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I moved to Tobin Hill shortly after arriving to San Antonio in 2007. In August of 2011, a new bar and venue opened on the corner of E. Dewey Place and North St. Mary’s Street at the far end of the somewhat legendary St. Mary’s Strip (a.k.a. “The Strip”), a long-time entertainment district north of downtown and just a few blocks from the Pearl Brewery. Right away, people realized the bar was something different. It wasn’t just the bright blue paint job, it was the name: Hi-Tones. Perhaps most familiar as the nickname of Ritchie Valens, it was also a slang term common in areas like San Antonio’s west side for a person who was well dressed and high class or, alternately, someone who spoke in a high, assertive voice.
Daniel “Danny” Constante Delgado, a San Antonio native, is the driving force behind Hi-Tones. Two years after he opened it, he and his partners opened another bar, Faust Tavern, at the other end of the Strip. This spring, he will open a third bar and venue, Phantom Room, just south of Hi-Tones as well as a vegetarian restaurant and bar, La Botánica, across the street from Faust. Also in the works for Danny are more bars and restaurants in Southtown and other parts of the city.
He works hard to make sure that his businesses add something new to the city while honoring and protecting its culture and remaining within the economic reach of most San Antonians.
To put it another way, Danny is one of many important people transforming San Antonio’s urban core.
I sat down with Danny over a Topo Chico (him) and an Alamo Golden Ale (me) to see what he’s up to. He shared his thoughts on the many issues facing Tobin Hill and the central city, including the looming issues of gentrification and revitalization. Later the same night, I met Danny at Hi-Tones for a concert that was representative of the bar and its clientele: a mixture of punk rock, cumbia, and soul; an ethnically diverse crowd; straight and gay people; a few tough guys; a bunch of cool kids; and a twenty- and thirty-something feel with a few old timers thrown in — including a couple who appeared to have a decade or two on me.
Michael Cepek: Tell me a bit about where you’re from, what you studied, and how you decided to open Hi-Tones.
Daniel Constante Delgado: I was born and raised on the west side of San Antonio. I went to Edgewood School District and ended up going to UTSA. I got my degree in Mexican-American Studies with a concentration in Sociology. When I was young I met Manny Castillo, who founded San Anto Cultural Arts. As a teenager I did a lot of art, especially photography, and I was a writer for El Placazo Community Newspaper. At a very young age Manny was a big influence on my life. Really big. He basically became a father figure to me. As a teenager he took me to Tacoland, Saluté, and Bar America. At these places and others, he introduced me to a lot of cool events, a lot of amazing art and music, and a lot of amazing people. I always told myself that if I ever had the chance, I would open a bar.
MC: Did you have a model for what you wanted to do?
DCD: At that time all I knew was that I wanted to open a bar and have live music and art. Saluté was a big influence on me. Every now and then, a newspaper will compare Saluté and Hi-Tones. The latest article compared us to the old Tacoland. The concepts are there, but I don’t think we could ever be compared to those two spots. I hold both those spots in very high regard. I went to both as a teenager.
MC: For me what’s always been most interesting about Hi-Tones is the way it seems rooted in San Antonio culture and politics. The chamoy shots. The cumbia and conjunto alongside the punk rock and electronic music. The collaborations with Cruz Ortiz. Bands like Colonia and Los de Esta Noche. The general feel of the place. Also, the hosting of fundraisers for the Southwest Workers Union, the murdered Mexican students, and the Mexican American Student Organization. Was your original plan to make those cultural and political involvements central to Hi-Tones? Or did they just happen after the fact?
DCD: San Antonio is really rooted in Mexican-American culture. Being a little kid and seeing an ice cream truck, and running to get all the chamoy and lucas, was amazing. You grew up on it. I think everybody in San Antonio did. It was part of our lifestyle. And being part of the art and music scene here, I hung out with Vincent Valdez, Alex Rubio, and Cruz Ortiz. When I was a teenager they were in their 20s. I always knew that if I opened a spot, they had to be involved. I had to have Chicano-style culture in there. Especially after going to Saluté so often.
Basically, I thought about what my friends and I grew up with, and I wanted to translate that into a bar. So we made these chamoy and pickle shots. It took a while to perfect them. Now, we get national recognition. We’re on national TV. We came out on the shows “Drinking Made Easy” and “Three Sheets to the Wind.” The latest thing was an article in USA Today or the Washington Post. We were voted best dive bar in San Antonio. We’ve had really good recognition nation-wide. Now, people are doing our shots in other cities, which is amazing. And other bars in San Antonio, too. Even Texas Roadhouse, which is a chain, is doing our shots.
All of that cultural influence was really big for me. But at the places on the St. Mary’s Strip, I never saw it. I couldn’t relate to much besides the punk music. Culturally, I didn’t see anything I really related to. For that, I had to go to little hole-in-the-wall bars on the south or Westside. I wanted to bring that concept to the Strip. Because I knew there was a cultural gap and that a lot of people in the scene were looking for it. When I did it, people related. It worked. I’m sure some people might not have been looking for it, but when they saw it, they thought, “Wow, this is who I am and where I come from.” I wanted to bring conjunto back after Saluté closed down. I didn’t know if any other venue on the Strip was going to do it.
MC: Can you tell us a little bit about the variety of music you have at Hi-Tones. Who plays there?
DCD: When we opened Hi-Tones I didn’t want to be known as a punk bar, or a rock bar, or a hip-hop bar, or a country bar. I didn’t want a label. I made it a point to mix all types of music, from jazz to blues to conjunto to hip hop and hardcore. But, I especially wanted to include a lot of conjunto-style music. We’ve had Flaco Jimenez play. We’ve had Santiago Jimenez play. We’ve had Eva Ibarra. Texmaniacs played here for almost a year, every month. They’re Grammy winners. Flaco Jimenez is a Grammy winner, too. Steven Jordan’s son’s conjunto band is going to play soon. We’ve gotten really well known acts. Even acts like Kumbia Queers, who are from outside the United States. A lot of that music is an old style, but we try to bring a lot of modern groups, too. Like Colonia, Los de Esta Noche, and Piñata Protest. These are acts that represent who San Antonio is. It’s good to come to a venue and know that you’re going to hear San Antonio music. It’s exploding right now in Texas and the United States. You have bands like Piñata Protest touring, doing their thing, and making a name for themselves.
MC: I think one thing that folks don’t know about Hi-Tones is that it’s not just 21 year-old kids. When you have Flaco Jimenez, it’s age-diverse as well as culturally diverse. I think that’s important. So what about the political part: the fundraisers, the educational stuff, the things you’ve been involved with? How intentional was it to make that part of Hi-Tones?
DCD: I was very politically active as a teenager. When I went to college I was part of Mecha, MASO, and the Xicano Xicana Education Project. I did video with the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center. And then I ended up joining San Anto Cultural Arts. I was the Vice-President of the Board of Directors before I opened Hi-Tones. I had to step down to work on the bar. So I was very politically involved. It’s hard for nonprofit organizations to raise money. I made it a point to do fundraisers as much as possible. It’s because these organizations affected me and who I am. If it wasn’t for San Anto Cultural Arts, I don’t think I’d be the person I am. Manny, the founder, passed away a few years ago, and we have a picture of him behind the bar at Hi-Tones. These organizations can affect people like they did me. Given the neighborhood I grew up in, if it weren’t for them, I probably would’ve gone a totally different route. I’d be a totally different person.
MC: Do you think a lot of the kids who go to Hi-Tones become aware of these organizations and causes because they’re brought in there, they have fundraisers there, they host nights there? Is there an educational component, too?
DCD: I make sure that when nonprofits come, when we do any fundraisers — like what we did for the 43 students who died in Mexico — it’s an educational factor that you’re bringing into a bar. Who does that, right? When can you go to a bar and get a history lesson? Or a lesson on what’s happening in San Antonio now? You go in there, you have a good time, you listen to amazing music, and then you get more. Like yesterday, we had a show and fundraiser for the Southwest Workers Union. And they told people why they were doing the fundraiser, who they are, and what they do for the city. They told the crowd how to help them with all the issues they’re working on.
MC: The other places you’ve opened or are opening—like Faust, or Phantom Room over on Grayson and St. Mary’s—do they have a similar connection to San Antonio culture?
DCD: Phantom Room is going to do a lot. San Antonio is one of the oldest cities in the nation. The club will feature a lot of stories we grew up with: the Donkey Lady, La Llorona, and Lechusas. Things like that. It’s going to have this whole theater concept that will feature old San Antonio history. Stuff like the Ghost Tracks. You’ll probably see a huge, awesome, black and white photo of kids pushing a bus at the actual tracks. It’s going to be really amazing. We’re going to try to bring in more people from outside San Antonio to play there but still keep it local. A lot of acts stay in Austin and don’t want to come to San Antonio. They don’t have spots to play.
The first year at Hi-Tones, we brought so many people from outside San Antonio and they loved it. That, in turn, caused more bands to come. We had a lot of bands from everywhere telling us they wanted to play our venue. We heard good things. We’re hoping to do that with Phantom Room. It will also have a club feel, where we can bring in a lot of well-known DJs. We’ll have food, too. It will be kind of food truck-style, tacos and stuff like that. I think San Antonio isn’t ready to change that concept yet. That’s what’s working. We’re going to stick with that at this spot. We’re hoping to open in March or early April.
MC: And Faust?
DCD: We noticed that a lot of people in San Antonio were opening whiskey bars. We wanted to stay away from that concept. So we started doing a lot of brandies and cognacs. All our cocktails are brandy and cognac-based. In Mexico, brandy is a big thing, especially Presidente. Presidente is one of our main things at Faust. You go to a quinceañera or a wedding, and you always have a bottle of Presidente. It’s Mexican brandy, and it’s really well known. I’ve been lucky to travel a lot and see unique bars. What we noticed is that San Antonio didn’t really have something that popped, that stood out, that was very different. Everything in Faust is very old and antiquish. We wanted to have a cool little bar that is unlike anything else here. And we get that a lot. People walk in and say, “Wow, I didn’t expect to see this when I walked inside.” That was our concept with Faust.
MC: Hi-Tones is the oldest place you have. We’ve talked about ways in which you’ve responded to people in the neighborhood and their concerns. Do you want to tell us a little bit about the things that Hi-Tones does to be a good neighbor?
DCD: When we first opened Hi-Tones the main issue was noise. I know it was a big complaint. We were more than willing to work with SAPD, Vice, TABC, and the neighborhood. The first thing we did was soundproof the place. SAPD walked in and we showed them, “Look. We soundproofed. We’re doing everything we can to make sure these complaints become non-existent.” We used to have shows outside. We did that because nobody on the Strip was doing it besides Tycoon Flats. We figured that would bring a unique dynamic to the Strip. And that ended up backfiring because it was pretty loud for the neighborhood. So we totally removed that aspect of the bar. We even got sound meters to make sure we weren’t going over the limit.
I know the other complaint was the mess people were leaving. We have security guards and door guys to make sure that no liquor or beer is taken off our premises. You have to do that. It’s a TABC law. Of course, occasionally you have some garbage outside. It’s the whole Strip. It isn’t just our bars. People drive up and drink in their cars and throw garbage on the side of the road. It’s pretty sad, but it happens. So one of the things we decided to do—and we made sure to let SAPD, Vice, TABC, and the neighborhood know—was that every night, up until three or four in the morning, we have our floor guys and door guys take brooms and go a block up and down the street to clean. They clean up every mess, even though most of it has nothing to do with us. They’re not our bottles and cans. But we want to make sure that it’s a clean environment.
With regard to graffiti, any time there’s something on the outskirts of our bar we try to clean it. We were painting it over for a while. We personally would go, buy paint, and do that. Not just on our building, but stuff outside of it. If there was a trash can, something we knew we had the right to paint over, we would physically go out and do it. I personally did it many times. For that first six months I was one of the people who went out with a broom, too, and I cleaned the whole area. I don’t know how many bar owners go out and sweep streets that are a block away from their business. We still do that, to this day. We work to make the streets clean. And of course we’re not going to get everything. We’ll go a block, but whatever happens after that block, we’re not sure what is going on there.
MC: People don’t know that the tagging that happens in the neighborhood has nothing to do with the bars. It’s always happened. And people think it’s gangs. Really, it’s just kids who do really bad-quality stuff, which is totally different from some of the amazing murals we have in the area.
DCD: Definitely. Our building has been tagged really bad. Extremely bad. It’s a thing you have to deal with. It’s always going to happen. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. You can try your best. You can paint over it, but it’ll be there the next day.
MC: Kind of connected to this is a possible issue with your new place, Phantom Room. There’s an expensive housing complex going up literally right next to it. Are you worried about potential conflicts?
DCD: I think any business owner would be worried. And I knew the housing complex would happen. As soon as we got the space, the property owners told us. What we’re hoping is that people that are interested in moving to that complex will be people who will be happy that there’s a really cool spot right next to them. People who are looking to be on the Strip, where there are bars, restaurants, music, culture, art. They know that that’s part of what’s going on on the Strip. Literally, you can go two blocks and the Pearl is right there on Grayson. I’m hoping that the people who are going to move next to us are going to be of all ages, and that they’ll come in and enjoy the environment.
As a business owner, you’re always worried though. Whatever complaints I get, of course we’ll deal with them and try to solve them. I’m not one of these owners who says, “It’s my property, this is my business, and I can do whatever I want.” I want to work with the community. It’s going to be baby steps, though. We’ll see what happens.
MC: Folks like me—you know, I’m in my 40s, I’m a homeowner, I’m a tenured professor—have moved to this neighborhood so they can walk a block away and see shows and go to clubs. There are plenty of people who really appreciate that culture. It’s not necessarily going to bring everybody’s property values down. In fact, businesses like yours might make property values go up. This is what some empty nesters want. They want to see Flaco Jimenez. Or this is what some young folks who work at Rackspace want. They want to be close to culture and nightlife. In my opinion, it’s not a bad thing for the neighborhood—it’s a good thing. But, of course, connected to all this is the issue of rising housing costs in the area. Right down the street on Myrtle they’re building places that will sell for $650,000. It’s like two blocks away from Phantom Room. Presumably, the people who buy those places will have their own ideas about the neighborhood. Also they might have different notions compared to the families that live in the small existing houses, the people who have been there for generations. What do you think about that? Are you worried about it?
DCD: The neighborhood is changing. I didn’t expect it to change so fast. My concern for the neighborhood is that I don’t want it to change. I don’t want what’s been happening here for years to become something totally different. I don’t want small businesses like mine to be forced out because someone will offer the landowner millions of dollars in comparison to what I can offer. To build a condo or shopping center, or whatever those people with a lot of money are going to want to have. That’s my main concern for my businesses on the Strip. I’m pretty sure other businesses on the Strip have the same concern.
MC: Do you think there’s anything the city or the neighborhood association can do to make sure that doesn’t happen? How could people who are organized in the area, or allies in city government, help out?
DCD: Honestly, I don’t know. It’s hard. You know, I’m a business owner. For me to tell another business owner what they can do or not do, I’d be limiting myself at the same time. I would hate to tell a business owner what they can or cannot do. But of course I appreciate the culture that’s here now. Of course. It’s a very difficult question. I can’t really answer it.
MC: Somewhat connected to that issue, do you feel like your own businesses might be contributing to the “revitalization” or “gentrification” here in Tobin Hill? You look at a place like Faust. To me, it’s a really aesthetically pleasing place that you might find on East 6th Street in Austin. You’re going to have young people moving in. You know, “indie rock” or “hipster” types. And that’s often the first wave of change. Do you ever fear that you’re helping to raise those property values and taxes? Some people love higher property values. Some people don’t. Do you worry a little bit about that?
DCD: I’ve been hearing it since we moved in. The Strip was only three bars or so until we moved in. And once Hi-Tones opened up, all of a sudden Brass Monkey opened up. Limelight started doing its own thing and went through several owners. White Rabbit is revamping. Everyone keeps saying that we were the spark. It’s not an easy issue. I think we’re revitalizing it in a good way, though. Because to a lot of people it seemed like the Strip was dying. There was nothing happening there. We’re bringing it back to the way it was. Of course, a lot of people probably don’t want it the way it was in the 90s. With people walking up and down the street, and some of them drunk. But, I think you can slowly eliminate the riff raff if it’s organized right.
But am I contributing to the whole issue? I could be and I couldn’t be. I’m not going to deny that we helped start up the Strip again. I think we did. I’m not trying to be cocky or anything, but we gave a spark to other people who wanted to do other things in the area.
MC: Because of the Pearl, the whole area has been seeing an increase of property value. And some of those folks who like that probably feel that some of your venues are actually hurting the process of gentrification because they’re bringing in young people who drink and stay out late and get rowdy every once in a while. And I hate to say it but there’s probably racism involved as well. For some of the older people who move in from other parts of the country, they see a lot of young Mexican-American people hanging around at night and they think it’s bringing their property values down, which of course is stupid. Then there’s people on the other side of the issue who think your venues are bringing in young, professional twenty-somethings who want to be here because it’s “where it’s at.” There are competing fears and visions of revitalization. Some people might say you’re making it happen, and other people might say you’re keeping it from happening.
DCD: Exactly. I guess it depends on the people who are trying to move in here. I’ve heard people say that they don’t want it to become the Pearl. And other people say that they want it to be like the Pearl. They want all of that to expand and take over the Strip.
MC: Do you ever think that will happen? And you’ll have folks from Stone Oak and Alamo Heights hanging out here? And all the folks who hang out at the Mix and Hi-Tones now, who might come from blue-collar backgrounds, or who appreciate a certain kind of music and style, won’t feel at home anymore?
DCD: I know it could happen. I know a bunch of old school people, like ourselves, hope it doesn’t happen because they want it to stay very genuine to what the concept of the St. Mary’s Strip is. But, as a business owner, I can’t tell anybody what to do. I know the White Rabbit is going to change. And so is Teka Molino. But I welcome that. I welcome it because I know they’re going to bring in new types of people to the Strip and it’s going to give everybody more business.
I love seeing all these new businesses and entrepreneurs. People who have their own concepts and are trying to bring their vision to the Strip. But do I fear it’s going to change? It might. People are now redoing the old Bootleggers. No one knows what they’re going to do. And we do have this old school mentality of not wanting it to change. I meet a bunch of older cats now who saw the St. Mary’s Strip as something very different. The way they saw it was way different from the way it is now. And they’re not even around anymore. Maybe you’ll see them every now and then at the Mix, but it’s not like it used to be. And I know that some people slow down and get married, but there’s still a crowd that goes out, wants a drink, plays music, and every now and then they talk about how it’s changed. I’m lucky enough that I was able to see both of those times on the St. Mary’s Strip.
MC: Ideally, what do you think the Strip should become?
DCD: I’ve had that conversation with a bunch of friends. And business owners, too. We need to keep our mentality of what we want. So that if I start another business, we keep our own vision. In comparison, let’s say, to someone who comes from outside. Even from outside San Antonio. I know that’s happening in other neighborhoods. People who aren’t from San Antonio are buying so much property and trying to get in on this whole real estate thing. With a couple of my business partners, we’ve talked about getting even more of the spots here that are still empty, because that will reinforce our own concept. But, of course, some people might not like that concept.
MC: Could you put that concept into a few words?
DCD: Just keeping San Antonio, San Antonio. We love this city. We don’t want to be compared to any other city. We want other cities to be compared to us. We’re not New York. We’re not Philly. This isn’t Chicago. This isn’t LA. This is San Antonio. It’s not even Austin. I don’t want San Antonio to adopt other people’s traits or business concepts. I want this to be San Antonio. This is who we are, this is where we came from—this is where I came from. I want to be able to walk into a bar and think, “This is San Antonio.” I want to go to a San Antonio bar. I have people from Philly, from Boston, who tell me, “Man, we love your bars because they’re very San Antonio. If you picked up your bar and you dropped it somewhere in Philly, or somewhere in Florida or Louisiana or anywhere, people would eat it up. And you could branch out the San Antonio concept to other cities.” It’s kind of Texas, but there’s something about it that’s different. And that difference is San Antonio. It’s very San Antonio. If anything, I don’t want the Strip to not be San Antonio.
MC: When I have friends visit from other parts of the country and I want them to see something, to go out somewhere, to see something that they won’t see anywhere else, I bring them to Hi-Tones. I used to bring them to Bar America, but that’s changed.
DCD: I loved Bar America. I honestly think that if all they did was change their liquor license it would’ve been amazing. It was perfect. That was a San Antonio bar. I had my own personal ties to it. I went there when I was very young, and I kept going up to when it changed. I had drinks there, and I talked with the owners about how everything around them in Southtown was changing. It was good and bad. But you could just tell it was changing. It was coming. And then it happened. I do want to acknowledge, though, that I’m glad Bar America stayed in the family. I’m happy that the new family owner is young and that the place is doing well.
MC: Any parting thoughts on the current state of San Antonio? What’s happening here? What’s not happening here?
DCD: I love that the city is growing. There are a lot of people talking about the city right now. It’s changing fast. I have friends that have left San Antonio, and they come back and say, “Wow. I didn’t think all of this could happen in San Antonio.” Some friends are coming back and staying. They did their thing and they’re coming back. And they think it’s an amazing city. It’s always been an amazing city. The culture, the food, the music.
MC: Do you think there’s more pride among young people in San Antonio now?
For a while, there were all these people who wanted to go live in Austin. But I always thought they would come back. And many of them did. They would go for a year or two and then return to San Antonio. I can’t compare this to any other city. I’ve traveled a lot, but I always like coming back to San Antonio. I’m kind of biased because I’m from here, but I’ve been to so many cities in this nation, and nothing can compare to San Antonio. It’s old, it’s historic—the food, the culture, the music. I just don’t want that to change. And I don’t want San Antonio to become something it isn’t. Hopefully, it won’t.
This story was originally published on Sunday, Feb. 8, 2014.