What Exactly Is A Texas Icehouse?

These Lone Star spots are still a great place to hang out.

West Alabama Icehouse Houston

Robbie Caponetto

If you stop off along the Interstate 10 corridor leading from San Antonio to Houston, you may notice a few open-air gathering spots with picnic tables, well-worn wooden buildings, bottled and canned beers, and patrons mixing and mingling. These spots are well-known to Texans as “icehouses," and they represent a crucial element of Lone Star hospitality.  “Icehouses are laid-back, easy, not fussy, and an escape from the crazy world we live in today,” insists Kent Oliver, owner of Dakota East Side Ice House in San Antonio.

Where did icehouses come from, why have they been so beloved in Texas, and what do they look like today? We consulted a group of Texan icehouse owners, restaurateurs, and historians to learn about this regional icon’s importance and what makes an icehouse a perfect stop for any Texas road trip, straight from the people who know it best. 

The History of Texas Icehouses

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, “icehouses” first started to pop up in East Texas and along the Texas-Mexico border; and, as their name suggests, they generally served as places to get ice on sweltering days. “​​Icehouses originally were places with garage doors and no air conditioning [for guests], and they only served beer. Oftentimes, they were also a place where actual ice was made and where people would gather on the weekends to cook with family and friends,” explains Danny Evans, co-founder of Little Woodrow’s and co-owner of Kirby Ice House in Houston.

The interior sections of icehouses needed to keep their namesake frozen water cold, so you’d typically see “2-inch or 3-inch layers of cork on the ceiling and walls to insulate and keep the ice from melting, and the doors on the icehouse were designed for sliding actual blocks of ice in and out,” Petros Markantonis, owner of West Alabama Ice House in Houston, tells us.

West Alabama Icehouse Houston

Robbie Caponetto

Icehouses also functioned as defacto convenience stores where locals could get some simple grocery items (and other grab-and-go products like takeout beer and cigarettes). “Because the icehouse always had the ice, it made sense for them to carry other perishable goods that required refrigeration, such as milk and eggs. Of course, serving cold beer was a no-brainer, since people were always coming for other things,” says Morgan Weber, beverage director and co-owner of Eight Row Flint in Houston.

How Are Icehouses Different From Convenience Stores and Bars?

Historically, an icehouse’s literal housing of ice set it apart from a standard roadside bar or corner market. Community icehouses could be “lifelines for food storage purposes in the past, but slowly seemed to take on the role of gathering spaces," says Amanda Light, owner and operator of Ronin Farm & Restaurant in Bryan, Texas.

According to San Antonio-based historian Dr. Sarah Gould, “there is a hazy line differentiating icehouses from cantinas and beer bars. A cantina is more likely to have dancing, though it's not unusual for there to be live music at both cantinas and icehouses. A beer bar is more likely to have a pool table. Historically, the lines may have been more distinctive, with icehouses more prominent in San Antonio, Houston, and Austin, while cantinas reigned supreme in South Texas. Today, the lines are less distinctive, and many of the traditional icehouses that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s have disappeared or evolved.” 

But Brett Berry, owner of Armadillo Den in Austin, assures us that an icehouse’s “staff should never be confused for mixologists. Too much fancy-pants and jazz-hands for a drink just isn’t what a true Texas icehouse is about. They should be able to serve fast and be hospitable simultaneously, even on the busiest of days. Dance if ya want, enjoy the evening, bring your dog, have a drink (perhaps a Ranch Water), maybe grab a bite to eat. There’s always plenty of room to do what you enjoy, and what we enjoy is having a great time with friends, under big Texas live oak trees, with an ice cold Texas beer.”

Icehouses As Local Hubs

The icehouse’s classic function as a community gathering place hasn’t lessened with time. The heart-of-the-neighborhood nature of the icehouse dates back to the early years, when folks would head to the icehouse to grab ice and pick up some groceries, often staying awhile.

“West Alabama Ice House, in particular, is the oldest bar in Houston," says owner Markantonis. "It started as a place where people in the community would come to cool off in the afternoon before the days of air conditioning, while sipping on some beverages with their neighbors—they truly were your one-stop shop that had everything.”

Obviously, icehouse visitors don’t need giant blocks of ice for refrigeration purposes anymore, but they still love the warm, unpretentious vibe of these outdoor gathering places. The fact that icehouses are generally independently-owned also helps them directly contribute to their communities’ success. "Being a patron helps to keep dollars local and helps promote a sense of community,” explains chef and restaurateur Daniel Wolfe of City Cellars and Wolfe & Wine in Houston.

The Future of Texas Icehouses

Why should icehouses still be a thing in 2023? Our experts agreed largely on one core sentiment: "A Texas icehouse is just an extension of what has made Texas so popular in the first place. Live music, plenty of outdoor space to spread out, lots of great Texas grub, and—of course—cold Texas beer," says Brett Berry of Austin's Armadillo Den. The tradition continues.

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