The country song they’ll eventually write about Donn’s Depot will have to include a verse or two about the popcorn machine. It’s the kind of beaten-up, industrial contraption with grease stains burned into the glass and an eternal layer of powdery, yellow dregs at the bottom that somehow keeps you coming back for more. It stands in a commanding central spot alongside the blazing “TouchTunes” jukebox and the rows of stainless-steel pull knobs on the cigarette machine. Donn Adelman, owner of the Depot—and its longest-running performer—has one simple rule about the popcorn: “We only make it once a day and when we’re out, we’re out.”
This pretty much sums up the spirit of Donn’s Depot—a place that’s delivered the same goods without any fancy extras since it opened in the ’70s. The idea of a dive-y piano bar with a railroad theme stopped making sense in modern Austin a long time ago, but everybody who comes here is just fine with that. The older crowd of regulars shows up early out of habit and the younger set trickles in later out of curiosity. On any given night, it doesn’t take long for a smartly dressed senior to tip his cowboy hat before asking a woman young enough to be his granddaughter for a dance. Soon enough, everybody in the place follows suit and the dance floor is packed.
“We’re not Sixth Street,” says Adelman, sitting at a beer-sticky table one recent afternoon. The Depot’s neon beer signs and lights are off right now, and a “Knight Rider” rerun plays full blast on the big-screen TV under the massive chandelier. The sun visiting through the windows shows every nick and scratch in the wood paneling while mismatched furniture languishes here and there, looking a bit exhausted from the weight of use and history. Adelman’s here to go over receipts from last night before his daily run to the bank—if there’s any actual cash to take, that is. “Credit cards,” he says, shaking his head.
Growing up in Austin, Adelman played accordion until he bought a piano for $75 at age 16. With a repertoire of country classics, lounge standards and ’50s rock ’n’ roll hits under his belt buckle, he performed at various clubs around town, including McNeil Depot Saloon, which opened in 1972 in the shell of a relocated train depot. The railcar for extra seating and the caboose that would become the beloved ladies restroom and powder room/conversation space originated down the line in San Antonio and were added a few years later. Adelman bought the place in 1978 and renamed it after himself—quitting his day job in the tire biz a year later. “I guess I’d always wanted to own a night club,” he says with a wry smile. “I don’t know why.”
In the ensuing years, the Depot has endured rent hikes and changing tastes as the surrounding neighborhood, like much of Austin, continues to be derailed by condos and growth. The years between 1986 and 1998 were especially lean, says Adelman, but he’s survived by not messing with the formula. He’s kept the drinks cheap and defiantly simple and the music good and reliable. With “If it ain’t broke, don’t break it” as his motto, he’s only made a few changes here and there, like a roof for the outdoor smoking lounge and a drink discount for all Austin restaurant and bar workers. Christmas has become a big deal at the Depot in recent years, and finds the place awash in lights and reasonably priced Yuletide cocktails. Nevertheless, the rent isn’t getting any cheaper. “You try to roll with the flow,” he says. “And sometimes, the flow is like the droughts in Austin…there ain’t no flow.”
Still, Adelman has held on longer than most of the old-guard institution owners in Austin, all while keeping some employees for as long as 25 years. And he’s proud of the history—he likes to tell the story about the time George Strait hopped on stage for a set when his piano player was holding his wedding reception at the Depot. A few years later, Strait recognized Adelman in the audience when they were both playing different gigs in Vegas.
Adelman still plays at the Depot at least once a week (“I’m not a great artist but I’ve been here the longest, so I get to play.”) and packs the other nights with familiar faces who, like him, are usually happy to play requests. Adelman himself even put out an album called “Requests” in 1987 that he sells at the bar when he remembers to burn a few copies off his computer. At the same time, he’s not shy about turning down newer music that, as he says, “passed me by.” “I get constant requests for Billy Joel and Elton John,” he says with another smile. “They don’t do my music and I don’t do theirs.”
By Steve Wilson • Photography by Nathan Beels
Visit donnsdepot.com or call 512-478-0336 for more information.