It sounded like the start of a joke. "Have you heard about the drive-in bars in Texas?" my friend asked.
"Is the driver allowed to drink?" I said, expecting a punchline.
"The driver is served first," she explained without any sarcasm. "You can park your car, roll down your windows, and they'll bring your passengers a beer."
Wait, I realized, these places are real?
Yes, drive-in bars are still very much a thing in Texas. Three currently stand and they're, amazingly, 100% legal. Houston has one; Wichita Falls, a few miles south of the Oklahoma border, has two: Bar L Drive Inn and, most famously, P-2 (or "The Deuce").
P-2, which first opened as a "beer barn" in 1947, is little more than a parking lot with a few awnings over select spaces; food and drink is prepared in a shed-like structure built in 1922. Signs hanging in P-2's parking lot proclaim that the bar's only rules seem to be "No pets" and "No minors after 6 PM."
It was actually a "stag bar" (i.e. no women allowed) until 1986, and has ultimately stood in its current incarnation as a drive-in bar pretty much since 1987. There, starting at noon, seven days a week, customers from age 21 to much, much older back their trucks and SUVs into parking spots to chat with friends, listen to their radios, or simply read the newspaper and work a crossword by themselves.
It's one-part neighborhood coffee shop, one-part Sonic Drive-In...if either of those places had carhops continually fetching customers $2.50 frosty mugs of "Red Draw." (This house specialty consists of one part Campbell's tomato juice, two parts beer, and is served with salt, pepper and limes.)
In this day and age, how can such a place -- which serves liquor in your car -- possibly exist?!
I asked the former owner, Mike Ledue, a friendly Wichita Falls man who has been drinking at P-2 for “’bout 35 years.” He took over from 2009-2011 after the longtime proprietor couldn’t afford to pay some utilities to get P-2 up to code. (“My one claim to fame as owner was fixing the bathroom door,” Ledue said. “It used to swing inward and slap you on the ass if you were using the urinal! I turned it around the right way.”)
And if the bar were shut down for any amount of time over such a code violation, it would be the end of P-2 as customers know it.
"It's part of some grandfather clause," Ledue explained. "You'll never see a new drive-in bar in Texas and, if one of these institutions has to close for any amount of time, they will never be allowed to reopen as drive-in bars."
Open container laws aren't regulated by the federal government, and up until Labor Day 2001, Texas drivers could legally drink WHILE DRIVING so long as they weren't drunk. (That's still the case in Mississippi.)
OK, but surely the police keep a close eye on these spots?
"Not at all," Ledue said. "Since judges, lawyers, politicians and the like are all regulars themselves!" As are NASCAR and IndyCar drivers and even the occasional actor in town shooting a movie.
But he's adamant that drinking and driving isn't much of a problem in town because "people generally behave themselves" by not going over the legal limit. Although, he adds, "Occasionally, people drive off with the serving trays still on their windows. And about 250 mugs were stolen or broken per month, back when glass was used."
The mugs are plastic now, but not much else is changing anytime soon.
"The bar has a rule: three strikes and you're out," Ledue said. "People have great respect for the P-2...and for each other."