My family and I only dine out in Austin on Thursdays — early, when the crowds are lighter, which gives those of us with younger diners, like our toddler and preschooler, a better chance to enjoy our meal. On one of these outings in the summer of 2022, we went to our favorite neighborhood dive bar, Billy’s on Burnet. It was Texas-hot outside, so we sat in a back room, where you can let your children misbehave in peace. As our kids were playing a deer-hunting arcade game, I was scanning the decorations on the walls and drinking a glass of Lone Pint Brewery’s Yellow Rose IPA — the beer that keeps me coming back to Billy’s, along with the Green Bay Packers memorabilia (I’m a cheesehead). It was then I noticed a sticker on the window opposite our table. I was struck by its boldness, both in the simplicity of the design — modeled after the iconic Lone Star beer label — and what it declared: “THIS IS ONE OF DOUG’S TOP 50 BARS IN AUSTIN.”
I’ve been to a lot of bars around the world, but I had never seen anything like this. “Who’s Doug?” I asked my wife, who shrugged and gave our kids another quarter. Instantly, I knew that I had to find out who Doug was and what his favorite 50 bars in Austin were.
When I set out to uncover this mystery later that December, I started with Billy’s. The bartender denied any knowledge of the sticker, which was in a back room but proudly on display, and responded with a curt, “Hey man, I just serve beer to customers.” It wasn’t a great start; he yelled to me on my way out, “Good luck with your quest!”
Unable to find more information about Doug and his list on Google, I armed myself with printed photos of the sticker I had seen at Billy’s and set out for the city’s finest dive bars to see if Doug had anointed them as well, and why.
My next stop was Buddy’s Place, a squat, windowless, brick building painted entirely blue, that resembles a shady-seeming long-stay motel in its austerity and advertises itself with the unlikely slogan, “Home of happiness.” To my relief, the bartender, Lucie, was disarmingly friendly. When I showed her the sticker photo, she replied confidently, “Like that one over there,” and walked me to one of Doug’s stickers, placed catty-corner to the bar, in plain sight, sandwiched between a Coors sign and a hand-drawn rabbit smoking a joint. No, Lucie didn’t know how long it had been there or who Doug was, but she recalled that someone had tagged Buddy’s on a picture of this sticker on Instagram. After searching on her phone, she showed me the page: @dougstop50barsatx (I hadn’t thought to use ATX instead of Austin during my own searches). “These all seem to be dive bars,” she said. “Whoever Doug is, he has the same taste in bars as me.”
Minutes of Instagram-sleuthing later, Lucie thought she had found Doug. She scrolled through the Instagram feed, picked out someone she thought might be the page’s owner, and compared his face to those of people who follow Buddy’s Place on Instagram. And she found him. “So that’s obviously Doug,” said Lucie. I agreed but didn’t mention that I never would have made the connection.
Later, I was able to get in touch with Doug through Instagram direct message, but he refused to meet in person and asked that I not reveal his identity in order to “keep things more of a mystery.” Without spoiling too much of that mystery, Doug is a man in his late 40s who went to his first bar in Austin in 2009 and has lived here for nearly a decade.
Over Instagram DM, Doug explained why he had started his sticker campaign. After having visited what he believes were more than 200 bars in Austin, Doug started bringing friends to bars they hadn’t been to before, referring to them as Top 50 Doug Bars. It became a running joke, so one day a friend made him a stack of custom stickers so that Doug could make his claims official. The design took its cues from the Lone Star label, in honor of the most common beer at a Doug Bar.
He developed his own idiosyncratic criteria to rate bars, including beverages (“a good selection, signature drinks, or drink specials”), prices, bar staff (“friendly, helpful with recommendations, down-to-earth types, welcoming of all”), clientele (“just a good mix”), and the most heavily weighted factor: overall ambiance, an intangible quality that makes Doug feel like he belongs. A jukebox or music helps, but neither live music nor food nor entertainment is factored in because each place needs to stand out on its own as a great overall bar. “Where would I like to go at 7 p.m. on any given night?” he adds.
Doug started posting his stickers in bars in June 2021. He usually goes with friends and works stealthily to avoid notice from bartenders or other patrons because he has so much fun operating incognito. He started posting his exploits to Instagram to share his “best of” list with friends, but some outsiders caught on (his page has 110 followers as of publishing who don’t know who he is). He looks to place the stickers somewhere that is “visible but not disruptive or bothersome to the bar owner or staff” and often puts them near other stickers, which he considers safe territory. The actual surface they end up on doesn’t seem to matter much: ATMs, vending machines, change machines, ice cream machines, pizza warmers, jukeboxes, breathalyzers, bar counters, bathroom stalls, doors, windows, walls, and my personal favorite, one at La Perla that sits under a poster of a woman with glasses that reads, “If you see this person, buy her a beer.”
Doug stopped tagging in 2021 after just a few months and only made it to 29 bars, but he got back at it again this February and has added nine new bars this year. He has a master list of bars (which he declined to share), which has unfortunately changed slightly as businesses have gone under due to the pandemic and related challenges. He laments, “My very favorite bars seem to have a way of closing down,” citing his former number one, the Hard Luck Lounge, and Indian Roller, which closed at the end of 2022. His current favorite is Yellow Jacket Social Club, but that’s only because someone set fire to Crow Bar in September and it hasn’t reopened yet. Yellow Jacket tops his list because he feels the most welcome there and likes that, whether it’s empty or packed, “there is a comfortable feeling there.” It also has several different seating areas, which is a quality Doug likes in his bars.
The common theme among Doug’s bars is that they are mostly genuine Texas dive bars, which I would define as a bar I typically wouldn’t take my children to, which often appears to be structurally unsound and, notably, already features a wide assortment of stickers on its walls. They also seem to be bars that broadly refuse to surrender to trendiness or to pretensions of modernity, but Doug shrugs this off. “My Top 50 isn’t anyone else’s top 50.” He’s just trying to have a good time and hopefully help folks discover new places.
Doug’s Instagram page hints at a resistance to change and nostalgia for a bygone Austin, which manifests itself in comments such as when he calls La Perla “a dying breed,” writes of the Carousel Lounge, “Mercifully, some things never change,” or when he begs the White Horse in a recent post, “Don’t you go changing.” To me, Doug’s stickers seem to be his way of bestowing an air of permanence on an oft-transitory industry during a particularly transformative era for Bat City. Thankfully, many of Doug’s bars are still thriving, and although it might not be a Michelin star, if he sneaks into your bar and slaps up a sticker that reads, “THIS IS ONE OF DOUG’S TOP 50 BARS IN AUSTIN,” it’ll be something to be proud of.