With its mysterious name and somewhat unsavory locale (think unlit streets and the sounds of sirens in the distance), most people don’t know what to expect from Lee Harvey’s. But when I saw that fence lined with cheery red lights and the expansive yard full of picnic tables, I knew I would like the place.
Lee Harvey’s has a wide porch that doubles as a stage for live music, an outdoor bar with a chest full of ice-cold beer, and a flimsy screen door that leads to the wonderful dive inside. The decor: neon beer signs, a pool table, an arcade machine (Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga), scuffed wooden booths, and Bob Marley playing from the jukebox. It’s every dive bar that ever made you lose track of time.
Let’s get this out of the way: it’s odd to find a fun place, an escape, named after a dubious character such as Lee Harvey Oswald. But it fits. When I stopped by on a weeknight not long ago, the bartender, Jacki, had her dark hair up in a messy bun and greeted me with a warm smile. After a few minutes, we were talking about the history of Lee Harvey’s.
People often come in believing this was Oswald’s house or his parents’ house. “A few sensitive people have told me they feel a ghostly presence by the arcade machine,” she says. “It’s a little like snipe hunting. I’m not gonna yank the rug out from under anyone. I say, keep the legend going.”
Regulars know this place was once a diner, and it was a biker bar, but it was never directly associated with the notorious assassin. It’s been called Lee Harvey’s for 10 years. But it sure feels like the kind of place a loner ne’er-do-well in the ’60s might have hung out. “The stone walls were part of the original house,” Jacki says. “I had a customer who told me that this used to be his grandparents’ home.”
The people who love this bar the best don’t come for the novelty or the pseudo-history. They come because it’s comfortable in the way great dive bars are supposed to be comfortable. For example: Lee is not the owner, nor is he the namesake. He works here but enjoys the bar so much that he can’t stay away, even when he’s off-duty. He gave me a quick tour around the small interior, even insisting I peek in to the graffiti-scrawled men’s restroom.
“I’m filming a TV series set in this neighborhood,” he said. “This bar is where my characters come up with their schemes.”
There’s also Eddie, a DJ with long dreads. Eddie was on the cover of Oak Cliff Advocate magazine in mid-2012. I know this for a fact because it’s posted on the wall of the bar. He told me that Lee Harvey’s reminds him of a dive his father used to take him to where he grew up in Cincinnati.
“When I left Cincinnati,” he said, “my family gathered to say good-bye. They were all crying. But when I looked in my rearview mirror, my father wasn’t crying. He was flipping me off!” (Now, as a running gag, Eddie and one of the bartenders like to unexpectedly flip each other off.)
Jacki shrugged and smiled. “It’s like you’re in our living room.”
Lee Harvey Oswald is our local villain, and his namesake bar is a little dark, a little rebellious. But it’s also friendly and draws folks of every type. That night, I claimed a bar stool and nursed my drink. Lee Harvey’s is open till 2 am, and the regulars were just getting started.
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