Dive bar preserved

Houston bar veteran rescues Heights-area dive to preserve quirky vibe

Houston bar veteran rescues Heights-area dive to preserve quirky vibe

Vara's sports bar exterior
Vara's has new owners.  Photo by Eric Sandler
Vara's sports bar interior
Don't expect the interior to change much. Photo by Eric Sandler
Vara's sports bar exterior
Vara's sports bar interior

Even in the midst of Houston’s current patio bar obsession, the city still needs its dives. After all, their unpretentious, come-as-you-are atmosphere and lack of design make dive bars a perfect place for people who want to do a little drinking without getting too fussy about it.

Shaun Sharma understands. As the co-owner and operator of downtown Houston mainstay Dirt Bar, Sharma has proven adept at creating a rock and roll atmosphere without resorting to nonsense like slapping diamond plate on the walls or, as he says, “$99 guitars from Walmart signed by legendary artists. That guy wouldn’t let his eight-year-old play that.”

That success also gives him an appreciation for dives. When he became aware that Vara’s Sports Bar, the Heights-adjacent bar on the I-45 feeder known for the Houston sports team logos that adorn its exterior, was for sale, he partnered up with his brother Steve, the co-owner and operator of downtown taco and tequila bar El Big Bad, to purchase the establishment.

“I love old dive bars. I worry that they’re going to disappear,” Sharma says. “I worry they’re going to be demolished, or somebody else is going to come in and Bar Rescue them. Somebody will decide we need more Moscow Mules in this city — here’s the drink menu, raise the prices.”

Instead of all that, Sharma has more subtle changes in mind that are designed to appeal to the neighborhood’s influx of younger, wealthier residents. The biggest difference will be upgrading to a full mixed beverage license from the current beer and wine only permit. Applications have already been filed, and Sharma expects to receive approvals by March 1. 

Some changes to the staff will take place, too. Sharma says he’s still talking to bartenders about who might be interested in moving to Vara’s.

As for the rest, Vara’s regulars need not worry. First of all, he has no plans to change the name or the decor. The plexiglass cases full of NASCAR memorabilia and the four-foot World War II bomber hanging from the ceiling aren’t going anywhere.

“It’s everything I love about a dive bar. It’s quirky and well lived-in,” he says. “There are some decorations that are cool and some that are odd and unusual.”

One interior improvement is under consideration. “I would potentially upgrade the women’s bathrooms if I think maybe a counter would be better for makeup or something,” he says. “I probably won’t form a decision until I focus group some female friends who can share their thoughts on it.”

Sharma also sees some potential with the space’s expansive backyard. Expect some landscaping, upgraded seating, and better lighting to enhance the area’s utility without compromising the aesthetic appeal.

Weekly programming in the form of a steak night or wing night are also on the table. The space doesn’t have a kitchen, so the cooking would need to be done on either outdoor grills or a food truck.

In news that will come as no surprise to anyone who has been to Dirt, Sharma also has strong opinions about what sort of music he’d like to hear. Generally, he wants to play old school country from the ’50s and ’60s but concedes that Garth Brooks might pop up from time to time.

“I don’t like ’80s and ’90s country. I get that people who grew up here maybe don’t find it as reprehensible as I do. Maybe they like it, even if they don’t respect it; they may like it the way I like Def Leppard, as a novelty,” he says.

Music may also help bridge whatever gap exists between the bar’s current regulars and the patrons Sharma hopes to attract with the changes.

“I think it’s great when you go up to a jukebox and put in an old Johnny Cash song or a Merle Haggard song,” he says. “If you put in a deep cut, an old guy might say, ‘I was worried when I saw you walk over there, but I love this song. Can I buy you a drink?’ As far as cred in a dive bar goes, that’s the highest compliment.”