Thank God it's Phiday

Phi is: the 21st letter of the Greek alphabet, a voiceless bilabial fricative in the International Phonetic Alphabet, 500 or 500,000 in the system of Greek numerals, the golden ratio (1.61803399) in mathematics, art, and architecture, and the name of a bar in San Antonio’s oldest office building — but not for long.

On August 6, I received an email from Jessica Parker of Weber Shandwick (the world’s largest global public- relations firm). I’ve copied and pasted the first paragraph here:

Hi Bryan,

I hope this email finds you well. Hotel Indigo and Grammy® Nominated singer/songwriter Natasha Bedingfield is hosting a series of auditions to celebrate the people that bring local favorites to life. The launch of “Locals Know Best-Live” auditions will uncover neighborhood secrets everywhere we should know about. To kick off the search in San Antonio, we would like to have you be a judge on our panel to help determine the best contestant in your area.

On August 12, (after racing home to change clothes and flatiron my hair), I arrived at Hotel Indigo, prepared to channel Paula Abdul. My co-host turned out to not be Natasha, but equally cute radio DJ Jamie Martin of KJ 97.3 FM. Camera-ready and confused, we were shown to a folding card table in Hotel Indigo’s business center. No cameras, no lights, just a row of computers, a sofa, and a stack of questionnaires.

The first person to arrive was a gentleman whose “secret local” spot was under a tree facing the Alamo (hopefully no one will ever find him there).

The next three people to fill out surveys cited Hotel Indigo’s bar, Phi, as their “secret local” spot. The first two — who wrote “old enough” in the survey’s age slot — didn’t seem interested in the contest’s grand prize (a trip for two to New York City for the unveiling of a Hotel Indigo ad in People Magazine — starring the winner), but were very animated about changing Phi’s name to “Gibbs” in honor of the historic building that houses it. “If they change the name to 1909 `the year the Gibbs Building was built` like they’re threatening to, people will look for 1909 North Alamo. Everyone knows this as the Gibbs Building,” one of them said. “Oh, and the lighting,” she went on, “they have got to do something about the lighting in there. It feels like you’re in a dentist’s office.”

During a break from “judging,” I went in search of Phi. At the bar, the silver-haired ladies were sipping wine and doing their best to ignore the unflattering lighting. “I’ll have what they’re having,” I said to the bartender. “Three dollars,” he said. The place was buzzing with a happy-hour crowd of professional types. Several people wore nametags from the Chamber of Commerce. The décor is fairly minimal with cheerful pops of color. I would’ve stuck around, but I was still on the clock.

Back in the business center, Jamie (who had also broken down and ordered a glass of wine) and I “interviewed” a few more people. “Secret local” spots ranged from Formosa Garden to the Cove and “all of South Alamo Street.”

We picked our top three locals (I can’t tell you who, it’s a “secret”) and handed their surveys to Holly, the general manager. Walking downstairs to the restroom, I passed a hotel employee who had just given a tour to some people who wanted to see the inside of the Gibbs Building again. “Isn’t that neat that you got to see where your old dentist’s office was?” he asked one.

In hopes of finding some of the colorful Phi fans I’d met, I returned, but found a completely different assortment of folks drinking draft beers.

By now, Matt the bartender knew what I was up to and gave me a quick rundown on what the near future holds for Phi. It is changing its name to 1909 (sorry, ladies) in mid-September. New drinks are being added, including a Ginger Pear Martini crafted by Michael Marotta, an ex-chemist who’s now a bartender at Phi. His concoction won a contest sponsored by Prairie Vodka (an organic, gluten-free, kosher vodka) and will be served at all Hotel Indigo bars from October to December.

Another interesting bit of trivia I learned on my second visit: Phi sits on the original Alamo compound and is haunted by a ghost.

“Yes, there’s a ghost,” food and beverage manager Cruz Rodriguez confirmed. “We even named a drink after him.” (The Fernando: Cîroc Red Berry Vodka, Belvedere Orange Vodka, lime juice, and sweet and sour, served as a chilled shot, $8). “We’ve also switched our coffee from Starbucks to What’s Brewing `dba San Antonio Coffee Roasters`,” he added, “to serve the locals.”

Locals know best. •

(soon to be 1909, in the Hotel Indigo at the Alamo)
105 N. Alamo,
(210) 933-2000

Vibe: Old meets new with a charming mix of tourists and locals.

Best use: Happy hour (4-8 p.m. daily) on the grounds of the Alamo. Michael Marotta’s award-winning Ginger Pear Martini debuts at Hotel Indigo’s Prairie Vodka party on September 30, from 5-7 p.m.

Prices: Well drinks: $5; domestic drafts: $4; premium drafts: $5; domestic bottles: $4; premium bottles: $4.50

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