From club days to restaurant era, San Antonio’s red carpet served in style

No, but it’s about time: the legendary downtown restaurant was the opposite of mid-century compared to what many not-quite-post-pandemic restaurants are experiencing now. Red Carpet’s professional waiters have remained for decades; prices were surprisingly reasonable; and he remained afloat until the building was sold under him. It was one of those rare business ideas for something a little different that actually worked.

The Red Carpet began in 1957 as a private club, a way to circumvent state laws against the public sale of liquor by drink, banned throughout Texas beginning in 1935. Fee for membership , clubs could serve drinks to members and their guests and even store bottles. in “alcohol lockers,” a convenience that kept members coming back.

The club was founded by three World War II veterans – Harold Cohen, Melvin Frank and Charles Madden – who were already active in local business, but not in hospitality.

The building they were renting was an unattractive one-story commercial structure at 107 E. Martin St. at Soledad Street. From 1927 to 1954, according to research by the Conservation Society of San Antonio library, it housed a grocery store, printing press, the office of a drugstore chain, a motorcycle sales office, and the Central Vulcanizing Co. before remain empty for a few years. .

To the three young associates, its narrow, beige facade looked good – probably because of the location, across Soledad Street from the National Bank of Commerce building and not far from the Milam building and the courthouse of Bexar County, as well as other banks and the offices of law firms and oil companies.

An article in the San Antonio Express on November 14, 1957 advertised “a grand opening and cocktail party at the newest and perhaps fanciest private club in town.” In the early days of the red carpet, looking low-key to the point of disappearing into the cityscape was an advantage.

A polished brass peephole in the front door allowed staff to sort limbs from wannabes, but there was at least one early mistake when the red carpet was raided for selling his own liquor through the bar. Five cases were reported, on August 4, 1958, when state liquor officials requested and received liquor from the drink. A staggering 292 bottles of whiskey from non-members were confiscated, although apparently the only time this happened.

As a private club, the Red Carpet had to serve food, a technicality the owners took seriously.

An undated menu, probably from the 1960s, refers to the fare as “French Cuisine”, warning diners that “since the French regard cooking as a creative art, the red carpet brings it all the know-how, time and the patience he has.

The menus changed frequently but remained faithful to the classics of continental cuisine. Along with dishes such as sole meunière, beef bourguignon, and veal cordon bleu, there was also beef stroganoff, osso buco, and tarama spread, a Greek-style appetizer made with salmon roe. Caesar salad was prepared at the table, where cherry jubilee and baked Alaska were ignited for showy desserts. Longtime chef Fritz Loeschel has won culinary awards and was sought after for his cooking demonstrations. A May 1982 restaurant listing in Texas Monthly praised its “effortless excellence”,

The Red Carpet began opening for lunch Monday through Friday in early 1964, and soon after the liquor laws were repealed in 1971, the club opened up to anyone who l would appreciate. “We’ve thrown away the key… Now open to the public,” proclaimed an ad in the San Antonio Light on Nov. 8, 1972.

The venue has become even more popular for special occasions, family birthdays and anniversaries as well as parents’ evenings. Dressed dinners; and if they brought their children, the youngsters were expected to adopt their best behavior. The decor signaled a grown-up atmosphere — red flocked wallpaper, leather seats, white china, and white table linens.

Waiters who were ‘perfect gentlemen’ ‘wrapped white linen napkins over ladies’ laps with panache and even lit your cigarette for you,’ said Ann Buckmaster, who recalled business lunches in the 1960s and 1970 in response to a question. on Facebook. “There were oil men sealing a deal with a handshake and lawyers discussing their cases. Also bankers and secretaries – the business world gathered there for lunch. Secretaries too? Sure; all entrees with two vegetables sold at that time for $2.95 each. Happy hours were also affordable from the long bar which also served a perfect coffee shoot, the beautifully layered drink.

The high-end styling was a red carpet highlight, according to Janet Matthews, daughter of co-owner Charles Madden. His 10th birthday was a Hawaiian-themed dinner at the restaurant with punch served from coconuts.

“When you went to the red carpet, they made all of their guests feel like celebrities,” she said, noting that the restaurant was also a frequent post-show stop for real-life celebrities, including lots of autographed photos could be seen on the walls. . The red carpet was the kind of place Tony Bennett would have gone to dinner, and he did. Just like Nat King Cole, John Wayne, Red Skelton, Chico Marx and conductors Harry James and Ted Lewis.

Several nights a week there was live music to dance to, with a bandstand and hardwood dance floor. Adolfo Jimenez, an accordionist from Monterrey, Mexico, was the leader of a popular quartet that achieved a record album, “A Night at the Red Carpet”, featuring some of the group’s greatest hits. There were other sets, Matthews said, usually Latin music because that’s what patrons enjoyed most to dance to.

The Red Carpet closed in 1992, a victim of the savings and loan crisis. Madden, who became a manager after retiring from his construction business, told The Light on April 15, 1992 that the restaurant had lost business due to bank failures and partners’ inability to renew its lease, because the building was in the hands of the Resolution Trust Corp., a federal agency liquidating the assets of insolvent savings.

An auction took place on May 26, 1992, “on the site of the now defunct establishment”, said the Express-News of the day, describing it as the former “place of restoration and meeting of … San Antonio power brokers”. On sale were tableware, glassware, barware, oil paintings, banquet booths, serving carts, sterling silver wine buckets” and the hallmark of the restaurant, armchairs upholstered in red”.

A later strip club of the same name on the site, Matthews said, had nothing to do with the previous owners, who were “pretty upset about it”. In 2018, the venue became V Lounge, a Las Vegas-style nightclub.

For an echo of the red carpet vibe, visit this column’s social media pages for links to recordings from Jimenez’s album, provided by local music historian Jason Saldaña. | Twitter: @sahistorycolumn | Facebook: San Antonio History Column