The lights dangle down from the branches of the towering cypress trees, their reflections bouncing along the tops of the small ripples left in the wake of the river taxis slowly moving by. The River Walk still seems the same as it’s always been. The same types of tourists amble along the stone walkways, lost in the songs showered from restaurant speakers, sirens or the general hum of the city. The same bad bars are fooling the steady streams into ordering syrupy margaritas in oversized glasses. This is still the only side of San Antonio some will ever see. But there’s another one for more serious imbibers. Like me.
It has been a while since I ventured into the tourist side of downtown. In the days of more serious cocktail bars, I wondered what had become of the old staples, the places we would go after working long days and needing more than a beer to unwind. I decided to give downtown a try.
Swig Martini Bar
111 W Crockett, (210) 476-0005
It’s damn cold outside and Texas still doesn’t know how to properly heat a bar. I must provide my own heat apparently, so I order a Manhattan made with Woodford Reserve. It’s a hard drink to screw up. As long as the glass is full of some amount of whiskey and a little sweet vermouth, I’m good. Thankfully, the bartender knows how to make it smooth and somewhat proper. I sip it slow and peruse the menu, waiting for my friend to arrive. By the time she sits down next to me, I’m ready for another cocktail. While the “Deadwood” catches my eye (Jack Daniels, Amaretto, energy drink and cranberry juice), I settle on a rum Old Fashioned. It’s a just a tad too sweet but definitely drinkable. After that, we take a shot of some sort of banana concoction and head to the next spot.
The Worm Tequila & Mezcal Bar
123 Losoya, (210) 223-7266
We walk across the street and go down the steps to what once was The Landing. I have a lot of fond and not-so-fond memories of The Landing and am curious what, if anything, from that time remains. We enter from the hotel side. There is still a corner stage and balcony. The bar is longer and now on the opposite wall, and the men’s restroom is still awkwardly upstairs. We sit down and order drinks. I’m immediately attracted to the Buho, consisting of Hornitos Plata, Cointreau and topped with energy drink and grenadine. I know it’s a mistake to order, but I’m drawn to mistakes, especially when they are named after owls. With drinks in hand, we explore the changes. Outside, on the upper balcony, we watch the constant movement of the people strolling along the vein of the city.
Soho Wine & Martini Bar
214 W Crockett, (210) 444-1000
The center bar is gone, replaced by a more practical design with a proper liquor wall along the side. We sit and chat with the bartenders, reminiscing about the old days of leaving work and rushing over to get a decent cocktail. They still have that weird mix of classic cocktails and dessert-tinis. My companion wants something boozy with Maker’s Mark so I order us Manhattans. This one is definitely boozy, the sweet vermouth hiding way in the back. When I finally step outside, I consider the strange juxtaposition of the River Walk, the gorgeous and the ugly, the classy and the crass, and these bars that try to find their way between the two. The tourist traps aren’t going anywhere, but beyond them, if you look carefully, there is real beauty.