Boom Ups The Ante For Music (and Food) On Venerable St. Mary's Strip

The Spits (right) christened the new club’s mainstage donning Ronald Reagan masks. - LINDA ROMERO
Linda Romero
The Spits (right) christened the new club’s mainstage donning Ronald Reagan masks.

Go ahead and call it a comeback.

It remains to be seen how far the resurrection will go, but the venerable St. Mary's Strip is abuzz with new offerings — going way beyond the standard boozing and bar side flirtation fare.

The venue shuttered in December after 18 years in operation as the White Rabbit. It reopened last week as Paper Tiger, a rock 'n' roll nightclub with a clear vision of independent music and illustrious speakers.

The new venue, donning an orange-and-white façade, is but the latest addition to the historic nightlife area. It's actually the new crown jewel of a growing and beer-stinking collection of St. Mary's Strip gems. A revamped Limelight, the AMP Room, a new offering by Hi-Tones' Danny Delgado called Phantom Room and a medley of local restaurants will open in upcoming months.

To call it a revival of the Strip would be an insult to the rad work already at hand on SA's least touristy nightlife street. But quickly, all at once, San Antonio's best string of dives is becoming a place where formerly boarded-up joints now have new tenants and parking is a thing of the past. At 2410 North St. Mary's, Paper Tiger is the epicenter of the return of a vibrant mix of music and food choices on the Strip.

"The story is not one of strategy as much as me and Chad deciding to do more," said Charlie Biedenharn, who runs Empty Stomach restaurant group with Chad Carey. Their portfolio includes haute spots such as Bakery Lorraine, Hot Joy, Barbaro and The Monterey. For Paper Tiger, the duo teamed with musician Garrett Capps, Southwest School of Art professor Justin Boyd, booker Ryan Brummet and Austin's Transmission Events.

"We don't really sit around and stroke our beards and think about 'oh this would be a really strategic investment,'" said Carey. "When I opened The Monterey, I did it because I thought the vast majority of dining options were sort of lame and I wanted to do something different and interesting."

Oh yeah, and there's that thing about boosting the local music scene so people here don't feel they have to jump on I-35 North for an hour to catch good tunes.

"Acquiring the White Rabbit was sort of the same thing where me and Charlie and Justin Boyd were all fans of music, with disparate tastes," Carey noted. "Our opinion was, we got tired of going to Austin to see the bands we wanted to see."

Rabbit Gets Stripes

Paper Tiger’s new digs feature a papel picado banner. - LINDA ROMERO
Linda Romero
Paper Tiger’s new digs feature a papel picado banner.

It all began in August 2014, when White Rabbit owners Rhonda Moore and Richard Sciaraffa sold the venue to Empty Stomach.

"Richard and Ronda had run it for a long time and they were tired," said Carey. "I had made overtures in the past ... in this case, the timing was just right."

Shortly after the announcement, Jennifer Holt of promo company Twin Productions sued the venue, claiming she was owed a 25 percent cut from the Rabbit's sale. Incensed that they didn't hear of the sale until after the fact, Twin Productions and fellow bookers Scoremore Shows bailed on the venue, moving their Rabbit-scheduled gigs to The Korova and Alamo City Music Hall.

Sounds like the makings of a nasty and bitter fight, but for now at least, the Paper Tiger seems to have been able to stay above the fray. Despite maintaining the adjective-animal formula for the venue's name, Carey and Biedenharn are moving towards a mature and more critically hyped schedule of music, away from the teen-core and solid hip-hop of the former venue. To do so, they've brought in Austin's Transmission Entertainment, the purveyors of Fun Fun Fun Fest.

"We had never been sure if we could book San Antonio 'cause we didn't know what venue to work with, what the market was like or how big the scene was," said Graham Williams, founder and talent booker for Transmission. "This seemed like a great way to do it. We have people there in San Antonio fully committed to help grow what is happening down there. And we could work with them on that as opposed to being someone from another city trying to do something in a city where we don't live, which always felt a little egregious to us."

Founded in 2006, Transmission established a name in Austin as one of the smartest booking companies in town, with impeccable planning and giving the world a bold new invention in 2012 — the taco cannon, a Tex-Mex Gatling gun debuted at Fun Fun Fun.

"It's going to turn everything upside down," said Ryan Brummet of DIY bookers Mondo Nation, in charge of Paper Tiger's smaller tours and local shows. "It's hard to imagine the impact it will have until we actually see it, but there's never been a booking company like this in SA."

Already, the spring lineup has a consistency of quality that's foreign to a venue of its size in SA. Between its opening and May, Paper Tiger will host NYC downtown legends Swans, party rockers Turquoise Jeep, soul strutter Lee Fields and Beefheartian pop star Ariel Pink.

Brummet, along with Justin Boyd and Garrett Capps, will pitch in to book local shows and provide a tastemaker's ear for choosing larger acts. For fans of Mondo Nation, Brummet's mag and show-throwing project, there's no need to say goodbye.

"Mondo Nation will still exist," said Brummet. "It's still based on environment and guerilla style."

Paper Tiger opening salvo: Elias Ronnenfelt (left) howls over the audience at the club’s free three-day fest - LINDA ROMERO
Linda Romero
Paper Tiger opening salvo: Elias Ronnenfelt (left) howls over the audience at the club’s free three-day fest

Helpers Or Interlopers?

While excited to move forward, Carey and Biedenharn are careful not to step on the paws of the former White Rabbit, an institution of sorts on the Strip. With over 18 years in service, the venue has amassed such cultural weight that, perhaps not surprisingly, has put a bright spotlight on its new owners. They're already being dubbed as interlopers in some quarters.

"We're painfully aware of the perception that we're a bunch of hipster, cultural snob elitist motherfuckers," said Carey.

Painting over the Rabbit's rough likenesses of Iggy Pop and Frank Zappa, Paper Tiger went with a geometric white and orange pattern, obviously in deference to their animal of choice. To the right of the papel picado cat is the "C/S" brand, graffiti culture shorthand for "Con Safos," or with respect.

As another sign of respect, Paper Tiger made its three-day opening weekend "free as a gesture," according to Carey. In that late March fest, Iceage, Roky Erickson, The Spits and Ryan Hemsworth hit the main stage, while the recently reopened side stage featured SA acts like Bill Baird, Spokesmodel and Cannibal Bitch. Both stages sound great, with their JBL toys losing no fidelity.

More To Come

Elsewhere along the St. Mary's Strip, exciting new spots for music will be in operation in the next few months. Danny Delgado, of Hi-Tones and Faust fame, is opening up Phantom Room in April in the old Enchilada Warehouse/Web House/Los Frogs building at 2100 North St. Mary's.

"Phantom Room is looking a little more clubby, with more DJs," said Delgado. "The inside is old school theater-ish looking, we've knocked down several walls. We're doing photos of a lot of famous spots here in San Antonio that have been haunted, like the Dancing Devil on the West Side to La Llorona to the Donkey Lady. It has an eerie, old theater feel to it. Everything in there is going to be very old school vintage-y."

Like most actors on the Strip, Delgado is optimistic about the recent investments in the area. "It has a lot of history. For a while it started to diminish," he said. "The whole Strip is changing in a positive way. This resurgence is going to be good for everybody, including the neighborhood." 

New management at the long, shotgun-sprawling venue at 2718 North St. Mary's will keep the Limelight's name and neon sign. Deric Wynne, purveyor of 502 Bar on the North Side, plans to add the same speaker system to the Limelight that's made 502 a destination. After four years north of the airport, Wynne is excited to have a presence closer to downtown.

"It seems like people are getting into the city a bit more," Wynne added. "Actually going out and doing things and participating in this place ... San Antonio and Atlanta are the two most passed-over large markets in the whole country. That's a real bummer. We need to get a touring history with a lot of these groups, get 'em coming here from the time they're playing small clubs all the way up to amphitheaters. We need to establish that continuity. We need cool places that people dig."

Up, Down And Up Again

With all the new spots popping up, comparisons are being made to the Strip's heyday in the late '80s and early '90s, when MTV visited with its Day-Glo spring break show.

"There was a lot going on but it was a little more 6th Street-ish," said musician and Robot Monster co-owner Chris Smart. At the desk of his music gear store on the Strip, Smart recalled the street's history, when he played in a SA post-punk outfit called Lung Overcoat.

"A lot of bars, but mostly cover bands playing or Top 40," he said. "There was a lot going on, but it was a lot straighter, honestly. There was a lot more people down here. Halloween, they used to close off the street."

As the decibel levels steadily increased, so did tensions with the neighborhood. "The Strip was at an all-time high and it was starting to be a nuisance for the neighbors," real estate developer Don Thomas recalled. "People were parking deeper into side streets and not well lit, cars were getting broken into, petty crime."

Thomas recalled one evening in the early '90s as the tipping point that sent the area into decline. Thomas' friend Trey Waters and his wife were leaving the building that Candlelight now occupies. As Thomas went across the street, he saw a group of "five to seven" kids surround Waters and hit him and his wife.

"Me and the two other guys I was with ran across the street and ended up in the middle of a pretty big fight," said Thomas. "There was a lot of commotion so it attracted some people, a bartender nearby was trying to help ... I remember hearing the sound of a muted fire cracker. It didn't dawn on me that it was a gun."

The bullet entered Waters' heart, causing him to bleed out later on the operating table.

"It was overnight — people quit going there immediately," Thomas said.

"There was a time when people were scared to come down the Strip, 'cause it was rough and dangerous," noted Smart, of Robot Monster. "Which is hard to think of now. I've been playing here since the late 80s and it's always been pretty trashy. It's nice to see it get a little cleaner."

Far from overdeveloped, without a single chain, the Strip is now at an exciting crossroads. With grooming, it can maintain the image of the Paper Tiger — a little edge, but no real harm, without the bark of gentrification and the bite of violence.

Pieter Sypesteyn feels right at home living and working in the Tobin Hill neighborhood. - SARAH FLOOD-BAUMANN
Sarah Flood-Baumann
Pieter Sypesteyn feels right at home living and working in the Tobin Hill neighborhood.

New Culinary Options

Just as the music scene along St. Mary's is going through a tonal renaissance, so is the neighborhood's food and nightlife landscape.

The momentum picked up in the summer of 2013 as Delgado opened Faust Tavern and Casey Lange and James Moore opened the doors of TBA (formerly Salute), promising serious cocktails, fanciful infusions and upscale snacks within a neighborhood bar.

Delgado ditched the pizza-by-the slice-approach — "it might have been too soon" — and used its wee kitchen as an incubator of sorts for Drew Morros of Crossroads Kitchen (read more about Morros and her Southern fare on page 31).

"We met Drew during one of her pop-up dinners and figured the kitchen was the perfect place for her to do her thing," Delgado said.

Though Delgado and Morros plan to relocate to Southtown, the eatery has grown quite the following with late-night eaters and food industry members. Delgado and business partner Andrea Vince will stick with the Strip for their next venture, La Botanica, which pairs vegan eats by chef Rebel Mariposa with Vince's herb-filled cocktails. The restaurant will fill the empty space at 2909 N. St. Mary's this summer.

For Mariposa, a native of San Antonio and longtime Delgado buddy who had concentrated on a vegan catering business, the decision to jump on board with the new project was not an easy one. But it felt right.

"This is why I moved back to San Antonio," Mariposa said. "I wanted some of the development to be from some of us in different neighborhoods ... to keep San Anto in San Antonio."

The eatery will focus on regional fare with a focus on Tex-Mex and New Mexico cuisine, though diners can get a fried green tomato po'boy with their chile relleno.

La Botanica will follow Pieter Sypesteyn's The Cookhouse (720 E. Mistletoe) and Chris Cullum's Attagirl (119 Kings Court) as new eateries along the Strip. For Sypesteyn, the reason to move into the area was twofold: The Tobin Hill neighborhood reminded him of New Orleans and it was affordable.

"We were already invested in the neighborhood and its great feel," Sypesteyn said of he and wife Susan's purchase of a home in the area three years ago. The building, constructed in 1931 and the former home of Carmens De La Calle for 14 years, was the perfect size for the restaurant's concept and their vision of the eatery.

Like Mariposa, Sypesteyn also noted the area's booming growth.

"We saw it happening when they expanded the river into the museum and the Pearl," Sypesteyn said.

Feeding Off The Pearl

For Casey Lange, he's glad to see some of the Pearl's momentum expanding into the area he had hoped would turn into a walkable bar and restaurant scene 10 years ago when he opened Limelight. Like Delgado, he stressed community instead of competition.

"The new operators are bringing in some great ideas and are exactly what the Strip needs ... I believe the shared vision of a number of my fellow operators on the Strip is for St. Mary's to be a one-stop destination," Lange said via email. "You only have to park ... and then you can walk to see a show, have a delicious dinner, enjoy some great cocktails, play some pool, dance your ass off, watch a Spurs game or whatever you wish to do that night."

Lange's all-day breakfast concept, Hash, is still in the works — it's slated to open this summer. Though he was coy about other upcoming projects, Lange shared a bit of chisme: "I can say that in the next few years there are at least two more restaurant and bar projects that I am currently working on renovating ... on St Mary's and will be a partner in."

Cullum's Attagirl, first announced in September, is hoping to open its doors in the next few days. The tiny eatery, former home of Willard's Jamaican Bar-B-Que, will fire up tabletop fryers and Panini presses to serve small plates of fried chicken and grilled cheese.

Keep and eye out on Urbex, the newest project from Rudolfo Martinez of Tapa Tapa Truck and Concrete Jungle, inside the former filling station adjacent to Burger Boy. The tiny space will feature a full-service bar and serve a family-style tasting menu that blends technique with hyper-local foraged ingredients.

"St. Mary's has been hot since the '80s, and it's the third-easiest neighborhood to get into that we can still afford," Martinez said. "It's the natural choice."

With St. Mary's encroaching on the Pearl's collection of apex eateries, the area is quickly becoming a connected, pedestrian-friendly feast. From the heavenly Pearl to the hellaciously cheap Faust, it's a nightlife destination returning to its prime.

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