The crowd had thinned considerably by the time the final minutes at the original Liberty Bar arrived at 10:30 p.m. Monday night. Owner Dwight Hobart, who had been sitting quietly at a table in the bar reminiscing with friends, stood and counted down from 10, his Panhandle drawl accelerated only slightly by the emotion of the moment. It was more than a little sad, and a lot anticlimactic. Earlier in the evening, he had regaled the celebrants and mourners from the bartop with a tale about Lydia Mendoza that featured Dwight’s late laconic partner Drew Allen and musician James McMurtry cooking Mexican food in his apartment kitchen, and ended with a heartfelt rendition of “Volver, Volver.”
A new Liberty will open May 26 in the former Saint. Scholastica convent at 1111 S. Alamo, and it will feature much of the spendthrift respect for handiwork, wooden and culinary, that made the original location a mooring place for untethered souls if not a sound long-term business investment — like the old nunnery’s original casement windows, each one stripped, refinished, and reassembled. But gone forever is the floor that rolled like a schooner at sea, and that strange orange incubating glow created by the fusion of yellow ceiling lamps and the red and blue neon that trimmed the barback and windows. For 25 years, thanks to Allen and Hobart’s far-flung and eclectic connections and their interpretation of southern hospitality (mint in the iced tea, elegant yet homey desserts, plenty of ice in the cocktails), it drew the famous and infamous and made them all equal with the hoi polloi who simply spotted the “serious food” sign from the highway, or were lured by the room-length wooden bar visible through the picture windows.
The patrons and the staff are noticeably more well-behaved now than in the early days, when an after-hours jukebox dance party might break out. Its signature ambivalent service (largely replaced by politeness, although not actual efficiency, thank god) came courtesy of the many artists who worked their way through school or the early stages of their careers waiting on Liberty customers. A favorite story repeated last night: The lady asks the waiter how big the wild-boar sausage is. The waiter obligingly draws a life-size diagram on the table’s brown butcher paper. “She can handle that,” replies the husband.
As the beer taps were shrouded in paper bags, it was inevitable that we’d also recall the many departed, beginning with Allen, whose wake provided one of Dwight’s most cherished memories: a spontaneous Die Fledermaus aria sung to a standing-room-only crowd by the daughter of a longtime employee, inspired by a note played by Liberty’s most infamous waiter, Rudy Williams, who passed away two years ago.
It was no less personal for most of the folks who raised a glass to Dwight and to Drew’s memory Monday night. For artists Ethel Shipton and Nate Cassie, a former Liberty bartender, whose wedding Hobart catered. For activist and philanthropist Pat Smothers, who like most everyone spoke of Liberty’s inextricable link to special occasions and family reunions. For jeweler Elizabeth Ciarfeo, who recalled the opening night 26 years ago, where one of the patrons of the site’s old pool hall “sort of crashed.” Although the new Liberty is decidedly cleaner and more polished than 328 E. Josephine could have ever been, and its location in the heart of re-gentrified King William may mean fewer ragtag oddballs will drop in for a little courage and camaraderie at the bar, as long as Dwight presides over its spirit, the old customers won’t ever feel we’re crashing the party.