The night before my visit to The Sheraton Gunter's Bar 414 was spent having my face melted by hot guitar licks provided by the legendary Buddy Guy and backup band at The Aztec Theater. I woke up with the blues still on my mind the following day, and decided it was time to revisit a storied piece of blues folklore that claims its home right here in downtown San Antonio.
Robert Johnson is a mythological figure in blues folklore whose legacy includes haunting recordings which provided a blueprint for the blues. That jangling, acoustic walking a 12-bar blues progression with Johnson's voice hitting his notoriously nostalgic high falsetto – these were the recordings that introduced me (and evidently countless others) to the blues. So little is known about Johnson's life that much of the legend that surrounds the man seem like fables out of a storybook, such as the most infamous tale of selling his soul to the devil at "The Crossroads" (a meeting point of intersecting highways located in Clarksdale, Mississippi) in exchange for the ability to play guitar and sing the blues in a manner that was absolutely unprecedented at that time in music history.
While it may be difficult to decipher fact from fiction, it is historically accurate that on November 23, 1936, Johnson cut a record right here in San Antonio — in room 414 of the Gunter Hotel.
I situated myself at the bar top of Bar 414, soaking in the ambiance of the elegantly flourished downstairs speakeasy. Pictures of Johnson dot the room, a few canvas oil paintings of the man himself with guitar in tow. I began to lose myself in thought as my eyes scanned the room — the blues historian in me trying to piece together what that room (the actual room is no longer present at the hotel) may have looked like when Robert cut that record on that November night.
The drink menu offered classic cocktails renamed after Johnson songs (with classic names such as The Manhattan or Moscow Mule listed underneath for easy reference) and a small list of compiled house crafted cocktails. Bar 414 also boasts a hefty listing of all booze carried in house, along with an in-depth description of the flavor profile of each spirit. As the cocktail culture is continually evolving, I found this booze listing to be something of educational value for novice boozehounds trying to expand their understanding of glorious spirits that make our hearts flutter.
Having an apparent heavy emphasis on their Scotch selection, Bar 414's list also features a map of Scotland, showcasing the highland/lowland areas from which the featured scotches derive. While this detail may seem miniscule, I applaud it. As a fellow bartender (at The Brooklynite), I feel it is our absolute duty to not only serve libations, but to understand the process behind them and be able to provide guests with this type of curious trivia.
Halfway through my "Homeward Bound" cocktail, a boozy treat using Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition as the base spirit, I grew curious as to the name plates I found on the bar top. Bartender Jared Gonzalez informed me of the "perfect attendance" required of bar patrons to receive such legendary enshrinement on his bar top. The nameplates honor guests under its previous namesake and pay homage to those who have since passed away.
In chatting with Gonzalez, I learned of his tenure with the hotel in working all aspects of the job from bellman to valet and now as a bartender. I derived a refreshing sense of passion for service in his tone. While the clientele has been primarily hotel traffic throughout the year, Gonzalez shared that they are starting to experience an increasing number of downtown bar patrons as well as fellow service industry folks looking for a post-shift libation.
While thankfully San Antonio is now a city where a proper cocktail is never hard to come by, with its pristine and historically storied past, Bar 414 is a prime candidate for a visit for the blues enthusiast looking for a peaceful drink alone or an evening date destination.
Sheraton Gunter Hotel, 205 E. Houston St., (210) 585-9999, bar414.com, 4pm-2am Mon-Sat