Victory Grill Historical Marker
Opened in 1945 by Johnny Holmes, Victory Grill was once the center of the blues and R&B scene in Austin. The grill was named after V-J (Victory over Japan) Day to celebrate the war that ended World War II. Two years after purchasing a little ice house, Holmes opened a stage behind his restaurant and established a family-friendly music venue for the community of East Austin. Here, legendary bluesmen such as B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Gatemouth Brown, and T-Bone Walker played their first sets, and nationally renowned performers like James Brown, Chuck Berry, and Janis Joplin graced the stage. After a fire closed down the establishment in 1988, community efforts led to its reopening in 1996. In 2019, it became the home of The Rolling Rooster, a soul food franchise that plans to continue the Victory Grill’s tradition of hosting live blues and R&B music. Today the restaurant offers classic Southern comfort food, including fried chicken, mac and cheese, and collard greens. You can still hear the music from the former Victory Grill, which continues to host live performances showcasing the best of Austin's vibrant music scene.
Musicians came together for a reunion concert at Victory Grill in 1987
The Victory Grill opened at this location in 1947
This mural was painted by the artist collective Trust Your Struggle in 2008
The restaurant served soul food, while the adjoining Kovac Theater hosted live music
Victory Grill was a stop along the famous Chitlin' Circuit from the 1940s through the 1960s
The establishment served African-American residents in East Austin, as well as soldiers stationed nearby
Johnny Holmes opened the grill and was responsible for booking the musical acts
Eva Lindsey helped bring back the Victory Grill in the 1990s after the 1988 fire
Backstory and Context
East Austin was a historically diverse section of the city; in the 1800s German and Italian immigrants first settled on the dirt road that ran alongside the Capitol, later becoming East 11th street. Eventually former slaves began settling there in the late 19th century and establishing Freedman colonies. When the Master Plan of 1928 was enacted, it forced the relocation of many African Citizens to the East of I-35. Black citizens were refused access to public utilities like water and electricity unless they moved East of I-35, resulting in a very split and segregated Austin community. By 1940, East Austin was almost exclusively occupied by black citizens. Despite the ensuing problems, the area developed a strong sense of community and cohesion. In 1945, a young man named Johnny Holmes joined the many African-American business owners in the neighborhood.
Johnny Holmes was born in Waco in 1917, but in the late 1930s, he moved to East Austin to attend Samuel-Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson University). In 1945, Holmes converted a tiny ice house into two table hamburger joint to make a place where the community could gather. The name, Victory Grill, was chosen to appeal to African American soldiers returning from WWII. Two years later, having outgrown this small space, Holmes opened up the field in the back of the house and added a stage and tables. In addition to serving a variety of soul food, Holmes wanted his new establishment to be an entertainment venue for the local community, college students, and Black soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Hood and Fort Swift.
To this end, Holmes added a patio in 1948 that included a bar and a stage, and the new space was fully enclosed three years later. He dubbed this section Kovac Theater (also known as Kovac Lounge), and began booking blues and R&B acts to perform there. After a stint in West Texas as a music promoter, Holmes returned to Austin with even more connections in the music business. In addition to local acts and students from the nearby colleges, blues singers like B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland got their start at the Victory Grill. Other legendary acts who graced the Kovac Theater stage include James Brown, Chuck Berry, and Janis Joplin.4
The Victory Grill’s popularity began to decline in the late 1960s and early 1970s for a number of reasons. Desegregation caused many African-Americans to move away from East Austin, breaking up some of the neighborhood’s cultural cohesion.5 Also, many Black musicians, formerly confined to the East Side, started performing in other parts of Austin where the pay was better. Additionally, musical tastes in Austin began shifting away from the blues and towards rock and roll, outlaw country, and disco. Holmes was forced to close down the Kovac Theater in 1973, though the Victory Grill restaurant remained open, on and off, for the next 15 years.
In 1988, a fire from an adjacent building spread to the Victory Grill, damaging the west wall and destroying the roof. Fortunately, the Kovac Theater was sealed off and only damaged from the smoke.6 Following this disaster, Holmes was forced to close the Victory Grill. After a series of fundraising efforts, including support from Clifford Antone and R.V. Adams, the Victory Grill was finally able to reopen under the leadership of Eva Lindsey. For the next two decades, the historic establishment resumed its live shows, expanding beyond music to include poetry readings, theater pieces, and children’s performances.
Unfortunately, Johnny Holmes passed away in 2001 at the age of 84. In 2008, a touring artistic collective called Trust Your Struggle painted a mural on the building’s west wall. The mural depicts Victory Grill founder Johnny Holmes, along with local singer Lavelle White and pianist Roosevelt “Grey Ghost” Williams, both of whom performed at the Victory Grill during its prime.7
1. Milam, Whitney. “Victory Grill”, Texas State Historical Association. May 29th 2013. Accessed May 6th 2020. https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/xdv02.
2. Erin Russell, Nadia Chadhury. “Historic Victory Grill is Turning into a Chicken and Waffle Joint,” Eater Austin. August 20th 2019. Accessed May 6th 2020. https://austin.eater.com/2019/8/20/16997416/victory-grill-club-the-rolling-rooster-open-second-restaurant.
3. Fawcett, Thomas . “Victory Grill: Makeover Edition” , The Austin Chronicle. August 12th 2008. Accessed May 7th 2020. https://www.austinchronicle.com/daily/music/2008-08-12/660196/.
4. Yu, Richard K. . “Chitlin' Circuit: Blues Culture and American Culture” , Medium. April 2nd 2018. Accessed May 7th 2020. https://medium.com/@richardkyu/chitlin-circuit-blues-culture-and-american-culture-785c913d5add.
5. “The Historic Victory Grill / Historic Premier Blues Club” , East End Cultural Heritage District. Accessed May 7th 2020. http://www.eastendculturaldistrict.org/cms/culture-art-music/venues/historic-victory-grill-historic-premier-blues-club.
6. Zehr, Dan. “Austin American-Statesman”, Austin American Statesman . Accessed May 7th 2020. https://projects.statesman.com/news/economic-mobility/.
7. Leffler, David. “The Victory Grill’s Revival - Austin Monthly Magazine.” Austin Monthly Magazine, https://www.facebook.com/AustinMonthly, 30 July 2020, https://www.austinmonthly.com/the-evolution-of-victory-grill/.
Mills, Frank. “Remembering: Johnny Holmes and the Historic Victory Grill.” CultureMap Austin, October 7, 2022. https://austin.culturemap.com/news/city-life/09-05-11-11-48-johnny-holmes-and-the-victory-grill.