Imagine a 108-foot bar, with nobody bellied up to it. Sadly, that’s the scenario for the
historic Esquire Tavern downtown for at least a few more weeks — despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s reopening of drinking establishments Friday.

According to Texas’ minimum standard health protocols: “Effective May 22, 2020, bars or similar establishments may operate for in-person service up to 25 percent of the total listed occupancy of the establishment.”

But, a bar’s bar is off-limits: “Customers should not be permitted to loiter at the bar or
in commonly trafficked areas, and should remain seated at tables inside the bar. Only provide service to seated individuals.”

The Esquire, which opened in 1933 on “Repeal Day” ending Prohibition, has long
bragged about having “the longest bar in Texas.” But it is one of San Antonio’s watering holes that is moving slowly and cautiously before opening its doors after temporarily closing due to COVID-19.

“We’re just not comfortable getting back to work right now,” said Houston Eaves,
beverage director for the Esquire. “There are some steps we’re taking, including an upgrade of the HVAC system, in order to make sure we have a safe facility for our employees and our customers. When you have the longest bar in Texas, and nobody is allowed to order there or sit at it, that’s big.”

Like other bar managers contacted, Eaves said the 25-percent occupancy rule also
played a key role in the decision-making process for reopening.

Pedestrians walk past the Esquire Tavern. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“Of course, there’s the economic viability at this point,” he said. “We can’t bring in
enough revenue at 25 percent. We do a lot of River Walk business, so we’re trying to take the pulse of when that traffic might return.”

It will be at least a couple of weeks before the Esquire reopens, Eaves said, perhaps
when the state allows 50-percent occupancy, as it now does for restaurants. But that date has yet to be announced.

“It’s going to be a slow process because there’s so much uncertainty still out there,” he

On a happier note — think oompah music — the historic Beethoven Halle und
Biergarten in King William reopened Friday with good German beer and bratwurst. After being closed two months, hours will be 4 p.m. to midnight Tuesday-Saturday, with food service from 5-9 p.m.

According to David Uhler, president of Beethoven Männerchor — the German singing
society dates to 1867 — indoor seating is being offered in the clubroom and Halle, along with unlimited (but regulated) outdoor seating in the Garten. All seating will be separated to ensure safe social-distancing.

Sorry, no polka dancing. According to state protocols: “Activities that enable close
human contact, including but not limited to dancing, are discouraged.”

The good news is, der hund is welcome.

“In addition to inviting the public back to Beethoven,” Uhler wrote in an email, “we are
also permitting visitors to bring their four-footed friends. Dogs on a leash will be allowed — only in our Biergarten — safely and socially-distanced of course! We have ‘Mutt Mitts’ for pet waste on hand and space available at the rear of our property for dog-walking.”

Patrons fill the Beethoven Maennerchor after its reopening on May 22. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Other bars opening Friday include George’s Keep at La Cantera and the Blue Box Bar
at the Pearl.

Inside seating at High Street Wine Co., also at the Pearl, remains closed, but the
upscale wine bar did begin service Friday on its patio, which can seat 24. Hours are noon-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.

“We trying to do it slow, do it safe,” said General Manager and noted oenophile Scott
Ota. “I think people want to feel some sense of normalcy again, and for some that means human interaction while enjoying a glass of wine in the sunshine. After being closed for nine weeks, we’re just happy to get back open.”

Still others were moving more tentatively, including the Havana Bar at the Hotel Havana downtown and the Squeezebox on the St. Mary’s Strip.

Bar 1919, the “speakeasy” at Blue Star, had this to say on Facebook: “At 25-percent
capacity, and with all of the extra supplies we have to order, extra staffing, and all other bills adding up, it’s in our best interest to stay closed and await the next phase.”

Joey Boatright, general manager of the Hotel Havana, said room reservations are being taken for July 1, but the candlelit basement bar may open sooner, whenever government protocols allow bars to operate at 50-percent capacity.

“We seat just 60 people, so it makes it pretty tough, from an economic standpoint, to
open at 25 percent,” he said. “The biggest thing for us is to maintain the integrity of our business by creating a safe environment for our staff and guests.”

Garvin O’Neil, general manager of the Menger Hotel, said the historic 1887 Menger Bar, where Teddy Roosevelt reportedly recruited some of his Rough Riders, is closed until the hotel reopens June 26.

“Most businesses downtown are driven by tourism and group conventions, and that
business has pretty much gone away,” he said. “So, we plan to reopen the hotel and the bar at the same time.”

At the Squeezebox, a conjunto music venue devoted to “the sound and soul of San
Anto,” owner Aaron Peña is looking forward to a “soft opening” on May 29.

“We’re just not ready yet,” he said. “All our service comes from the bar, so now we have
to figure out table service. The guidelines can be crazy at times, but for the most part they are understandable. Nobody’s thrilled about it. We’re just looking at it as a period of adjustment.”

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Steve Bennett

Steve Bennett has written about arts and culture in San Antonio for more than 30 years.