San Antonians today know the River Walk as a bustling area chock-a-block with tourists and an array of shops, restaurants, bars, and hotels. Those who can recall the River Walk in its formative years might describe it as a small collection of restaurants, bars, and shops that catered more to locals than the city’s guests.
Few people, however, have experienced and molded the transformation of our city’s gem over the decades as Bob Buchanan has.
Buchanan’s interest in the River Walk began during his senior year at Duke University after his mother sent him a newspaper clipping about a River Walk development at the corner of Commerce and Presa streets. It wasn’t until after graduating college, serving in Vietnam, and family members’ repeated “Well, Bob, what are you going to do now?,” Buchanan said, that he remembered the article and set a meeting with family friend Arthur “Hap” Veltman in September of 1967.
Buchanan wanted to open a British-style pub on the river similar to a haunt he had frequented in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The proposal intrigued his friend, Buchanan said, but Veltman “gave a general negative feeling about the idea because … there was no financing.” Buchanan mentioned some inherited Texaco shares, and the next day a partnership was formed.
Plans for the restaurant included a British pub atmosphere and a menu featuring oysters, seafood, and deli sandwiches. Yet a key ingredient was missing: a name. It remained nameless throughout planning stages until May 1968, when Veltman and general manager Mike Krikorian took an impromptu trip to Nuevo Laredo.
“Now Hap was known for having a heavy foot while driving, and it was when they were going through Cotulla that the two of them got introduced to South Texas justice,” Buchanan recalled. A state trooper pulled the pair over, ticketed Veltman for speeding, and ordered them into town to the county courthouse, where they were found guilty and forced to pay a fine on the spot.
“Now, with Hap being a recent law school graduate, he couldn’t help but proclaim, ‘This is a kangaroo court!’” Buchanan said.
The Kangaroo Court became the name, and the experience inspired the restaurant to “hold court” with patrons celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions.
“Hap found three witness stands from the old Galveston Courthouse at an antique shop in Houston,” Buchanan recalled. Patrons “would sit and stand trial while a litany of false charges would be thrown at them. In the end, the restaurant’s guests would decide the person’s fate. Mostly the judgments were fun and harmless, such as a discount on food or drink. However, if it [was] an employee’s birthday or last voluntary day of work…into the river they were thrown.” Such behavior today would warrant a hefty fine from the park police.
Buchanan and Veltman hoped to have the Kangaroo Court up and running in time for the start of HemisFair ’68, which ran from April to October, but construction and logistical delays prevented it. On Aug. 8, 1968, the Kangaroo Court’s opening day attracted many local dignitaries, including Mayor W.W. McAllister.
While HemisFair drew many people to festivities downtown and the River Walk, when it ended, San Antonio, and especially the River Walk, grew dormant. Tourists left town, and locals left downtown right after work.
“Mayor McAllister decided that City Council, which met on Wednesdays then, would lunch at one of the restaurants on the river, and this helped signal to all the local businessmen that it was okay to do business on the river,” Buchanan said. “Because back then all the banks were downtown; all the hospitals were downtown; all the retail was downtown. Back then, there were only six to eight businesses down on the river. The only hotels were the Hilton Palacio del Rio and La Mansión. About 85 percent of the customer base was local. The customer demographics didn’t start to shift until after the Bicentennial in 1976.”
Today, San Antonians indulge in a wide variety of cuisines and dine at several award-winning and cutting-edge restaurants, but the city’s global gastronomy is in stark contrast to the culinary scene of the late 1960s. The Kangaroo Court was groundbreaking and innovative.
“It wasn’t until 1971 that restaurants were even allowed to serve hard alcohol at their establishments. The beers available at restaurants were mostly either Pearl, Lone Star, or Schlitz,” Buchanan said. “Kangaroo Court had 12 tap beers and 24 imports available. There wasn’t a place in town that served raw oysters, so for the opening of the restaurant, we had to drive to the San Jacinto Inn in to pick up the sacked oysters. Shortly afterwards, Polunsky Seafood carried them for us.”
Outside of mom-and-pop places, restaurants hired professional servers. The Kangaroo Court blazed a trail by hiring almost all college students and military personnel as its wait staff. As bizarre as that seems today, at the time it just wasn’t done. In 1973, Buchanan and Veltman further revolutionized the local industry by opening The Greenhouse, which served everything fresh: organic vegetables (with the sprouts grown in the restaurant), cheeses, fruit juices, and sandwiches on homemade bread. Perhaps most shocking of all, smoking was not allowed in the restaurant. The focus on good health set The Greenhouse apart from its 1970s contemporaries.
Though crowds on the River Walk have since grown exponentially, the atmosphere is more subdued. Raucous revelers, often inebriated, gathered along the river to celebrate parades and festivals in the 1970s. Newspaper photos show people scaling buildings during river parades, and several risqué nightclubs offered cabaret and dancing shows to patrons of all types.
“The River Walk today is considerably tamer than that of yesteryear, and much more family-friendly,” Buchanan said. “And we are glad of that being the case.”
Buchanan has not just focused on his businesses over the decades. He and many others have worked to maintain the charm and aesthetics of downtown and the River Walk. Their passion and devotion has led to fights with City Hall and the planned destruction of historic buildings. In 1971, Buchanan served as president of the Paseo del Rio organization, a collective of downtown and River Walk business owners, and later on its board of directors. One proposal he rallied against was the 1973 plan for a parking garage along the River Walk at the present location of the Hyatt Regency.
“Every business along the River Walk closed their doors and put up signs, ‘Gone to City Hall to fight for garage site,’” he said. After tireless hours, the Council reversed its original vote, defeating the plan. Then-Councilman Henry Cisneros said is was the constant, passionate fight of the Paseo del Rio members that swayed the vote. The group lobbied to put the garage at the corner of Commerce and Presa streets where it now stands.
Buchanan has operated multiple restaurants along the river over the decades: The Kangaroo Court, The Greenhouse, The Big Bend in the Losoya Building, Maximillian’s in the Witte building, Texas 21, and The Original Mexican Restaurant. The Kangaroo Court closed in 2003, leaving The Original Mexican Restaurant to carry the legacy. Of the latter Buchanan said, “We opened the restaurant on March 15, 1988. Caesar had his Ides of March, and I have mine.”
Opening their Mexican restaurant presented Buchanan and Veltman with a familiar problem: They did not know what to name it. They asked their business partner from Fort Worth, Tom Chambers, what his favorite Mexican restaurant was in his city. Tom responded, “The Original Mexican Restaurant.” Coincidentally, the first restaurant that graced the River Walk, from 1899 to 1959, had the same name. After receiving permission from the restaurant’s owners, the name became an homage to the first “Original.” Restaurants in Fort Worth, Galveston, and San Antonio share the name “The Original Mexican Restaurant,” though none are related.
Veltman died on Dec. 3, 1988. Buchanan missed his friend’s guiding hand in operating the restaurants and relied more heavily on his wife, Sally Buchanan, to help direct the company. Sally inspired the addition of Will Thornton, the lead instructor of St. Phillip’s culinary program, as the restaurant’s director of operations. The restaurant remains a family affair, with Bob passing many of the restaurant’s duties to me, his son.
Buchanan has seen and experienced many manifestations of the River Walk. With expansion of The Shops at Rivercenter lagoon, the South Bank development, and the Mission and Museum Reach extensions, the River Walk is no longer a small strip of sidewalk running through downtown. Buchanan has conducted business on the river for 50 years, and The Original Mexican Restaurant has turned 30.
To most on the River Walk, Buchanan is known with affection as “Mr. B.” When asked, “How are you doing?” it is almost guaranteed he will respond with his trademark, “Oh, I’m just super-duper, hunky-dory, and peachy-keen!”
The Original Mexican Restaurant will hold an anniversary celebration Sept. 30 in honor of the many years that have come and passed under Mr. B’s influence. All food and nonalcoholic items will be 30 percent off the menu price, including the Kangaroo Court’s famous cheesecake. In its first five years of business, Kangaroo Court baked 16,000 cheesecakes. Though the number of cakes baked is now too many to count, their legendary flavor is as distinct as ever.
We encourage any of Buchanan’s former employees or associates to come by The Original Mexican Restaurant and say “hello” to Mr. B. On most weekend nights, he can be found washing glasses behind the bar and maintaining his title of hardest-working septuagenarian on the River Walk. We’re certain he can regale you with a fantastic story from days past.