Bleary Christmas: Lala’s Litle Nugget

Ah, Christmas. 

December 17, 2023 —
I was in Austin the other week, having BBQ at an extremely Texas-feeling restaurant with a friend. We were discussing how Austin’s fabled weirdness seemed to be fading. Well, not fading. Becoming more commoditized, corporate, synthetic. She decided to take me to see some old-school Austin weirdness to show me it still existed, although she caveated it with, “Unfortunately, the timing is a little off for it.”

After dinner, she took me to Lala’s Little Nugget, a hole-in-the-strip-mall bar in the north part of Austin decked out with more Christmas than the Manhattan Macy’s. Reinder on the roof, Santa and snowman murals, string lights everywhere, ornaments dangling from the ceiling (some of which were wired to lower when a bathroom door opened). And it was all vintage. Like, various decades vintage.

“For a dive bar, they really decorate this place up,” I said, gazing around at the small, dark area inside that somehow seemed more North Pole than North Pole.

“That’s the thing,” my friend said. “It’s always decorated like this.”

Lala’s was started in 1972 by a woman named Frances Lala. There are a few stories for why it’s always Christmas, never winter in that Texas bar. One is that she just didn’t feel like going through all the work of taking down the decorations one year. Another story is that she did it out of spite against a husband that left her on Christmas Eve. Yet another story is that her child died on Christmas Eve. Yet another another story is that she simply just loved Christmas that much. The most resonant tale, perhaps, and thereby certainly false, is that she went over-the-top with her decorations for a son who was returning from the Vietnam War, a son who never came home, so she never took Christmas down. The latter tale inspired a song called Jesus and Elvis by a local musician that was covered by Kenny Chesney in 2016.

Impressively, Lala was never one for setting the record straight. And whatever the real reason, you can’t ask her, because she sold the bar back in 2015 and then died a couple years later. The new owners, a management corporation, decided to keep that bit of Austin weird. And not just to keep it, but to franchise it. Plans were recently announced for a second Lala’s to open in south Austin in 2024. It’ll be called Lala’s South Pole.

While at the bar, we ran into Mallory O’Meara, a nonfictionist out of Los Angeles who wrote The Lady from the Black Lagoon and the James-Beard winning Girly Drinks. I run into her every five years, it seems like. In 2013 in Providence when I was covering the H.P. Lovecraft bust unveil for Poe-Land. In 2019 at Storyfest in Westport, Connecticut, where we were on a panel with Grady Hendrix, Paul Tremblay, and Stephen Graham Jones, and now 2023 in a Christmas-themed pub in Texas.

Anyway, much like the spookiness of Fright Kingdom’s The Fright Before Christmas event blunted the worst parts of Christmas for me, so did a couple of rum and cokes and sticky tables to the strains of clacking pools balls and jukebox tunes. It’s a good reminder that Christmas is the booziest season for a reason.