Quirkish Delights: 9 Distinctive Dining Spots in San Antonio
The building christened the Liberty Schooner Saloon was erected with perfectly squared corners and supports in 1890 by Pearl Brewery’s brewmaster, Fritz Boehler. In 1921, a monster flood swept through San Antonio, carrying silt away from the Liberty’s supporting posts and beams. Some say the water in the bar rose to seven feet. When the waters drained away, the building was left with a decided tilt.
The Liberty’s current owner, Dwight Hobart, is an Amarillo native who reminds me of Billy Bob Thornton. He graduated from Boston University with a diploma in Russian language and literature (pretty quirky for a restaurant operator in San Antonio), then became a freelance photographer and an accomplished cook.
Dwight had the foundation fixed and the structure strengthened in 2003. Workers crawled under the first floor and scooped out holes 10 feet deep, then poured concrete for a permanent foundation. The tilt, however, remained. So you’re plenty safe here, though the molding on the wall behind you or your companion still looks cockeyed.
The menu, with 80 or more choices, includes such temptations as wild boar sausage, peppered tenderloin, homemade fettuccine with sautéed New England green mussels, smoked salmon & queso chilango, and Port Aransas crab cakes. Then there are all-time favorites like pot roast, squash soup, chicken salad, and cheese sandwich. The wine list is among the best in town. All breads, pies, cakes, and sauces taste homemade.
If you’re alone or with a pal, you might want to sit at the bar, polished by thousands of elbows since 1890. The bartenders can make fine conversation—two have master’s degrees in art and history, and another is heading for a Ph.D. All make A-plus libations.
A lively mix of locals and visitors has been coming back for decades. At a party a while back, a regular removed his artificial leg, poured his drink into the hole, and raised a toast with his prosthesis. Another time, a nun, urged by her companions to sing a benediction as they prepared to leave, stood and inspired the entire room with three exhilarating verses of “Climb Every Mountain.” So go the endless stories.
The Liberty Bar is at 328 E. Josephine St. Hours: Mon-Thu 11:30-10:30, bar to midnight, Fri-Sat 11:30-midnight (bar to 1:30 a.m.), Sun 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Call 210/227-1187.
Carmen’s de la Calle Cafe
Fun and feisty!” is how manager Paula Sullivan sees the spirit of her place and wants her customers to feel while they’re here, when they leave, and when they come back.
“I named my restaurant for the fascinating woman in Bizet’s opera,” Paula says. Carmen’s, which opened five years ago in a modest house, has become a must-go for in-the-know couples and singles.
Open three nights a week—one for a fiery Flamenco guitar and a flamboyant dancer on the up-close stage; one for classic jazz; and one for exciting “world music.” Does your heart, or do your feet, heat to a beat?
When the incomparable jazz trumpeter and band leader Wynton Marsalis comes to town for a big gig, he often makes time for a drop-in at Carmen’s to play music and enjoy a meal.
Paula prepares 12 to 18 kinds of tapas for customers to munch on during the action. You might nibble on the grilled Moroccan sausage with figs in an intense tomato sauce, or the steaming paella teeming with seafood. Perhaps you’d prefer the chicken and sausage, or the Israeli couscous with flavorful, grilled vegetables. Enjoy a sampler platter first, then order another platter of the ones you like best.
Carmen’s de la Calle Café is at 720 E. Mistle-toe, near the intersection of US 281 and N. St. Mary’s. Hours: Thu-Sat 6 p.m.-midnight. Call 210/737-8272.
There’s something in the air—or the sauce—and in the entire kitchen at El Mirador that appeals to artists, writers, architects, professors, politicians, lawyers, nurses, business leaders, at least one psychiatrist, and other citizens, who gather regularly to eat and talk, drink and talk, think and talk, moan and talk, laugh and talk. It gets noisy at times.
All pay homage to Doña María Treviño, now 95, her face still smooth-skinned and smiling when she’s at her table with friends. She started the restaurant more than 35 years ago.
The food gets high marks from critics at local, regional, and national publications. Among notable dishes are the Saturday-only soups (azteca, xóchitl, tarasca), lobster tacos, arracheras (marinated and grilled beef skirt), and “chamades”—enchiladas made with potatoes flavored with roasted garlic and chipotle, and presented with achiote-citrus sauce and a crunchy Chapultepec salad.
The menu features many family and Old Mexico recipes. At least two members of the Treviño family are always present, says Dr. Julián Treviño. “We feel that every customer is like a guest in our home.”
El Mirador is at 722 S. St. Mary’s. Hours: Sun 9:30 a.m.–2 p.m., Mon 6:30 a.m.-3 p.m., Tue-Thu 6:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri-Sat 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Call 210/225-9444.
Without a crumb of doubt, Gini’s tops my lifetime list of restaurants—North, East, South, and West—serving so-called “health foods.” Gini’s ratchets that term way up to “wholesome, healthy home-cooking.” The comfortable atmosphere here reminds you of your high-class aunt’s parlor or dining room.
As for the food: Yah ho! In her 37 years of creating delicious meals for customers, owner Gini Laumer has hit new highs for her breakfast, lunch, dinner, and specialty dishes. I have never liked liver and onions much, but I do l-u-u-v it at Gini’s. Every dish I’ve tried, from ginger pancakes to mom’s best-in-town meat loaf, from a fantastic cranberry orange walnut pie conceived by Gini herself to a sackful of fresh-baked cookies, has been a big winner. Yep, and she offers healthy Mexican dishes, too.
It’s more than quirky, and a treat to boot, to have an outstanding restaurant devoted to healthful foods thriving in a city that has sometimes embraced fat, salt, and cholesterol. Pass the liver and onions, please!
Gini’s is at 7075 San Pedro Ave. Hours: Mon-Fri 6:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat 7:30 a.m.–9 p.m., Sun 9 a.m.–2 p.m. Formal English Afternoon Tea by reservation. Annual British Poetry Festival and Tea Party to benefit outspoken poets. Call 210/342-2768.
Mr. & Mrs. G's
At mealtimes on workdays on San Antonio’s East Side, a line of people at Mr. & Mrs. G’s stretches from the parking lot to the steam table inside. Men in dusty jeans arriving from nearby construction jobs stand elbow to elbow with folks in dark suits and dress shirts, medical garb, or shorts and T-shirts. Some are talking, most seem to be thinking. They do have decisions to make.
Will it be steak smothered with gravy? Chicken smothered with gravy? Pork chop smothered with gravy? Dirty rice? Blackeyed peas? Ham hocks? Candied yams? Peach cobbler? Banana pudding? Buttermilk pie? Coffee, tea, or Kool-Aid?
This down-home and delicious Southern fare helps explain the appeal of Mr. & Mrs. G’s. For quirkiness, there’s the final message on the menu: BEST VALUE IN TOWN! NOT FROZEN! OUR FOODS AND PASTRIES PREPARED DAILY!
That promise, BEST VALUE IN TOWN, proves as real as smothered pork chops with gravy.
Mr. & Mrs. G’s is at 2222 South W.W. White Rd. Hours: Mon-Fri 11-6 Call 210/359-0002.
The Barn Door
Ask almost any seasoned San Antonian where to find a super steak, and maybe nine out of 10 will say, “The Barn Door. They’ll cut you any kind of steak you want, any size, and grill it to any pinkness you want, right before your eyes and nose. And there’s all that history to look at.”
“All that history” means walls full of relics of life-on-the-range in olden times—saddles, harnesses, horseshoes, photographs, guns, even a church pew and five wooden Indians. The place could be listed as a museum, except that it smells wonderful.
Smack-dab in the middle of the restaurant sits a marvel of a meat market. Beef, pork, fish, fowl, game, rack of New Zealand lamb? You name it, tell the butcher how you want it cut, and you can see it being cooked for your meal or wrapped to take home. We’re talking filets, T-bones, rib eyes, strips, porterhouses, even chateaubriand for two.
The customers’ favorite? “Eight-ounce filets,” says Steve Straus, a member of the family that owns the Barn Door. “But a lot of folks want six- or 12-ounce filets. We’ll make you happy.”
But meat isn’t the only food group at the Barn Door, which is now in its 54th year. It offers one of South Texas’ best and largest menus—128 items at last look, from fried jalapeños stuffed with cheddar cheese to seafoods, soups, and vegetables, plus hot pecan pie. All prepared with excellence.
The Barn Door is at 8400 N. New Braunfels Ave. Lunch hours: Mon-Fri 11-2. Dinner hours: Mon-Thu 5-10, Fri-Sat 5-10:30, Sun 4-9. Call 210/824-0116. Another location is at 10619 Westover Hills Blvd; 210/509-0597.
De Wese's Tip Top Cafe
Pappy” and Winnie De Wese opened the doors of their Tip Top Cafe in 1938, during the Great Depression. It’s been a De Wese family enterprise ever since, with generations of their offspring and kin greeting, seating, and serving roughly 4 million customers, who leave contentedly patting their stomachs. Today, manager Linda De Wese—whose buoyant personality and looks remind me of 1940s movie star Joan Blondell—says the “extended family” includes all regular customers, a remarkably loyal and dedicated staff, and a host of local dignitaries.
There’s Tim Duncan, for example. The All-Time Great pro-basketball star recently sat on a stool at the Tip Top counter to be photographed for a national magazine ad. After it ran in Playboy magazine, with smiling waitresses appearing in the background, those ladies began claiming to be Playboy girls. Natch!
Through the decades, the Tip Top has prospered by serving heaps of stick-to-your-ribs “comfort foods.” Longtime head cook Troy Wells and his assistants are masters of an 85-item menu, starring crunchy-cracklin’ jumbo onion rings, chicken-fried steak, fried chicken, chocolate and banana ice box pies, and trimmings galore.
It’s a particular pleasure being part of the Tip Top crowd on Sunday noons after church: families at the tables in the 100-seat dining room enjoying their favorite fare and each other’s conversation—without music to interfere. It’s an American classic of its kind.
De Wese’s Tip Top Cafe is at 2814 Fredericks-burg Rd. Hours: Tue-Thu 11-8, Fri-Sat 11-9, Sun 11-7. Call 210/732-0191; www.tiptopcafe.com.
Only a few steps from the River Walk, this uptown legend harks back to the early 1900s in Beeville, where Papa Fritz ran a saloon. He moved his family and saloon to San Antonio in 1914, and in 1942 to the present location. The restaurant has now passed to another German family, but the fine old name remains.
On a chilly day in winter, nothing beats a bowl of split pea soup at Schilo’s (pronounced SHE-lows). You can get it muscled up with chunks of knockwurst or franks, but the soup alone will warm your innards and help your deep-breathing exercise by the sighs you’ll exhale.
On a blistering summer afternoon, nothing beats a cold, frothy beer in the shady cool inside Schilo’s. Your eyes appreciate the old-fashioned tile floor and the delicatessen cooler filled with rows of sausages, cheeses, salads, and pies. They all blend into a comfortable scene.
“That’s the word,” says general manager Debbie Hahn. “Here, it’s all about German food and comfort.”
Occasionally, if your waitress is a veteran server, she might fuss at you if, in her judgment, you’ve ordered the wrong thing. Such care happens less often in the world nowadays.
You can’t go wrong, though, if you order a Reuben sandwich, thickly packed with corned beef, sauerkraut, and Swiss cheese on rye. Ask for a small plate of horseradish cheddar. The chunk of cheese goes well with bread or crackers. Both mood and food at Schilo’s—from potato pancakes at breakfast to Jaeger Schnitzel at dinner—reflect not merely oomph, but Teutonic OOMPAH!
Schilo’s is at 424 E. Commerce. Hours: Mon-Sat 7 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Call 210/223-6692.
Yep, it’s a paradox. As the King of Siam sings in The King and I, “Is a puzzlement.” Here you have the funkiest café on this prestigious and thoughtful list, maybe the funkiest in the whole city or even in America, and yet—get this—it represents tried-and-true FAMILY VALUES as if it coined the term. Huh?
Young whippersnappers make up a major part of The Cove’s patrons. They give it two thumbs up for its funky façade, “cool” foods, and hot guitars on most weekends. But hold tight: Not only is The Cove a funky restaurant, but it’s also a self-service laundry and carwash.
You can do a family washing here (34 washers, 30 dryers), soap down and clean up the ol’ family van (four self-serve bays) quaff a bock with a buddy in the bar, shoot pool, toss some hoops, even take out your frustrations on video games in the arcade. You can turn your kids loose in the playground and watch ’em while you spread a table for the family picnic. Wow, dude!
Sam and Lisa Asvestas put it all together about five years ago to serve the needs of a diverse neighborhood. “I’ve even pushed a laundry cart around for a judge,” Sam allows.
Lisa, who does the cooking, offers “signature dishes” on the tasty 80-item menu, such as fish tacos and the bella burger. The latter packs grilled portobello mushrooms, red onions, herbed mayo, and goat cheese into a wheat bun toasted with olive oil.
Wow, dude! Is a puzzlement! But a delicious one!
The Cove is at 606 W. Cypress. Hours: Mon 11 a.m. –3 p.m., Tue-Thu 11-11, Fri 11 a.m.-midnight, Sat 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Call 210/227-COVE (2683).
From the February 2006 issue.