From club days to restaurant era, San Antonio’s Red Carpet served up style – San Antonio Express-News

No, but it’s time: The legendary downtown restaurant was the midcentury opposite of what many not-quite-post-pandemic restaurants are going through now. The Red Carpet’s professional waitstaff stayed for decades; prices were surprisingly reasonable; and it stayed afloat until the building was sold out from under it. It was one of those rare business ideas for something a little different that actually worked out.

The Red Carpet started in 1957 as a private club, a way around state laws against the public sale of liquor by the drink, prohibited across Texas from 1935. For a membership fee, clubs could serve drinks to members and their guests and even store bottles in “liquor 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 already were active in the local business community although not in hospitality.

The building they leased was an unprepossessing one-story commercial structure at 107 E. Martin St. at Soledad Street. From 1927 through 1954, according to Conservation Society of San Antonio library research, it housed a grocery store, a printing company, the office of a drugstore chain, a motorcycle sales office and the Central Vulcanizing Co. before standing empty for a couple of years.

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

A story in the San Antonio Express, Nov. 14, 1957, announced a “formal opening and cocktail party at the city’s newest and perhaps swankiest private club.” In the Red Carpet’s early days, looking discreet to the point of disappearing into the streetscape was an advantage.

A polished brass peephole in the front door allowed staff to sort members from wannabes, but there was at least one early-days slipup when the Red Carpet was raided for selling its own liquor across the bar. Five cases were made, Aug. 4, 1958, when state liquor control board agents asked for and received liquor by the drink. An impressive 292 bottles of not-members’ whiskey were confiscated, though seemingly the only time this happened.

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

An undated, probably 1960s, menu refers to the fare as “Cuisine Française,” cautioning diners that, “Since the French consider cooking a creative art, the Red Carpet brings to it all the skill, time and patience it possesses.”

Menus changed frequently but stuck to classics of Continental cuisine. Besides dishes such as sole meunière, boeuf bourguignon and veal cordon bleu, there was also beef stroganoff, osso buco and tarama spread, a Greek-style appetizer based on salmon roe. Caesar salad was prepared tableside, where cherries jubilee and baked Alaska were set aflame for showy desserts. Longtime chef Fritz Loeschel won culinary awards and was sought after for cooking demonstrations. A May 1982 restaurant listing in Texas Monthly praised his “effortless excellence,”

The Red Carpet started opening for Monday-Friday lunch in early 1964, and shortly after the repeal of liquor-by-the-drink laws in 1971, the club opened to all who would appreciate it. “We’ve thrown away the key … Now open to the public,” proclaimed an advertisement in the San Antonio Light, Nov. 8, 1972.

The venue became an even more popular one for special occasions, family birthdays and anniversaries as well as parental date nights. Diners dressed up; and if they brought their children, the youngsters were expected to be on their best behavior. The décor signaled a grown-up atmosphere — red flocked wallpaper, leather seating, white china and white table linen.

Waiters who were “perfect gentlemen” would “drape the white linen napkins across the laps of the ladies with a flourish and even light your cigarette for you,” said Ann Buckmaster, who remembered 1960s and ’70s business lunches there in response to a query 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 for lunch there.” Secretaries, too? Sure; all entrees with two vegetables sold at that time for $2.95 each. Happy hours were affordable, too, from the long bar that also served a perfect pousse-cafe, the magnificently multilayered drink.

High style was a highlight of the Red Carpet, according to Janet Matthews, daughter of co-owner Charles Madden. Her 10th birthday party was a Hawaiian-theme dinner party at the restaurant with punch served out of coconuts.

“When you went to The Red Carpet, they made all of their guests feel like celebrities,” she said, noting that the restaurant also was a frequent apres-show stop for actual celebrities, many of whose autographed pictures could be seen on the walls. The Red Carpet was the kind of place Tony Bennett would have gone to dinner, and he did. So did Nat King Cole, John Wayne, Red Skelton, Chico Marx and bandleaders Harry James and Ted Lewis.

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

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

An auction was held May 26, 1992, “on the site of the now-defunct establishment,” that day’s Express-News said, describing it as the former “eating and meeting place for … San Antonio power brokers.” On sale were dishes, glassware, bar items, oil paintings, banquet booths, serving carts, sterling-silver wine buckets “and the restaurant’s trademark, red-padded arm chairs.”

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

For an echo of the Red Carpet’s ambiance, visit this column’s social media pages for links to recordings from Jimenez’s album, provided by local music historian Jason Saldaña.

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