Downtown San Antonio may be where tourists dive into margaritas big enough to swim laps in, but some of the city’s best watering holes lie minutes away, within the near East Side.
Home to some of the city’s first African-American neighborhoods, this quadrant boasts historic homes, cultural landmarks and, more recently, gentrification. Despite its proximity to downtown, some well-intentioned residents still avoid the area.
Politics and gentrification aside, there are plenty of new and established near East Side bars that are unlike those anywhere else in San Antonio. And now is the perfect time to explore, before the area’s rapid changes erase some of its charm.
1160 E. Commerce St., Unit 100
Open daily, 4 p.m.-2 a.m.
I started my booze cruise at Lilly’s Greenville, the latest concept from Steve Mahoney of local spots like George’s Keep and Francis Bogside, and one of the newest bars to open within the Historic St. Paul’s Square. Let’s be clear: this isn’t a dive. This is an East Side bar where you’ll find affordable, delicious libations, good conversation and a quiet place to unwind. All four bartenders — Eddie, Orlando, Miguel and Barbara — are knowledgeable about spirits and can create a cocktail from practically anything. “Stop right there,” Eddie said, as I ramble off my spirits of choice. He grabbed a shaker and served me one of his house specialties, fittingly called A Rose for Amanda. A mixture of rose-hips, vodka and lemonade, it was perfectly blended and refreshing on a hot summer day. Happy Hour runs Tuesday through Saturday from 4-8 p.m. and all day Sunday and Monday, offering classics such as Fitzgeralds and Old Fashioneds for $5.50. Only a handful of people came through Lilly’s while I was there, but rest assured, once the words gets out about this bar, it’s going to take off.
1141 E. Commerce St.
Open daily, 3 p.m.-2 a.m.
Alibis has been quenching local thirsts (in every sense of the word) for more than 15 years. Unlike the glitzy Lilly’s, Alibis is found inside a former home that’s been converted into a dark, gritty, comfy and low-key bar. Everything at Alibis, from the worn leather couches to the wall photo of Tim Duncan creates a judgement-free place to imbibe in peace. It’s not fancy or expensive, it’s just a watering hole serving its neighborhood. Friendly bartenders and prompt service bring in everyone from young women throwing down Melon Carts to the older couples sipping Miller Lites, and the bar is a smoker’s delight, offering cigarette-friendly spaces at the side and outdoor patio. Happy hour, from 3-9 p.m. daily, offers an excellent selection of regional spirits, including Rebecca Creek and Alamo Craft, as well as beers. Don’t be surprised if a patron spots you a drink, and expect to overhear some outlandish conversations. You may even find yourself suckered into one. Good times.
433 S. Hackberry St.
Open daily, noon to midnight
Never judge a book — ahem, bar — by its cover. From the outside, the Dakota looks like an icehouse, but inside lies a hip, pleasant joint the neighborhood apparently adores. Though it’s not a full bar, the place offers a decent selection of beer and wine, also available to go. The real prizewinner, however, is the delicious food: queso, wings, salad, pizza and more. Prices range from $6-$15. Happy hour, which runs Monday through Friday from 3-7 p.m., includes $1 off not only drinks but also the vittles. In terms of atmosphere, the Dakota is a step above a dive — a clean, comfy space full of good vibes and supportive folks. Almost like an East Side Cheers. The staff is relaxed, and nobody vomits or gets anything but delightfully quirky after their ninth beer. There seems to be no tragedy in the place. Also worth noting: Wednesday is karaoke night, and on my visit folks sang and danced along to anything from country to rock. I had to smile when the dad seated next to me started dancing with his little daughter. Definitely worth a return visit.
Nairobi Bar and Grill
514 N. Hackberry St.
Open Monday-Saturday, 2 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sunday, 4 p.m.-2 a.m.
Some of the greatest works of fiction and cinema take place with a boozy backdrop, where a life-altering events unfold, for better or worse. Nairobi feels like that place. Just parking outside of the joint seemed to set the scene for an enthralling storyline. As the bartender told me during my visit, “We never know who or what will come through those doors.” Now we’re talking. Set to a soundtrack of soul and R&B, the confines of this smoky, groovy lounge take one back to forgotten kitsch of yesteryear — a trip to a disco and polyester era some may want to forget. Nairobi isn’t for a younger crowd, so put on your adult helmet while delving into the weekly drink specials available during its Friday happy hour, which runs from 2-8 p.m. Smoking is approved on the back patio. There’s also pool room with a single table and dartboard. During my visit, the game got intense. The dark, no-gimmicks, take-it-or-leave-it vibe of the place made it my favorite of the stop. Like any dive, Nairobi merits further investigation. Within the walls of such place lies a feel that anything can happen.
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