155 E Commerce
Oldest bar on the River Walk with well-done small plates of bar food and a substantial libations menu.
Fried pickles and chili salt fries if you’re looking for a nosh, shrimp poboy and jalapeno bean burger for heavier fare.
Appetizers and entrées $5-$10
Before I dined at the Esquire Tavern, people warned me about it. I was told that it’s haunted, dark, and a rough bar worthy of Road House. It’s definitely not a fighting bar anymore, but new owner Chris Hill has preserved the dark vibe. As the oldest bar on the River Walk, there’s a lot of history wrapped up in those shadows, and it reopened this year to much fanfare and mixed reviews. I headed downtown to see if this once rough-and-tumble bar could be a great restaurant, too.
The physical bar deserves mention. At upward of 100 feet, it’s been called the longest bar in San Antonio, and it probably is. Spanning the entire length of the establishment from Commerce Street to the river, it reflects the dim lighting from the Edison-style exposed light bulbs. I watched to see if a daring bartender would slide a glass the length of it, but no dice.
Rococo wallpaper and dark-leather booths evoke a 1930’s ambiance. Dead animals stare down from the walls, and magnifying glasses are strategically placed in front of light bulbs with extra-long filaments. A former cigarette machine won’t satisfy your nicotine cravings, but you can score a temporary tattoo or two. The mirrors are all artfully tarnished, as are the silver change dishes. And you can practically smell the cigar smoke and scotch emanating from the woodwork. It’s like an Old World bistro crossed with a laboratory and fortified with a dash of hunting lodge.
The food menu is one befitting a bar: small plates of fried pickles, chips, and assorted finger foods with burgers and salads. Almost everything you eat here is house-made, from the chips to the buns. The appetizers look run-of-the-mill, but each possesses a thoughtful twist. The French fries are dusted with chili salt and served with a cumin aioli. The onion dip is served with crispy waffled potato chips, sturdy enough to withstand multiple dips. The deviled eggs weren’t as evil as I’d hoped, but were still fresh and delightful. The fried pickles were one of the most pleasant surprises: The Esquire layers on the batter so each chip is a quarter-inch thick.
If you’re drunk, hungry, and expecting a full meal, make sure you order a few plates. The burgers and sandwiches are on the smaller side and don’t come with any sides — but are complimented by house-pickled carrots, cauliflower, and jalapenos. The sirloin burger was adequate, with an overall pleasing effect despite the overly salty meat. The short rib empanada comes with salsa verde, chimichurri, and sour cream. While the sauces are overpowering on their own, perfection is achieved by pairing them with a bite of empanada. Shrimp are butterflied and flattened to make the shrimp sandwich easier to eat, but the tangy dill tartar sauce makes the whole thing slippery. The best sandwich, by far, is the jalapeno bean burger. The beef patty is topped with ancho chile, refried beans, and roasted jalapenos — spicy but not burning — and jalapeno aioli keeps the whole burger from being too dry.
Of course, you can’t review a bar without getting into the drinks. The libation menu is one worthy of the oldest bar on the River Walk. Beer, wine, spirits, and cocktails create a menu that’s as thick as a book. Cocktails are organized by what kind of feeling you’re after: “light and bright,” “big and boozy,” “long and refreshing.” The friends-and-family cocktails are named for the Esquire’s chums. Beers are organized similarly, with a section just for oddities. Maybe they’re referring to the décor?
I ordered the Oaxaca Mule to see if I took to the combination of mescal, lime, and ginger beer. It’s a potent drink from the “long and refreshing section.” Not sure what’s long about it, but it’s refreshing in a knock-you-on-your-ass-and-pick-you-back-up kind of way. From the “light and bright” category, the Aviation is the perfect summer drink. Lemon and cherry flavors make it cheery, while the gin lulls you into a tipsy stupor. It’s like a nap in a hammock on a summer day.
If the décor gets too dark for you, sit outside on the patio a floor above the river and marvel at the tourists below searching for generic Tex-Mex and margaritas. If they’d venture up that metal staircase to the Esquire Tavern, they’d find all the San Antonio charm and history they need. •