Though Tony’s Bar entered the downtown scene on Brooklyn Avenue in 1999, it represented what the viejitos call Old San Antonio.
Tony’s is a dimly-lit San Antonio-style cantina, where the beer—only beer—is cheap and the jukebox eclectic with a mix of Tejano, conjunto, country and oldies selections. Memories cover the walls in the form of Polaroids of loved ones, newspaper clippings and promotional posters of oldies bands, and Spurs memorabilia. It’s common for a family to celebrate a special occasion there, kids running around and everything. Much like Ram Ayala was to Taco Land, Tony’s Bar is also one of those unpretentious places that wouldn’t be the same, much less exist, without its proprietor, in this case, Tony Lopez, who entered the bar business later in life after a career as a real estate broker, among other jobs.
Perhaps the bar is most famously known for its Tower of the Americas replica, which was once toppled by a Spurs fan basking in the glow of the ’03 championship.
“Yeah, on the second championship, they torn down my tower, the little tower I have out there, celebrating, and knocked it down,” Tony, 79, said in his soft-spoken voice.
“So I told him, ‘You got the wrong tower, man,’ ” Tony said, suggesting rather irately that the dude climb the original.
Tony, who was born and raised in San Antonio, was in a nostalgic mood this week: On Friday, he’s closing his bar and retiring after 20 years—make that 20 Fiestas, four Spurs championships (he opened later in 1999), and thousands of micheladas (the house specialty)—of business.
“I don’t know what I want to do,” Tony said while sitting with friends at his reserved table next to the pool table. “I’ll do something. I’m not the (kind of) person who just stays home, you know. I’ll probably be involved in something else.” He paused as a joke entered his head. “I’m gonna open a cabaret, next door.”
Tony will now lease the bar to younger operators, who also want to convert the adjacent lot into a kind of food truck court, for five years, Tony said. The new tenants couldn’t be reached to talk about their plans. But Tony said the bar will be different—it will no longer be Tony’s, but a bar with a liquor license. No kids allowed.
“These guys are going to cater to millennials, people that don’t mind paying $4 or $5 for a beer,” Tony said, adding that the guys are young and energetic. “They’re going to go to town here.”
On Friday, Tony is planning a big party complete with his trademark grilling—chicken, sausage and ribs, which he busts out for special occasions—and the sax stylings of Frank Rodarte.
While the closing of Tony’s doesn’t mark the complete extinction of the old-fashioned bar in downtown S.A.—Gloria’s Lounge and Reyes Bar & Sons on North Flores Street are alive and kicking—they’re certainly an endangered species. These bars, and the people who own them, represent that classic S.A., blue-collar vibe downtown is quickly losing.
Tony bought the property at 206 Brooklyn Ave. when it was a Mexican restaurant, run by a German couple, called Hunter and Elsie’s Cafe.
He had visited his son, Anthony, in New York, and the two went to a dive bar Tony describes as strange and dimly-lit, but packed with customers. Inspired, he made an offer on the cafe soon after returning from his trip.
“It worked out. The people started to show up. At that time, everybody here, all the companies, had employees. Now the employees are hard to find with all this construction of the apartments, (or the employees have) been let go,” Tony said.
Tony reminisces about his regulars, the school bus drivers who’d come from the SAISD headquarters up Alamo Street, the nearby funeral employees, the folks from the Cavender Cadillac dealership on Broadway, and the San Antonio Express-News reporters and editors who’d assemble there after they were done filing their stories on election nights.
“The funeral directors would come and do their thing here … every Friday, I would have what they call a botana (a platter of food) for them. They would come over and drink whatever they wanted to, and (funeral home owner) Robert Tips would come over and just take care of it.”
“There was no way I could leave here until two in the morning, every Friday and Saturday,” Tony said.
Then, the development came to Broadway and at the Pearl just north—and continues to come. The employers he used to rely on have left, or plan to, as the area continues to give way to luxury apartments, and the symbiotic breweries, coffee shops and cocktail bars that follow.
“I still have some (customers), but not as before,” he said.
Still, Tony holds onto the memories. Fiesta week, and the Battle of Flowers and Fiesta Flambeau parades that march past a block over on Broadway, has always been huge for business.
“We would park cars here, put (up) food booths and just celebrate. People dancing around the pool table. It was just like a New Orleans-style Mardi Gras. Everybody just being silly and crazy.”
Over the years, he’s hosted bands such as the 5 Star Band, Rocky Hernandez and the OBG Band, and, most recently, an outfit of retired police officers who call themselves Just Cause Band. And then there were the Royal Jesters, his dear friends—in particular the deceased Oscar Lawson, a founding member whom Tony met while writing a music column for a West Side weekly during his years at Lanier High School in the ’50s.
“Take a look at the walls. The Royal Jesters were my friends. They never played here, but they were my dear friends. My compadres.”
And, of course, the Spurs championships.
“The championships brought us terrific business. Standing room only. From the roaster, (I’d) cook whatever: chickens and sausage and meatballs. People loved that.”
When I’d walk into Tony’s around happy hour, Tony was often either at his table snacking on a large red apple he’d carved with a serrated knife, or he was unseen, situating things in the back. He’d chat me up about only the most salient topics: the Spurs, Cowboys, national matters, or whatever KSAT was reporting on the one big screen TV against the left wall as you enter.
As I look back at Tony’s, I sometimes struggle to articulate what makes a place like this so special to those who maybe just moved here from another city. Tony’s isn’t simply a dive bar. There are plenty of those downtown, for example The Texan II, Texas T Pub and Cowabunga’s (the old Logan’s).
Like a good pair of jeans or a New Orleans muffaletta, Tony’s only gets better with age as it accumulates more customers and good times. It builds community.
I realize my somewhat cloying description could probably be applied to all bars. But, dammit, it’s hard not to be sentimental as San Antonio changes. I don’t know what I or anybody can do about it. I’ve talked to developers about pursuing tenants who can bring in true San Antonio establishments into their newly-built mixed-use developments—and they’re often clueless as to what I’m talking about.
There’s something to be said about the older, born-and-raised San Antonio bar or restaurant owner who’s run out of @#%$s to give; about being able to choose between Randy Garibay, Little Joe or Patsy Cline on the jukebox; beer for less than $3 and the inevitable Picoso’s purchase for a buck; and the small buffets of food served Crock Pot-style on special occasions that make these places authentically San Antonio.
At Tony’s, I’ve accumulated my own memories. In ’03, when Steve Kerr and Stephen Jackson rained 3s on the Dallas Mavericks, sending the Spurs to their second NBA Finals, I burst out the door and fist pumped next to the mini Tower of the Americas in my San Antonio Light, David Robinson: Rookie of the Year commemorative shirt. The many post-election drinking sessions when I worked at the Express-News. The time a colleague tackled me into a pool of stagnant water in the lot where the food trucks are going—in all fairness, I darted off and was acting a drunkin’ fool—after a night of tailgating at the Flambeau parade. And, most recently, excellent conversations with new friends.
Friday will offer Tony’s regulars and admirers one last time to make a memory and say goodbye. Tony’s ready for it.
“It’s been a very beautiful 20 years, you know? I had it made,” he said.