Familiar face at Hole in the Wall opens new venue

Claire Cardona

The smiling, bearded face of bartender Denis O’Donnell will still greet you by name when you enter the bar.

But it won’t be at Hole in the Wall, the bar at West Dean Keeton Street and Guadalupe Street frequented by students.

Come Friday, O’Donnell and co-owner Nathan Hill will open the doors of The White Horse, the newest addition to the East Side bar scene.

The opening celebration, complete with a live white horse, will be the culmination of three years of searching for a venue and funding to start their own venture.

“I would hope that people on that side of town have the opportunity to walk into our bar and be romantically overwhelmed with bluegrass, jazz and the dim lights of a honky-tonk, with people two-stepping and twirling around on the floor that is so culturally different than what’s happening over there,” O’Donnell said.

Well-versed in management and bartending, O’Donnell has performed on stage since he was 15 and worked behind the bar at Hole in the Wall for almost four years, serving as the day manager before leaving in November to work on The White Horse.

O’Donnell said he will miss Hole in the Wall, but the owner Will Tanner gave his blessing not only in words but in donated sound equipment and the “that’a boy” they needed to venture out.

“I didn’t realize that this was my dream right off until I started working [at Hole],” O’Donnell said. “I’ve always played in bands since I was a young boy, and I’ve spent most of my twenties running other people’s business.”

Hill, the former manager of Hole, met O’Donnell when they were working in management for Kerbey Lane Cafe. From then on, it was more or less fate.

“We both worked really well together. We had similar goals and management style: that if you treat people well, they’ll work well for you,” Hill said. “If you meet Denis and he said, ‘Do you want to open a bar together,’ you say ‘Yes.’”

The new bar will present a mix of musical styles from Delta blues and bluegrass on Wednesdays to two-stepping on Thursdays and Fridays. On Saturday, they will look “outside the box” to draw talent from around the country.

With the help of friends, The White Horse has been transformed from the former Club La Trampa. By the time it’s done, it will be outfitted with antique lights, pool tables and a bar that stretches across the length of a long wall. A green room for musicians and an outdoor patio are also to come and a trailer parked outside will serve traditional Mexican tacos.

And as for the drinks, well, they’re what patrons of Hole have come to expect from the creator of the “Shitty Lemonade.”

“We’re going to be cheap,” O’Donnell said. “Our place will be competitive in drinks and everybody will get a taste for the fabulous T.W. Samuels that will flow like crazy as our wild ass will be walking the floor with a bottle of whiskey and getting everybody crazy about the place.”

With a lot of popular spots on the East Side, the new owners are sure they’ll offer something which lives up to Austin’s reputation for live music.

“We wish that culture down there embraces this new alien honky-tonk, seedy, honest bar that remembers who you are and what you had to drink,” O’Donnell said. “There will be no arrogant jerk behind the bar — it will be a true place of community and, hopefully, a bastion of culture that keeps people wanting to move to this city for live music.”

O’Donnell, who plays full time with a band called El Pan, will keep his ties with Hole, where his band will continue to play, and said he looks forward to seeing those regulars on his stage as well.

The concepts of the two bars are different, but O’Donnell said the band in the corner will be passive enough so that people can still enjoy conversation and not be chased out of the room. It will also rely heavily on bi-weekly and weekly resident bands that will keep people coming back.

“Loyalty is a two-way street in this business and we’re looking to take care of this band in a way that most people haven’t seen,” he said. “Your commitment to us and having this grow means that your CD is in the jukebox and your retail [goods] are in a kitschy retail counter that we sell eight days a week.”

As for Hole, someone will have to fill the space left behind the bar and both men agree Rio Norris will be the one to hold the reins and surpass the standard for quality O’Donnell and Hill brought to the role.

“It’s an honor to step in Denis’ shoes. I hope I don’t let him down,” Norris said.

And although O’Donnell said he expects The White Horse will draw a new crowd, his regulars from Hole in the Wall, such as Dillon Tulk, insist they’ll be going across town to see the new place.

“Denis is a phenomenal musician and an amazing bartender. He’s just that good at what he’s doing,” said Tulk, who has celebrated his birthday at Hole for the past four years. “It’s the end of an era.”

Hill, who deals more with the numbers side of the bar, said together they’ve built up some great clientele and he hopes to see them on the other side of a bar that they own.

“I hope they embrace us,” O’Donnell said. “Everybody on that side of town better get used to the fact that I’m going to know every single person’s name that walks in that door and what they have to drink. And I’m going to be their bartender because I look forward to seeing their face when they walk in the door. That will set us apart.”

Printed on Tuesday, December 6, 2011 as: Loyal bar owner moves east