Historic Government Hill Gets a Modernist Addition

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Olaf Harmel prepares a whiskey at The Modernist before opening for the evening.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Olaf Harmel preps the bar at The Modernist before opening for the evening.

Thanksgiving Eve is a time when college students come home, and most people have the following holiday off work. For local bartenders and owners, it’s a chance to capitalize on a fun crowd and make up for spilled drinks.

But one San Antonio bartender couldn’t care less about industry trends and making a buck on one of the busiest bar nights of the year. Olaf Harmel will do on Thanksgiving Eve what he does on any other night at his new Government Hill bar, The Modernist: serve craft cocktails to an intimate crowd in a place that looks and feels like home.

The Modernist’s clientele is a mix of people who know him or have heard of him, neighborhood residents, and service industry workers, Harmel said. “The industry crowd is what I’ve always targeted and always gotten. They’ve been my best supporters.”

Patrons seeking out The Modernist for the first time will need to know the address, as the bar lacks signage altogether. Entering the 1930s house on 516 E. Grayson St. feels more like stepping into a 1960s living room than a bar. Sleek furniture, paintings by Texas artist Ralph Ernest White, and elegant background music create a sophisticated yet cozy ambiance, enhanced by the libations that Harmel and his business partner Gerry Shirley serve across the zinc bar.

It certainly feels like a homecoming to 46-year-old Harmel, whom many consider a key player in the establishment of San Antonio’s cocktail culture nearly a decade ago.

In 2008, the Hamburg, Germany native moved to San Antonio from Corpus Christi, where he learned to bartend. That’s when he and Shirley, 48, collaborated on their first venture, a small speakeasy-style bar accessible only through a telephone booth inside Mon Thai Bistro in Alamo Heights. Harmel made a name for himself serving high-end classic cocktails such as Aviations and Sazeracs and winning several mixology competitions throughout the state and nationwide.

Harmel doesn’t care if you call him a bartender or a mixologist. “I prefer the word bartender. Mixology infers some kind of mastery and makes it seem a bit formal,” he said. “But if that’s what the business is, then that’s what I am.”

The son of a longtime ad man, Harmel earned a degree in advertising from UT Austin in 1994. But upon graduating, he quickly realized he wouldn’t be following in his father’s footsteps.

“The [bar] business kind of finds you,” he said. “I always thought that was a cliché, but it’s actually true.”

Olaf Harmel concocts the Modernist Cup in front of patrons at his bar, The Modernist.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Olaf Harmel mixes a Modernist Cup for patrons at his bar.

In 2011, he and Shirley relocated their bar from inside Mon’s to a larger space across the hallway, and a more conspicuous version of Bar du Mon Ami was born – signage and all. Always the face and name that drew cocktail enthusiasts, Harmel lacked ownership in both Mon Amis and the ventures that followed. After a three-year tenure at the upstairs bar at Blue Box at the Pearl, he opened the bar at Southtown’s Brigid (now Francis Bogside) in 2015 and basement bar Ash at Sunset Station in 2016.

But none of them were truly his. “I was ready to get out of the industry,” Harmel said. “I needed something to be mine.”

In late 2016, Harmel and longtime friend Shirley began mulling a new concept. They agreed on a 50-50 partnership, granting Harmel the ownership he wanted. They signed the lease on the house on East Grayson Street in April, and The Modernist officially opened on Oct. 25.

“I’m finally back to what I do best which is small bars,” he said. “You sacrifice some of the revenue, so you can only do a small bar if you’re really passionate about it. It has to really move something inside of you.”

The two partners built The Modernist themselves: they knocked down walls, raised beams, put in floors and refrigerators, built bathrooms and a deck. “I went from being a non-carpenter to being a shitty carpenter,” Harmel said with a chuckle. “But our goal is definitely to build more bars.”

The Modernist is the latest addition to a neighborhood in transition. Some have likened Grayson Street to Austin’s Rainey Street, where old homes repurposed as bars and restaurants line a historic district. Others have decried the forthcoming development and ongoing gentrification taking place in the Government Hill Historic District, citing rising property values and taxes that threaten to displace longtime residents.

Harmel sees the growth as a good thing, because it spurs creativity across industries and enlivens the neighborhood.

“I like the idea of foot traffic,” he said. “I can see people walking back and forth, having a drink here and a drink there. There are a lot of residential areas around here, and there’s a mutual support [among business owners on Grayson Street]. So I see that as being entirely beneficial.”

Jeret Peña, another local cocktail enthusiast whose Boulevardier Group operates The Brooklynite, The Last Word, Rumble, and as of recently Tucker’s Kozy Korner, agrees. His bar Stay Golden was forced to relocate from its spot at the Pearl earlier this year, and will soon join Jason Dady’s Shuck Shack and The Bin Tapas Bar, Grayze, and The Modernist on Grayson Street’s emerging culinary corridor.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am to be on the same block as Olaf,” Peña told the Rivard Report. “He is a consummate professional, who has built a place that’s made for him.”

Both Peña and Shirley, who co-owns Mon’s and Sukeban in Southtown with his wife, said several area business owners aspire to “turn Grayson Street into a destination,” hinting that collective marketing and branding efforts could follow soon.

The Modernist Cup

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The Modernist Cup

“We want to play off each other and position it as a neighborhood that people want to come to,” Shirley said.

The Modernist is open Monday through Saturday from 5 p.m.-2 a.m., with plans to open Sundays and possibly offer food items in the future. In addition to the craft creations resulting from what Harmel calls “improvised bartending,” The Modernist will serve a variety of wines and local craft beer on tap.

Harmel’s intuition and expertise allow him to cater to each patron’s individual cocktail preferences, said longtime local bar owner Steve Mahoney, who worked with Harmel at Blue Box and Brigid and also owns Hanzo and George’s Keep. “Olaf’s palate is comparable to that of a really great chef. He trained some of the staff at Blue Box, so as a business owner, I’m still benefitting from working with him.”

As for the name, Harmel said he and Shirley “wanted to be ironic.” Decorated ’60s-style and based on craft mixology from decades past, some people “don’t understand the name, but that irony is funny to me,” he explained.

The literal component of the bar’s name will unfold slowly, he added. “Once we get settled and the bar has a solid foundation, I’m going to do some modernist cocktails. I’ve got things I’ve been wanting to do, but I needed the right place to unveil them … and this is the perfect place.”

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