a place in Esquire's top U.S. bars of 2013.
"That was the place you'd go to see all your friends," says Bonnie Wilson, director of independent bar programs for Addison-based FrontBurner Restaurants. "He nurtured a lot of us, and he was always willing to listen and guide us. We all learned from him."
Now, the cocktail-community cache that Papaceno has earned is coming full circle. This time, it's the godfather who is struggling: Late last year, Papaceno left the Windmill to launch his own bar, wanting to work on a new project. And then he found out he had Stage 4 cancer.
The #RallyForCharlie hashtag says it all: Charlie Pap has earned his support. The opportunities to help gets underway Thursday with cocktail specials at places like LARK on the Park and Black Swan Saloon to benefit the cause. But the major fundraising event happens Monday, when an "industry rally" is set for Industry Alley, Papaceno's soon-to-open bar in the Cedars neighborhood.
"It's awfully nice," he says, sitting in the Lamar Avenue nightspot that's still taking shape, with the lingering smell of fresh paint garnishing the air. "It's humbling."
Monday's cash-only event runs from 2 to 8. Twenty bucks gets you two drink tickets and pork tacos from a whole hog presented onsite. (Additional tickets can be purchased for $5 apiece.) Bartender-led teams of four will be pitted against each other in a giant game of Twister for the cause, and a silent auction will feature multicourse group dinners at places like FT33, Bolsa and Proof + Pantry.
For weeks, the ache in his ear and jaw wouldn't go away. The first hospital visit revealed nothing. But when the pain got so bad he couldn't sleep, he went back again; this time the tests showed he had, essentially, cancer of the tongue.
He's been through radiation and chemo; he's lost 30 pounds and is moving more slowly, but it hasn't kept him from pursuing his goal. "I'm just working and trying to get better," he says.
As a military veteran, the VA is covering his medical costs, but living expenses are another matter, especially if he's left unable to work for a time.
Monday's Industry Rally will showcase the bar he's toiled to make real. It's sort of two venues in one - an informal lounge as you enter, with a jukebox, sexy wall art and a bar with a heavy-duty zinc top and see-through panels underneath. In the rear is a cavernous, corrugated-metal-walled game room that will eventually feature pinball and pool tables. "It's gonna be a split-personality kind of bar," he says.
He'd originally envisioned something much more intimate. "Then I saw this Quonset-hut backroom,," he says, "and the office upstairs that's like something out of some British gangster movie," and he was sold.
A metal-gated courtyard alley winds toward the front door; hence the name. The "industry" part refers to the neighborhood's history as an industrial area. Nothing fancy here - no syrups, no tinctures, no shrubs. Except for Miller Lite ponies, all beers will come in a can. The cocktails will be classically simple. "There's no reason you shouldn't walk into a regular bar and be able to get a decent Manhattan or Old Fashioned," Papaceno says. "It doesn't have to be The Mansion but I don't want to be a McDonald's either. Something in the middle."
"He nurtured a lot of us, and he was always willing to listen and guide us. We all learned from him." -- Bonnie Wilson, FrontBurner Restaurants
So yeah, there won't be any elaborate garnishes or a kitchen full of produce, but if Papaceno has his way, you'll know you can walk in and get a quality drink in a comfortable atmosphere. It's the kind of place he hopes people will go before or after the place they're headed to that evening. Kind of like the Windmill - though he's not looking to reinvent the place.
Industry Alley, he says, "is not a destination bar. It's a hangout bar. Hopefully I can design a place that people can hang out in and feel comfortable."
For Papaceno, that should be no struggle whatsoever.