Raffles proves there are second lives in American bars
Published: January 4, 2012
Certain myths of adulthood loom large in the mind of the child. For a child of divorced parents, The Bar was one such place. Dark, smoky, and slightly sinister, I imagined it as a damp cavern in which adults slithered around and over one another like great lizards with mortgages. When I grew up, I discovered it was exactly like that, only no one could afford a house anymore.
The archetype of The Bar was Raffles. Or, as my parents called it, "Wrinkles," catering as it did to an older crowd of refined vices, pickled and smoked by many years on a barstool. Since 1979, Raffles Restaurant & Bar was next to the Magic Time Machine, another weird fantasy for children, dark and full of adults acting bizarrely. But now Raffles has moved across the highway, occupying a building that used to be the venerable Crystal Baking Company and, more recently, the semi-notorious semi-strip club Headliners. Whatever poles and lap-dance nooks there once might have been are now gone, but the Crystal's ornate wooden bar and stained glass remain. These features, plus the high ceilings and smoke-free space, suggest that Raffles has evolved from its alco-cave origins.
Which will surely irritate some of the old guard, who probably enjoyed the square bar and smokescreen of the original. As that one guy said, "There are no second acts in American life." But he was an old drunk himself, and maybe wouldn't appreciate whatever Raffles is becoming.
For authenticity, camouflage, and context, I go to this new Raffles with my mother and stepfather. I imagined a place haunted by the ghosts of marriages broken, of alimonies bartered for a few dances, of child support funds misallocated to another double Johnnie Walker Red. But Raffles is much more nuanced. The crowd before 10 p.m. skews older, sure. There is a big old round cowboy with a vest, and a little old zoot-suiter with a feathered snap-brim hat. Men sit in the adjacent lounge watching sports on a giant screen. The bars are indeed impressive, and everywhere the stained glass gives the place the feel of a frontier saloon. My mother thinks the bathrooms are very nice.
But then there's the Asian women with about five feet of straight black hair. There's the female Conan O'Brien. There's my mother's former electrician. There's a friendly goth waitress. There are two blonds, one sporting a side ponytail with about 35 years separating her face from her incredible chest, accompanying a much older man. As the night goes on, the live band gives way to a DJ, and the dance floor populates with a more diverse mix, in age and race and general weirdness.
I dance with my mother, but excuse myself when "Addicted to Love" cues up. I decide the blonds are maybe escorts. There are young people in here now, black and brown and white, and a lot less lizardy than I'd have ever thought. Whatever's going on here is puro San Antonio, timelessly strange. The song "Wobble" by rapper V.I.C. comes up and everyone starts line-dancing together. The escorts and their old john, the good-looking black kids, the Asian with the slithering hair, some middle-agers, and my mother, all of them in step and giving new life to an old dance. •
Raffles Restaurant & Bar
1039 NE Loop 410
Vibe Everyone gets down, even if you're not sure how they get back up.
Best Use Dance yourself young — the crowd youthens and diversifies as the night goes on. Still great for an older crowd, but not bad for a younger one.
Prices $3 beer, $3 wells (happy hour)
> Email Brandon R. Reynolds