Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A wood framed building that looks like it might fall down.

Just about two weeks ago, I ate a last and final lunch at an iconic San Antonio structure. The Liberty Bar was built haphazardly in 1890, and survived a serious flood in 1921 that warped the wood to a degree that means slanting walls and severely sloped floors. Think fun house, but with really delicious food. The building has served all sorts of purposes, from dry goods store to watering hole to chicken shack, and rumor has it that the place even served as a brothel for a bit, although that is unconfirmed (but the building certainly looks the part, with the red lights and all). In 1985 it open as the Liberty Bar Restaurant, and in about 2001 or 2002 I finally discovered the place.

The physical quirks of the building have long been complimented by a quirky style of service and a simple but absolutely delicious menu. And so the Liberty Bar sat as a San Antonio institution all its own for over 20 years. It was one of the only places in the sleepy, not-very-cosmopolitan Alamo City that kept the kitchen open until 11 p.m. on weekends, which meant its late night dining attracted the artist and performers and generally exciting population of the city as its clientele. And the Liberty Bar was blissfully close to my home, my place of work, and my favorite San Antonio neighborhoods.

For me personally, it is a special restaurant. Sam and I had our first official date at the Liberty Bar. I don't remember much of the evening, but I know we sat at table 17 or 18 and we ordered the Geranium Cream for dessert. This is where my parents hosted my post-college graduation lunch with friends and their families. In college, my roommate Elizabeth and I would occasionally buy whole pounds of coffee from the Liberty Bar's stash, because they have a special roast that is still better than any coffee I have tasted. We would sometimes also buy full loaves of their house made bread for our dorm room. I also know that this is the first place I ever had Goat Cheese with Chili Morita, which is so delicious it will knock your socks off. I have had countless business lunches and personal lunches and late night dinners and drinks in the joint.

I was never quite a "regular" as some were, but I did value every meal I at at the Liberty Bar. I cannot claim to be particularly important or notable or influential in the San Antonio community, but I always knew I was surrounded by this crowd of people when I ate there, and I respected that. The Liberty Bar and its regular clientele ran the place with a cadence and culture all its own. In fact, the Liberty Bar is one of the only places in the world where the terrible service is remarkably endearing. In fact it almost makes the experience. And as long as you go in respecting the fact that you might be ignored, hurried, and just plain visually critiqued as you order, its all good.

The good news is that the Liberty Bar - as a concept and a menu and a group of employees - is not over. Only the building has come to the end of its chapter due to leasing issue (as a result of gentrification of the small area where that leaning wood framed building resides). Everything else has moved to another historic building in town a few minutes father south, into an old convent, and should reopen in June. And if the Liberty Bar tradition is any indication of what to expect, my favorite
horses neck cocktail, goat cheese with chile morita appetizer, lamb burger with fried potatoes main course, and coconut custard for dessert will survive the change of local and flourish in its new home. As the new Liberty Bar is touting, "It's never too late to join a convent" and I look forward to joining them there in a few weeks.

A brief history of The Liberty Bar, as borrowed from tpr.org:
"Over 100 years old & looks every minute of it”

The Liberty Bar began in 1890 when the German immigrant brew master. Fritz Boehler bought a lot in the city block across the street from the San Antonio Brewing Association (later Pearl Beer Brewery), where he worked. Fritz, a canny Alsatian peasant, scraped up enough salvaged lumber from construction sites in the rapidly expanding neighborhood to slap together a crudely constructed two-story balloon frame building. Boehler built the upstairs to be a rooming house but used it for his family’s residence until his death in 1931. (Today it functions as office space, guest room and home to the Oriental Rug Works.) Downstairs, where the dining room is today, he operated Fritz Boehler & Son, Simple & Fancy Groceries. He installed a mahogany Brunswick-Bake-Collender bar on the other side of the wall and called that that space the Liberty Schooner Saloon.

Structural problems plagued the place from the get-go. Cobbled together quickly by unskilled labor out of cast-off materials, the building appears to have been designed and constructed by children whose milk was laced with laudanum. (And who immediately changed their minds and removed the entire store front so they could add ten feet.) The flood of 1921 left water standing above the mahogany bar and a thick layer of river bottom silt around the cedar posts and oak sills of the foundation. The weight of the floodwater warped the walls and, over time, some of cedar foundation posts rotted, giving way, warping the floor. By this time, Grandma Boehler had fallen down the stairs, broken her neck and died, leaving Fritz a corner room recluse in his daughter Minnie’s care. After his death the daughter rented out the building. There was no significant repair or maintenance for over fifty years. Time went by and the building did a slow hula as in laws took over. A family cousin encouraged the troops in rented rooms upstairs while black waiters carried fried chicken and tamales out to cars parked in the hackberry shade. Old rodeo clowns and Saturday morning matinee cowboys drank beer, smoked cigars and cracked jokes . They grew old and die but to a few mossbacks from the brewery and the perennial under-age adolescent.

Today it functions as office space, guest room and home to the Oriental Rug Works.

In January 1984, Dwight Hobart took the lease on the skewed structure now to be known as the Liberty Bar. After removal of many layers of additions and restoration of what original parts could be located, the renewed restaurant and bar actually opened for business under Drew Allen’s management in July 1985 and continued that way until his death in 1995 when Oscar Trejo, took over supervision of the kitchen.

Today as always Liberty Bar focuses on serious food. All our dishes are made on the premises and we bake all our desserts and breads. The crowd is well mixed and as a reviewer once said, “the floors are uneven and so is the service.”


Myra said...

Reminds me of Broadway Bar in Nordheim, the next town over. It too was brought from Germany in pieces, the wavy floors, etc. But when we have gone and knew people there, it is a fun place to be.

Liz said...

you just made me wish i lived in SA for the lamburger and that ethiopian coffee. Those were the days. Now come out and visit! :)