- Photo by Enrique Lopetegui
“We’re safe,” says Barbara Wolfe, co-owner of Casbeers at the Church, recently redubbed San Antone Café & Concerts. It was minutes after the Armageddon-like storm that blackened San Antonio skies the morning of May 12. “We’re at the basement of a church. What could be safer than that?”
Unfortunately for her and local music fans, church sanctuary has not been enough to save San Antone Café & Concerts. By the time the annual Bob Dylan Birthday Bash takes place at the venue on May 24, the restaurant will have been closed for a week: the historic bash will be the last show at San Antone.
“We’re sad, but we felt it was time to let it go,” said Wolfe, who has owned San Antone with husband Steve Silbas since 2008. Before that, the couple ran the iconic Casbeers on Blanco Road from 1999 to 2008. After converting the old Methodist church, the site quickly became a key San Antonio music spot.
“I loved San Antone,” said Augie Meyers, of Sir Douglas Quintet and Texas Tornados fame, now touring with the Tornados. “I opened up the place in 2008, when they opened, and it had great acoustics. I wanted to do my comedy album there in August, and now I don’t know. I hope to be able to open it for one day.”
In December 2009, the owners of Casbeers Center, the Blanco Road strip center, sued Wolfe and Silbas. Carlos Quesada, who filed the suit on behalf of his two children who own the strip, claims Wolfe and Silbas tried to co-opt the Casbeers moniker, filing for a “Casbeers” copyright while also filing for multiple DBAs, including Casbeers, Casbeers on Blanco, Casbeers LLC, and Casbeers Bar and Grill.
“We thought we had the rights to [the name] when we leased the [original Blanco location] in 1999,” Silbas said on Monday. “But we didn’t have the time to go through litigation to fight for it, so we changed the name.”
Wolfe said the lawsuit had nothing to do with their decision to close San Antone. She added that she is unaware of the status of the case against them.
“You know? You have to ask them,” Wolfe said when asked whether there were any pending legal troubles. “The ball’s on their court. I haven’t heard from them, so you have to ask them about what their plans are.”
So we did.
“The intent was clearly to block us from ever opening up Casbeers again,” Quesada said, adding that he doesn’t plan on dropping the lawsuit, even after San Antone closes its doors. “We were given no other choice but [to file a lawsuit]. … Obviously, I didn’t spend $20,000 on attorney fees for nothing.”
“It’s been a lot of stress, and we’re a little crispy,” Wolfe said. “It’s a good crispy, but it has been hard. So we’ll celebrate these 13 years and move on.”
She blamed several factors for their decision to close the restaurant and concert hall, which had maintained the pews and stained glass windows full of gorgeous religious imagery (and excellent acoustics). She blamed the downturn of the economy, Silbas’ health (he had open-heart surgery in January), and some patron’s reservations about drinking and playing rock music in a church.
“Maybe we were a bit early in our concept for San Antone,” she said.
But it was Silbas’ health that was the overriding factor. After his surgery in January, the couple wrestled over whether or not to renew the lease at the end of May for another three years. In April, they decided to close the business. “It was time to put health and family first,” said Wolfe. “[Steve] has been in need of a kidney for six years and he’s going to go on dialysis. It’s not a question of if, but when.”
Following last weekend’s annual crawfish boil, the restaurant closed its doors. From 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, May 21, there will be an auction and sale of all the memorabilia accumulated throughout the years, including the piano, PA system, pinball machine, autographed photos and posters, and paintings. “We don’t want to put all that stuff up on eBay,” Wolfe said. “We want it to stay in San Antonio.”
But there is a good chance this won’t be the end of the couple’s involvement with the city’s gastronomic and musical life.
“We didn’t know what we were going to do, but we’ve been blessed,” Wolfe said. “We’re in talks to some long-time customers who own buildings near downtown to open up something just for lunch. Will there be music? With us, it’s hard to stay away from the music. I’m sure if we open somewhere else, our pinky finger will be on some music.”
Inside the chapel upstairs, the only light was that streaming through the stained glass. Wolfe stood next to one of the windows and looked around in amazement, as if for the first time. I noticed a biblical inscription at the top of the window and read it aloud to her. “I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat. I was thirsty and ye gave me drink.” She looked at me, smiling. “You did feed and quench the thirst of a lot of people,” I said. “But you also gave them music.” She looked back at the stained glass and paused.
“Now you’re making it seem more real to me,” she said, still looking at the image, her voice cracking. “It’s been a surreal experience. We know it’s happening, but it felt like a dream before.”
She stayed there for a few seconds, a sad but peaceful smile on her face.
“Wherever [Wolfe and Silbas] go, it’ll be fine,” said Meyers. “Unlike many venue owners or promoters, they were in it for the music, and it showed. That makes a difference to me.”