While many may consider 23rd Street Station to be a gay piano bar, owner Todd MacKenzie sees it more as a safe space for people from all walks of life.
“I want everyone to feel welcomed, feel respected, feel appreciated, and feel safe when they step into the bar,” he says. “I don’t care who you are, what race you are, what religion you are, what you do for a living, how much money you have or don’t have. I want you to come in and escape the world.”
This Galveston bar, which features piano sing-alongs and other live entertainment, has been MacKenzie’s passion project for the last few years. He owns the bar with his lifelong partner, Tom, and has been interested in operating bars ever since he moved to the Island in 2003.
After opening several bars, including the popular Lucky Lounge, MacKenzie jumped at the chance to take over the 23rd Street venue more than four years ago. “Tom and I went over and looked at it,” he recalls. “While we loved the bar itself, we [wanted to add live] piano music. We are in our late 60s and we like that kind of entertainment, so we decided to turn it into a piano bar. In the last few years, we’ve made it into what it is today.”
MacKenzie also wanted to create a casual, easygoing mood for his guests by adding speakers and TV monitors to the outside patio.
“We cater to everybody because everyone likes good entertainment,” he says. “It’s live music, and 23rd Street has been really blessed in that regard. We probably have 30 to 50 different performers over 12 months. They are so talented, and we feel so grateful that they come to our bar. It’s a very intimate space to work. There’s probably about 75 or so seats in our main bar area. The performers truly love how intimate the bar feels.”
The bar doesn’t open its doors to just pianists, however. “We have a jazz trio, a violinist, we do dueling pianos, and we’ve had a saxophone,” MacKenzie notes. “We also have comedy nights when local comedians come in. It’s probably 90 percent piano music, but between all the other options there’s always something for everyone.”
And because music can bring people from all walks of life together, MacKenzie has made a conscious effort to create an inclusive environment that caters to groups beyond the gay community.
“I really didn’t want to label any bar I owned as a gay bar,” he says. “While it is certainly gay-friendly, everybody is welcomed. I want everyone to stop by and feel included—tourists, locals, anyone. To me, that’s what a bar is all about.”
After opening several bars on the Island, MacKenzie was taken aback by the camaraderie of the Galveston bar community.
“Because the Island is very small, everybody knows everybody,” he explains. “There are a lot of bars on the Island, and almost every bar owner knows every other bar owner. The community has been great. We really try to give back to the community all the time. We are very good sponsors of organizations such as Access Care of Coastal Texas. We do all kinds of fundraising.
“Both bars that we own cater to locals. While I love people from out of town, in order to survive on this Island you have to really be a part of the local community. That’s the great thing about Galveston businesses: each neighborhood on the Island has its own vibe.”
Going forward, MacKenzie plans to reopen Lucky Lounge near the Seawall later this summer. (He was forced to close the popular establishment after 17 years because he lost his lease.) While the new bar won’t offer piano music, it will provide patrons with the same welcoming atmosphere as 23rd Street.
“Any business that I own, I want it to be viewed as welcoming,” he says. “That’s what bars are all about, in my mind. There are so many bars on the Island that offer so many different types of atmosphere, so I want people who choose my businesses to feel that it was worth every penny. I hope they feel appreciated and remember the good time they had—and come back!”
For more on 23rd Street Station, go to 23rdstreetstation.com.
This article appears in the July 2022 edition of OutSmart magazine.