There is a place where the beer is cheap and the tacos are free, where the Spurs fans bang tambourines, blow whistles and cheer for every single point. It has all the enthusiasm of the most faithful sections of fans at the AT&T Center, only with ample parking and the option of reserving a table before the game. It is a perfect spot to watch when the Spurs are playing on the road.
I decided to cover the experience of a Spurs game at Tony’s Bar after hearing effusive praise from several friends. I picked a good night, too, as the Spurs thrashed the Heat 111-92 in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, putting on a historic shooting display.
Founded by 70-year-old Tony Lopez in 1999, Tony’s Bar is known to many for the model Tower of the Americas in the front yard. The building, which is located northeast of downtown on Brooklyn Avenue, dates back to the mid-19th century, one of the few remaining original Irish Flats neighborhood buildings.
Inside the bar, tables arranged in horizontal rows. During the game almost all the patrons sit facing in the same direction, toward the biggest television in the bar.
On a table adjacent to the bar is an arrangement of free food: a bag of chips and bowl of queso, a pot of ground beef and potatoes, plus shells and all the fixings for tacos. A sign next to the food tells customers to take just two of the tacos so that others will get some, too. Tony told me the food is a “treat for the people.”
Tony bought the building in 1999, and the decorations date to the same era, as the 2001 poster of former Spur Derek Anderson attests.
The games get loud. Tuesday there was a tambourine and some bongos. Richard Rodriguez said there were whistles the previous week. Zac Harris, who preferred the moniker “Tambourine Man,” acted as the spiritual leader to game patrons, using his tambourine to initiate and lead the “GO SPURS GO” and “D-FENSE” chants.
“Sometimes people just need the prompt,” he explained. “When you hear drums at the game you know exactly what to do.”
He started using it during the 2014 Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder. “It’s a new tradition,” he said. “It worked so well against OKC I decided to keep it for the Finals. “
Tony’s is not a mixology bar. Regan Turner, who has become a devotee of the place since some Yelp reviews led him there a year ago, tried to nominate the bar for the San Antonio Current’s Best Dive Bar award. He was unable to get it on the list, but he makes a good point: Tony’s is a safe and clean place, but otherwise it has many of the hallmarks of a real dive (in a good way, of course): cheap drinks, the old jukebox and TVs, no Wi-Fi or gourmet food, and a decidedly un-hip décor. Then again, a dive is not usually described as an “oasis,” “gem” or as “pristine” the way Tony’s was by Regan Turner, Richard Rodriguez, and Mari Rios, respectively.
So what makes Tony’s stand apart from other dives to these patrons?
Almost everyone I spoke with mentioned Tony as the most important element in the game night experience at the bar. Soft spoken and slight of frame, Lopez endears himself to patrons with his deadpan jokes and handmade signs, which are featured all over the bar. One such sign on the jukebox informs customers, “Jukebox closes at 7:00 for Spurs.” His easygoing demeanor invites others to feel welcome. I told him his patrons consider themselves family there. “Exactly—family,” he replied, as if I had taken the words of his mouth.
A lot of dive bars have a distinct neighborhood feel, but how many of the patrons at other dives have the owner over for dinner and vice versa, as Tony says is common? Richard and Abigail Rodriguez said many of the couples have traveled together, to see a football game in Oakland, for example. Abigail made a point of stopping at Tony’s for her bachelorette party.
The reservations are just another extension of this family atmosphere. Regulars can expect to have a table waiting for every Spurs game of the season as long as they keep coming.
The establishment itself is a family business, with the bar being staffed by Tony’s daughter, Ernestine Hernandez and granddaughter, Nina Cardenas.
Tony’s has a food license, which means it’s kid-friendly for families like the Rodriguez family, who brought their 12-year-old daughter Sofia and her bongos along for the action. During a break in the second half, Richard leaned over his pregnant wife’s belly to chant “Go Spurs Go!”
Well done, Richard. It’s never too early to start indoctrinating a new Spurs lifer.
The presence of family and kids contributes to the safe vibe of the place. It also seems like the type of place where non-drinkers of any age would feel comfortable having a soda or water.
With so much to love, it’s understandable that some like Mari Rios are concerned about losing the place they love to that dreaded scourge of mankind: hipsters. Speaking about the changes an article might cause to Tony’s delicate ecosystem, she asked in a blunt, but lighthearted manner, “Do I really want a pretentious asshole sitting here quoting blogs? This is our last place. It’s pristine. Can we have one place without Wi-Fi?”
Turner, who popularized the place among his group of friends, pointed out that Tony’s was just fine before he arrived and is not likely to change now. He said that some of the hipsters who people worry might alter the ambience at Tony’s probably wouldn’t go there, anyway.
The Spurs won Game Three, and I danced like a crazy white boy to Tito Nieves’ song, “I Like It Like That,” which Tony plays immediately following each Spurs win at his bar.
I hope to be dancing at Tony’s again with more of y’all on Thursday.