Give us Liberty

Just north of downtown, the old two-story building that houses the Liberty Bar still tilts sharply to one side, a reasuring signpost for regulars, and an endless source of commentary for newcomers.

“When you come inside, it seems to lean to both the east and the west,” says chief cook Oscar Trejo. “It’s just weird.”

While the eye-catching edifice isn’t going anywhere any time soon, Liberty Bar, the beloved drinking and eating establishment, is scheduled to pick up and move to another historic building, on Alamo Street, next year, a change which may strike regulars as its own kind of worrisome tilt.

The new location, a handsome structure that was once St. Scholastica convent, is presently undergoing renovation. Proprietor Dwight Hobart offers that the convent has the advantage of quite a bit more room, with a basement and two upper floors. The uppermost floor, not to worry, will house a reincarnation of the Liberty Bar. But the building will further boast three kitchens, one for every floor, a basement wine cellar, and a new dining venue, to be called St. Scholastica Restaurant, on the ground floor. The new location will also offer plenty of room for expanded catering, banquets, special parties, and other functions not possible at the Josephine Street digs.

It’s a Friday. Dwight Hobart and I sit at a table at the back of the bar while late lunch diners sample Liberty’s signature homemade bread, finish their entrées, or linger over iced tea or beers.

Hobart wears a shock of straight, graying hair that falls over his forehead, and a calm, serious demeanor as he looks out from behind his round-framed glasses. He took the lease to the current Liberty Bar property, at 328 E. Josephine St., in 1984, along with business partner Drew Allen, who died in 1995.

After his lunch business slows, Trejo comes to join our table. In any other restaurant someone with his responsibilities would call himself the chef, but Trejo doesn’t consider himself such. A quiet, friendly man, Trejo came to San Antonio from Mexico City. He was hired as a carpenter and painter in 1984, and helped out with the repairs after Hobart and Allen took over. A year or so later, Trejo moved into the kitchen.

“I think Drew would be pleased and amazed at how Oscar has taken it on,” Hobart says.

Trejo is not intimidated by the prospect of going from one smallish kitchen in the current location to another with three kitchens. “I can’t wait,” he says.

Today, there is a rumor Hobart is happy to put to rest. The current building isn’t being abandoned because it’s about to stop leaning and actually fall down. Hobart says he has put plenty of cash into the foundation. The structure is off-kilter, to be sure, but is stable. Over the years Hobart has updated the wiring and refurbished parts of walls and wood floors and more. The impending move grew out of business dealings with the building’s current owners. Hobart chooses his words carefully, settling on “the situation has become … unworkable.”

The food at the Liberty Bar is as quirky as the building — singular as well as appealing. Where else in town might you order a plate of cold sliced lamb and homemade bread to go with it? Or a venison burger? You can order the usual chicken breast off the grill — the Liberty Bar difference is it’s wrapped in hoja santa, an herb with a slight root-beer flavor, popular in the interior of Mexico. The kitchen likes garlic, too, never a bad thing. Order a sandwich with aioli and the sauce comes spiked with smoky chile morita as well. Geranium Cream with Blackberry Sauce is a welcome dessert entry, and a blessed departure from the city’s usual choices of cheesecake, tiramisu, and flan.

“The menu, or concept, evolved when Drew and I got together,” says Hobart. “He was a cook, interested in cooking. We shared a remarkably similar niche — the desire for food that was good, but had some character, some historical character.

“Drew was always big on context — he thought food should always relate to where you are, and when you are.”

Liberty’s freshly baked bread, served in moist slices with butter shortly after customers sit down, was Hobart’s contribution. He maintains a home in the Panhandle, where he has ovens and bread-making equipment, and he still loves to bake.

As we talk, Hobart notices a longtime customer seated near a window at the other end of the bar. He excuses himself, leaves and returns a bit later with a photo to show the woman. It’s a picture of her and Allen goofing off for the camera, many years ago. He wants her to have a copy. She is delighted.

Allen’s spirit is ever present, says Hobart. “His ashes are scattered here under the palm tree in the parking lot.” As though to prove that he has not let the years turn Allen’s memory into sentiment, Hobart adds, “He could be a real prick — and he’d probably agree with that.”

Back to the future
Liberty Bar’s current home is almost 120 years old and, the promotional literature claims, “looks every minute of it,” thanks to the infamous 1921 flood, which rose above the mahogany bar, blanketed the building’s wooden piers in silt, and set in motion its distinct and persistent warp. The off-kilter charm looks like what it is, though — a building with a history of structural problems that date right back to its beginning.

An Alsatian peasant and brewmaster, Fritz Boehler, bought the lot across from San Antonio Brewing Association in 1890 and quickly cobbled together, from salvaged, cast-off materials, the two-story building. His family lived upstairs until 1931. He sold groceries downstairs and installed a bar on the other side of the wall (its current location) called the Liberty Schooner Saloon.

After Grandma Boehler fell down the stairs and died, and Fritz and his daughter had gone, the building received no significant repair or maintenance for more than 50 years. According to the official legend, the upstairs became a boarding house for an assortment of carnivalesque characters, while downstairs the kitchen dished out fried chicken and tamales.

After Hobart and Allen took over the lease, Liberty Bar wasn’t an overnight success. “We lost money the first five years, broke even the next five. Over the past 14 to 15 years we’ve made money most of the time,” he says. “The bar did dominate at first, but now the food dominates. We used to sell more beer and wine, but now it’s hard liquor and beer.

“People tend to take this place in a very personal way. If they’ve been here before, they feel it’s part of their life, and can get offended if things aren’t how they ought to be.”

Hobart smiles, remembering a now-deceased mover and shaker in town, a valued customer. “He came in on Sunday nights and wanted whole-wheat bread. If we didn’t have it, he’d throw a walleyed fit,” says Hobart with a slight smile.

As for the upcoming reincarnation of Liberty Bar on Alamo Street, Hobart is excited, ready, looking forward to it. One thing that might ease the move is the fact that the original structure of Liberty’s new home is actually older than the leaning Liberty Bar.

“It’s hard to imagine this `current location` not happening,” muses Hobart. “On the other hand, if you have any desire to do what you know you want to do in life, sometimes you have to do things a little differently.”