Plenty of other Texas cities have talented bartenders (after all, a good craft libation can be found almost anywhere along I-35), but there’s no place in the state that can replicate the generous spirit of San Antonio’s watering holes.
Exactly what makes a bar so special can be difficult to define, but we know it when we see it — and the nominees for the CultureMap Tastemaker Award for Bar of the Year have it in spades.
From raucous honky-tonks to upscale cocktail lounges, these seven drinkeries all have the right mix. Meet them below before joining us in toasting the winner at a lavish party held at Austin’s Bullock Texas State History Museum on April 10.
Since opening in 2012, this cocktail mecca from Boulevardier Group’s was one of a handful of spots that ushered in a new age of bar craft to Alamo City. Where some of its contemporaries relish in the more serious side of mixology, The Brooklynite is always playful, whether in naming drinks (one menu section is called “novice naughty waters”) or in hosting events like the weekly tiki nights. In late February, the group shuttered the original location, but it won’t be gone for long. Late April or early May will see its rebirth in an intimate space behind fellow nominee Still Golden Social House.
The Esquire Tavern
River Walk nightlife has a bad rap, and it’s not altogether unearned. The banks are dotted with unimaginative bars that believe saccharine margaritas served in neon tubes are acceptable drinks for adults. Not so at this San Antonio institution, where the elegant offerings reflect the glamor of the 1930s-era surrounds. Still, the Esquire is no period piece. Under beverage director Houston Eaves, the team has created some of the city’s most strikingly au courant cocktails like the vibrant Atomic Garden made with aquavit and tomato jam to the earthy, grappa-based Eat the Rich with a surprise of shiitake mushroom shrub.
The newest bar on this list, Lonesome Rose has been open for less than a year, having taken over the former location of the Phantom Room in November 2018. However, it seems like it has been around for decades. With Lone Star signs, taxidermy, and a killer vinyl jukebox, it captures the feel of a classic Texas honky-tonk and its lineup of acts relish in the grit of country music instead of Nashville gloss. Only one thing is inauthentic — and thank goodness for that. Instead of choking down rotgut, this bar’s new generation of cosmic cowboys are sipping on drinks from Hillary Woodhouse, one of San Antonio’s most acclaimed mixologists.
After downing a drink at Lowcountry, one might find themselves speaking with a drawl. This Southtown spot oozes Southern hospitality, from the tiny porch that welcomes revelers to the bric-a-brac and houseplants on a stately fireplace’s mantel. It bills itself as a “little hole in the wall” as if it hasn’t done anything remarkable. Tell that to the crowds gathered for boiled peanuts and craft beer under a canopy of twinkling lights.
This Grayson Street hideaway so effectively captures the vibe of a midcentury cocktail party, that one wants to engage in some All About Eve cosplay just to keep all the details intact. The approach to bar craft feels just as swanky. Instead of asking guests to order off an impersonal menu, owners Olaf Harmel and Gerry Shirley encourage guests to strike up conversation with their hosts. Name a spirit and a flavor profile, and the bartenders will create a bespoke drink as fit for a Hollywood star as an everyday San Antonian.
Still Golden Social House
This Broadway Street reincarnation of one of Alamo City’s most popular bars is known as an industry spot, the place where bartenders drink on a day off. It’s pretty easy to see why. The place feels like a dive, with a lived-in interior and fun-loving, even goofy, touches like the Jeff Goldblum collage in the women’s restroom. The drinks, however, live up to the standards of people who work with booze for a living. The Beyond the Wall cocktail is arguably the best distillation of Still Golden’s spirit. Where else can one find fancy ingredients like cognac, Jamaican gold rum, and hopped grapefruit bitters mixed with Grape Kool-Aid?
Sometimes one longs for a sense of occasion. For those times, there’s no better place to preen than this Hotel Emma stunner. From bar bites like brûléed brie to the leather club chairs and sofas, everything feels luxurious underneath this spot’s massive vaulted ceilings. But there’s a tongue-in-cheek sensibility that keeps it from feeling precious. Clever touches abound, from banquettes made out of former fermentation tanks to a heady rum and pisco cocktail is called, humorously, An Exercise in Restraint.