It was 10 on a sticky Friday night in July, and the dance floor in the Sage bar at the Fairmount Hotel was full. It’s not technically a dance floor, and it only holds one couple (especially when the couple is mopping up the floor the way this one was), but still, in downtown San Antonio that almost counts as a scene. Especially since half the clientele in the small ... I have to say it ... coffin-shaped room, were locals, this due in no small part to the PR efforts of jazz singer Ken Slavin. (The other half were soused tourists who waxed nostalgic about Porsche rides in circa-’80s SA while tying up the bathroom stalls.)
I’ll admit that it didn’t crystallize for me — the memorial aspect of the room — until my date reminded me that the historic Fairmount Hotel is owned by funeral magnate Robert “Dick” Tips, but the red padded-fabric walls, the too-light woodwork, the mini-lamp wall sconces, the bright lights shining through the glass windows are undeniably reminiscent of the middle-upper end of the casket trade.
Sage Ristorante e Bar
401 S. Alamo
Ken Slavin: 8-11pm Fri W
illiam Washington: 8-11pm Sat
But Slavin and backup band, aided by a baby grand wedged in the northern end of the room, were doing their best to invoke New York, and if we closed our eyes we could for just a second imagine that we were in the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis, or even the holy grail of sophisticated tippling, Bemmelman’s (Oh, it’s fair, it’s fair. One of Slavin’s inspirations is the incomparable Bobby Short; check out a little clip of “You Make Me Feel So Young” on iTunes; it’ll give you a feel for the evening). Except for the damn chairs, which come in two styles: retirement-community dining room (sit up straight, please) and spring-free, faux-damask, European something-or-other, neither of which encourages a leisurely pre- or post-dinner cocktail (you also can order from Sage restaurant in the bar). One of our drinking companions and I debated how to best re-do the room: I voted for full-on turn-of-the-century Euro-York with a little frontier touch (a salute to the American pastiche so unconsciously celebrated in the original architecture). My friend thought “Havana.” Either would be an improvement.
The staff were doing their best to make magic, too. The hostess was expediting diners and drinkers, and upon request, the bartender extolled the virtues of each bourbon on his shelves and gamely offered that he likes mixology challenges. His take on “something with a woody bourbon and citrus” was well-balanced and suitable to a summer night.
But, straight up, the evening would have sunk like a weighted corpse in the sea if it weren’t for Slavin, who drew not only us (with one of his typically upbeat emails) but our drinking companions, the dancers — and the evening’s grace note, Nell and Don Woten, a golden-years couple who took a turn at the mic during Slavin’s last set, and with their husky voices did make us all feel so young.
- Elaine Wolff