The Esquire Tavern turns 71, and its owners quell rumors of its demise
Seventy-one years ago, on December 5, 1933, Prohibition officially ended with the ratification of the 21st amendment, which repealed the 18th amendment, and legalized what moonshiners had been brewing for the past 14 years.
Yet, the specter of Texas liquor control boards loomed as President Franklin Roosevelt proposed a federal $2.60 per gallon tax on distilled spirits; state "revenooers" seized 54 gallons of whisky, 300 gallons of mash, and a still on a rural spot near Seguin.
Nonetheless, with booze no longer taboo, Gus T. Magadieu and his son signed on as wholesale customers of the Sabinas Brewing Co. (a predecessor to the Lone Star Brewing Co.), and opened the Esquire Tavern 71 years ago this month.
Rick Grinnan and Goodhue Smith, owners of the Esquire Tavern, threw an anniversary bash last week to celebrate what many a pub-crawler considers the only River Walk bar where locals feel at home. And in 71 years, a lot of beer has been guzzled at the bar, which is about 80 feet long, and can hold 5,973 Lone Star longnecks. The claim is that more than 43.7 million bottles of beer have crossed the bar since 1933.
According to notes that Grinnan and Smith culled from a December 3, 1933 issue of the Express-News, "Domestic distilleries were moving at full blast and importers were having liquor loaded on fast boats in foreign ports today in a hurried effort to meet the expected demand for legal spirits ... upon presidential proclamation of repeal ... and bartenders began hurriedly decorating for a December grand opening of a new tavern overlooking the San Antonio River at 155 East Commerce Street, The Esquire Tavern.
"This is not just a bar, it's an institution," said Smith in July 1988, when he and Grinnan celebrated the bar's 50-year anniversary. The businessmen had purchased the popular local watering hole from the Georges brothers, who had inherited - or purchased, the exact transaction is unclear - the bar from their uncle in 1938. Greek immigrants, the brothers operated the bar for 42 years, and the paper reported that "alterations were few and far between."
Smith says he and Grinnan were already involved in River Walk properties in 1981 when they purchased the tavern from the Georges family. "That's is how the whole thing started; it was our interest in real estate." He says that rumors of the Esquire's sale are just that - rumors. "We've negotiated a couple of properties, but not this one."
The Alamo Fish Market and Bakery, located next door to the Esquire, is under contract, Smith says. And the basement of the Esquire, which was hand dug by the Georges after they bought the tavern, is a likely prospect for the right tenant. The basement is currently used for storage.
"We understand the value of the River Walk level properties," says Smith. "It's a matter of finding the right tenant ... then we will excavate and finish the property out."
The owners plan no changes to the Esquire Tavern, except for a new mural by Jenny Abbett on the wall that shows the place as it might have appeared in 1933: A lovely barmaid behind the bar, facing customers, who are depicted in a mirror behind her, sitting in some of the 17 oak booths that have lent their charm to the Esquire's appeal to local patrons, morning, noon, and night.
The Esquire, whose orange cursive neon sign above the door is a beacon for the thirsty, has long been known, even revered, as a place that features burly bouncers, a security guard at the front door, and a low tolerance for misbehavior in the seemingly rowdy atmosphere. Things got a little out of hand in 1995, when then-Texas Attorney General Dan Morales sought to brand the Esquire Tavern as a public nuisance and threatened to shut it down at the request of the San Antonio Police Department. SAPD said it had received about 360 calls for assault, robbery, drug and alcohol related arrests between January 1993 and April 1995. But Grinnan met with SAPD officials, straightened out the mess, and kept the Esquire open.
Ironically, the Esquire still thrives while Morales is serving a four-year prison sentence on mail and tax fraud convictions.
"It's not just a bar, but an institution," said Ursulo Perez, who was general manager in 1988. "This is not a place where people come to drown their sorrows or pick up chicks. To them (the customers), it's another house and they're all family here." •
By Michael Cary