Light trails pass The Monterey just after the sun sets. Photo by Scott Ball.
Light trails pass The Monterey just after the sun sets. Photo by Scott Ball.

This story was originally published on Wednesday, Aug. 26.

After five years, the curtain is falling at The Monterey, the quirky, inventive Southtown eatery and hangout that brought a new approach to food, drink and service in San Antonio, with wildly creative Asian-influenced dishes and an eclectic beverage menu, all served in a laid-back, onetime service station.

Founder Chad Carey told the Rivard Report that The Monty will remain open for 10 more weeks and build up to a final service on Wednesday, Nov. 4, the fifth anniversary of its opening.

“The Monty was a much bigger success than we ever expected it to be, but it was never expected to be an economic success. It was a laboratory, but we didn’t really even have a plan when we first started,” Carey said Wednesday in an interview. “The Monty gave birth to other entities and has allowed me to do the things I love to do, and it introduced me to a lot of very special, very creative people.”

Chad Carey. Courtesy image.
The Monterey Founder Chad Carey. Courtesy image.

He called The Monty “the anti-restaurant.”

Carey and his original partners and second-generation investors, doing business as Empty Stomach, have since opened three additional dining and entertainment venues with more to come. Barbaro opened in Monte Vista in August 2013, serving artisanal pizzas and salads with a busy cocktail bar and television tuned to Spurs games and other sporting events. Hot Joy opened in Southtown in March 2014, one year after making its first appearance as a Sunday and Monday evening pop-up when The Monterey was closed. Paper Tiger, the bar and live music venue, opened in March of this year in the building that formerly housed the White Rabbit. A new, still-unnamed taquería is scheduled to open by December in the former Teka Molina on The Strip on North St. Mary’s Street. Other restaurant and bar options and venues are being considered.

Carey said his decision to close The Monterey was the hardest decision of his life.

“I had to ask myself: Is the Monty an ego trip for me? It’s been an enormous distraction for me as our company grows. I spend a disproportionate number of hours there,” Carey said. “I’ll always be proud of what the Monty did, but now it’s time to something else. Part of me will always regret it, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Carey quoted Adam Lampinstein, his director of operations for the restaurant company, who said, “‘The Monterey isn’t a restaurant, Chad. It’s a clubhouse.’ I love that, but the flip side of that is we can’t do that anymore. I want to see our company grow. I want to see our 80 employees grow and make more money, and I want to personally focus on the other businesses.”

Business at The Monterey was susceptible to severe weather. Rain or heat waves could close the patio and reduce The Monty to a 20-seat venue.

“We got really lucky in the first few years when there was sustained drought, but this past Spring it rained practically every weekend and our business fell off by 40%,” he said. “We were getting killed.”

Even in good times The Monterey generated less revenue than Carey’s other ventures, yet his cooks and servers loved working there.

“The money was less, the work more demanding, yet everyone wants to work there,” he said. News of the likely closure has circulated among workers for awhile now. Carey said he sent out an email confirming his decision on Wednesday.

Garnish is placed in a craft cocktail at The Monterey. Photo by Scott Ball.
Garnish is placed in a craft cocktail at The Monterey. Photo by Scott Ball.

Disrupting San Antonio’s Culinary Landscape

It’s almost impossible to recall the restaurant landscape in San Antonio only five years ago when The Monterey burst on to the scene as the “anti-restaurant.” Southtown destinations such as Bliss, Feast, Bite, Starfish, B&D Icehouse, and the Alamo Street Eat-Bar had not opened. Liberty Bar was moving south from its original East Grayson Street location. The Pearl was home to Andrew Weissman’s Il Sogno and Sandbar, but none of the other venues that have since opened.

Stacey Hill lived in King William and had recently bought the former Sun-Glo service station at 1127 S. St. Mary’s St., which had been operated for a time as the Southtown Cafe. She was dating Erick Schlather, who had left the restaurant business in Dallas and moved back to San Antonio and followed his father into land sales and real estate.

“Stacey and I met, and she said she had bought this property and wanted to do a wine bar,” Schlather recalled. “I said, ‘No, you don’t.’ But she was determined to put something in there, so I eventually told her I’d help, but we needed an operating partner. That’s when we talked to Chad. We knew of his love of food and wine, and we knew his gregarious personality would be a perfect fit. ”

Carey, who was still working in commercial real estate, had just watched a substantial deal fall though and was ripe for a new challenge. As the planning progressed, the three of them were throwing around potential names one night over cocktails when Stacey’s 1962 Mercury Monterey entered the conversation. She had bought the vehicle off a house painter after spotting it parked with a For Sale sign on an Alamo Heights street. The vintage coupe no longer ran, but it gave The Monterey its name and eventually was parked out front along South St. Mary’s Street where its trademark blinking headlights came to serve as a neighborhood beacon.

“The Monterey turned out to be one of those special experiences in life,” Hill said. “Chad and Erick taught me so much, and everyone who worked there became like extended family. There were some great loves stories that came out of it, and at least three marriages, four counting mine to Erick. And there was the tragedy with Chuck Ramirez, the artist spending his last night there.”

Carey, Hill and Schlather and a group of like-minded friends pitched in relatively small sums to fund what would become Carey’s first restaurant and the chance to prove he could build something different in the city that would appeal to paying customers.  The Monterey was conceived, designed and launched in November 2010 with only $125,000. The venue seated 20 people indoors and 80 on its outdoor patio. In the beginning, it didn’t even have a liquor license.

Patrons line up at the bar inside The Monterey.  Photo by Scott Ball.
Locals line up at the bar inside The Monterey. Photo by Scott Ball.

From the start, The Monterey was both distinctive and unorthodox, a reflection of Carey’s personality and his outsized culinary imagination. Dishes were served as they arrived from the cramped kitchen and only as the chef prepared them, no exceptions. Go somewhere else to split a dish or get your sauce on the side or to find a less spicy finish. People were encouraged to share dishes once they hit the table, to hang out and not be in a hurry in between courses, to visit with neighboring tables and befriend the servers. Diners were treated more like family than customers, a service culture that turned off those in search of a more conventional restaurant experience. Carey’s way worked, and many early customers became regulars and then fixtures.

“I didn’t want it to just be about a transaction between us and the people eating there,” Carey said.

His singular stamp, even when he verbally brawled over social media with disgruntled diners, made The Monterey one of a kind. As the wine and beer menu grew and The Monty obtained its liquor license, Carey’s personal inclinations for the eclectic and offerings that couldn’t be found on other lists prevailed over market trends. How many lists in San Antonio offer 18 different Sherries or 40 Mezcals?

A Change in Chefs

For many of us, The Monty’s real breakthrough came two or three months into its existence when the original chef was jailed on an assault charge and Carey, after posting his bail and firing him, promoted a $10 an hour line cook everyone knew as Quealy.

Quealy Watson shows off Hot Joy's fermented goat laab with coconut sour cream, cilantro and tomatillo jaew at the 2015 Austin Food and Wine Festival. Photo courtesy of Hot Joy's Facebook page.
Quealy Watson shows off a sample of Hot Joy’s cuisine during the 2015 Austin Food and Wine Festival. Photo courtesy of Hot Joy’s Facebook page.

“I had been kicking around San Antonio for a while and was really looking for someone to take a chance on me, and when I heard about this place opening and the menu ideas, it was everything I had wanted to bring to San Antonio,” Quealy Watson, now chef at Hot Joy, said in an interview. “Nobody around here had heard of Benton’s bacon back then, when everyone else in the nation was using the stuff. We took trends we saw on a national scale and introduced them to San Antonio, and from there we moved into more creative directions. It was a memorable time of innovation and nobody was saying no to ideas. It was just a bunch of kids in the kitchen trying to drive innovation in San Antonio, which we are still doing at Hot Joy, but the Monty is where the magic started.”

Carey said Quealy was only in charge of the kitchen and menu for a short time, “When I told myself, ‘This is the guy, this is the guy I need.’ After a few months I told him, ‘You don’t need to ask me anymore before you do something. Just go do your own food.’”

Making menu mainstays of animal fat and proteins like bone marrow, pig’s feet, pork belly and Benton’s bacon were one thing, and liberal use of now-common chili pastes and Sriracha, still unfamiliar to some diners back then, were another. The real difference came in the way Quealy and the kitchen line experimented with inventive combinations of ingredients: vegetable dishes with foie gras, Brussels sprouts infused with peanut butter, ramen with barbecue, and so on. Comfort food – fried chicken, grilled cheese sandwiches, chicken fried steak – also made appearances on the constantly changing menu, but they were never treated conventionally.

Some people thought The Monty served some of the best food they had ever eaten, and you could enjoy it while sitting around in cargo shorts and flip-flops. Others regarded certain dishes as overwrought and too tricked up. No one ever said it was boring or predictable.

Foielafel, lemon yogurt, and chocolate mint paired with a devils backbone from Real Ale Brewing Co. at The Monterey. Photo by Scott Ball.
Foielafel, lemon yogurt, and chocolate mint paired with a Devil’s Backbone at The Monterey. Photo by Scott Ball.

“The food definitely was pushing the envelope at the time, but there was mystique and camaraderie there in the early days among the staff, the patrons, in the neighborhood, a sense that something very special was unfolding,” said Hugh Daschbach, a Monterey regular in the neighborhood and now the culinary concierge at the Hotel Emma. “All that went beyond experimenting with food into something bigger. It translated into a very cool, very unique dynamic.”

Daschbach said the  neighborhood will feel empty without The Monterey.

“It’s definitely a bittersweet feeling, I love that place, but it is the right thing to do,” Schlather said. “I’m thrilled that we have the ability to go out the way we are going with a three-month grand finale. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that these things are businesses first. We went into this knowing it was an experiment. It proved itself immediately and was the stepping stone to a lot of other great things.

“Given our track record, people will be happy with whatever we do with the space,” he added. “We have no idea what that will be, but it will be something beautiful.”

For Quealy, The Monterey will always be the place he caught his big break.

“Of course, I’ll hate to see it go because it’s where I got my start and helped create a restaurant, and things will get sentimental over the next couple of weeks, but we’ll be doing some very cool, amazing dinners,” Quealy said. “We’re not dead yet.”

*Featured/top image: Traffic passes The Monterey on South St. Mary’s Street just after sunset.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Robert Rivard and Iris Dimmick

Robert Rivard is director of the Rivard Report. Iris Dimmick is managing editor.