Cattleman Square had auspicious beginnings as a gathering point for the old Chisholm Trail, an 18th-century Camino Real. Subsequently it served as a hub for the Missouri-Pacific railroad before falling on hard times as automobiles became the main form of transportation and shipping. Now, walking under I-35 from downtown into the Cattleman Square Historic District, designated as such in 1985, is a mixed bag. Cars zip up and down Frio Street and the area has been an “authorized zone” for day laborers since 1976. That means lots of traffic, but not much of a neighborhood feel — it is an area of transience, of passing through.
So walking into Cattleman’s Square Tavern is like walking into a time warp. But one with only a little bit of power: the wood paneling and the suspended ceilings (not to mention the red-and-white Christmas lights) scream 1970, and despite a fairly fresh coat of paint (brown on the bottom half of the walls and beige on the top), you end up transported back to before the area was designated historic by the city council. The circular diorama, encased in yellowing plastic, of a Budweiser cart being pulled by clydesdales, that hangs from the corner of the bar is the bolo tie on the cowboy. It all adds up to a laid-back-blow-off-some-steam-and-dance-like-a-vaquero ambience.
In the waning light of a Friday evening, my friend and I sauntered up to the bar through a group of guys sitting on Naugahyde stools, talking and smoking. The woman behind the bar is friendly and we order a couple of Dos Equis ($3 apiece) with limes. She keeps checking on us and bringing beers over to our table — that famous San Anto warmth.
A couple dances on the cement area in the middle of the bar reserved for such activity; Tejano plays on the jukebox (evenings, there’s often a DJ). Another group took seats at the base of the dance floor, just to the left of the entrance, a on slightly raised area. Opposite the first bar, across the dance floor and beyond the narrow rows of regular and pub-height tables another bar was being set up as we knocked down a few cold ones. Frosted margarita and hurricane glasses hang upside down from a wooden rack over the bar and mirrors line the wall behind it. There are a couple of pool tables and three large TVs.
Stepping back into the hazy evening light is akin to emerging from cocoon: the light is brighter and sadder. At the top of the building, above the tavern, etched in stone, like a code or coordinates: 19RICHBOOK23. I jot it down in case I need it to get back in.
The bar tab
Cattleman Square Tavern
904 W. Houston
Blow off some steam with a Dos Equis and a two-step
Prices $3 Mexican imports