With a smart hat, newspaper, and Budweiser, professional dog groomer Tony Martinez lends the back room of the Esquire bar a bit of post-modern/Old-World charm; the white-shirted and black-vested waiter serving Martinez bumps the class meter up a notch, too.
"Like I said, I've been coming here for 13 years, and this is the only place I come to. I don't go nowhere else," Martinez says. "Here I'm comfortable, here I've met all kinds of friends, a lot of friends. Here I feel like I'm the center of attention — they make me feel that way. I love it here because they are very, very strict in this bar. Unlike other bars, here, they see somebody bumming cigarettes, beer, or money, you're out."
Before he became a regular, Martinez passed by the Esquire but never entered. "Until one day, I decided to come in and see what's going on. It was because of that gentleman right there," he says, pointing to an older man in a booth hunched over the sports section of the Express-News, "that I started coming in here. He used to drink with my granddaddy when I was a little kid growing up. From that day on I started coming here — I fell in love with the place."
As a regular, Martinez has a spot — the chair against the bar's back wall — that is his own. But today, somebody was already in Martinez' seat.
"That's my seat," Martinez points out to the interloper.
"Sorry, Tony," the guy says, shrugging. He didn't know, and doesn't seem to like the attention.
Martinez fixes his gaze on the next seat over and asks, "Can I sit there?"
Picking up his beer, the guy says sure and moves to a booth nearby.
"You don't have to go," Martinez reassures, but the man is already gone. Paper, beer, and briefcase in hand, Martinez and another friend settle into the usual spot. The calm interaction is unexpected, especially when you consider the reputation of this place.
The façade says "Dive" (it used to open at 7 a.m. for third-shifters), with red neon lettering and a bar-covered front door. That it's officially on the River Walk surprises (and the only way to find out is by walking out the back door, past the sign "Patio closed," and gawking at the Yanaguana tours below), but that's an impression the Esquire's management wants to change.
The same people who own the tourist-centric Republic of Texas bar and restaurant further down river also have owned the Esquire since the 1970s, and want to bring the same crowd to the circa-1933 bar. The decor has that ready-made-for-out-of-towners look, but it's all original: pressed tin ceiling, flocked wallpaper, and the longest bar in Texas (at 79 feet, Ripley's Believe It or Not says so). The place opened the day after Prohibition ended and hasn't closed (for more than a holdiay or the night) since.
Rudy Lopez, a bartender at the Esquire for the past two years (he worked here earlier in the '90s for awhile, too) came back to the bar "because of the fun. It wasn't the money. If I wanted to go work for money, I'd go back to Fat Tuesday," Lopez says. "I'm always curious here ... what these old retired military guys went through when they were younger. You hear a bunch of stories." The crowd at Esquire, he adds, is a mix of both young and old — and sometimes the mix curdles. "You got a lot of youngsters that don't respect the older crowd. We try to get rid of a lot of the riff raff. We've done a pretty good job of that."
George McKenzie, a native of Panama and 11-year veteran of waiting tables at the Esquire, is "so far, to my knowledge, the best worker here," says Martinez. McKenzie has handled his share of hooligans and isn't upset at the idea of attracting more tourists. Four years ago, his hourly wage more than doubled and chances are tourists would fill the Esquire with more drink orders and tips.
A former Republic bartender and bouncer, Lawrence Williams came to the Esquire as a manager nearly a year ago with the mission to clean up the place. "It's a totally different feeling here than down there on the River Walk." If things continue to go as planned, the Esquire may become another River Walk spot.
When it does go tourist, chances are the $1.65 Lone Stars will be gone, the jukebox will be updated, and Martinez will have less of a chance convincing a family from Dubuque they should switch seats with him.