BENEATH THE GUNTER, CAVETERIA THRIVED
Restaurant in the basement opened in 1929 and seated 400
For nearly four decades, the venerable Gunter Hotel operated a wellknown, popular restaurant hidden from street view — the Caveteria.
The subterranean restaurant opened big and stayed that way for a long time. The Caveteria was an enterprising way of making a utilitarian space pay for itself, with marketing that turned a negative (a windowless room in a basement) into a positive. (“An even temperature of 73 degrees always maintained.”)
According to the Gunter’s successful nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, compiled by local historian Maria Watson Pfeiffer and dated June 26, 2006, the hotel’s cavernous basement contained not only support service areas but an 18-chair barbershop and “the Caveteria, a large cafeteria.” The latter, built at a cost of $200,000, opened Sept. 23, 1929.
“The Cave, as it will popularly be known because of its resemblance to a cave,” was said to be “convenient, pleasant and comfortable,” according to the San Antonio Express, Sept. 22, 1929.
The Cave’s heavy oak doors were inspired by those at Mission San José. Rustic stone walls, columns and “massive arches … around the main dining room” suggested the interior of a cave. They were made of varicolored “Oklahoma field stone, some pieces of which seem shredded, others have a clinker (burnt coal or brick) appearance.” Unglazed floor tile was brick red, and there was red and black trim on tapestrybrick features. Ceiling fixtures and wall lighting incorporated colorful Belgian art glass.
Tablecloths were green, linen napkins were orchid and waitresses wore orchid-and-white uniforms. While color was “dominant,” the Express said Sept. 15, 1929, “contrasts have been so carefully worked out, that there will be no glare, no sharp reflection, nor any dazzling flashiness” to detract from the “cool restfulness of the interior.”
Two lines were set up to speed the serving process, and the serving tables were heated by electrical units, the first of their kind in the city. The room seated 400 at tables for two, four, six or eight.
Vents under the wall sconces provided “a complete supply of fresh, clean air … every three minutes.”
In planning the Caveteria, “we have departed from the general practice of making a cafeteria a cheap place to eat and have endeavored to make it the best in the country,” Gunter Hotel Manager Paul McSween told the Express, Aug. 25, 1929.
Lunch cost 30 cents, and dinner was 50 cents. Compared with humbler establishments where you could get a cheese sandwich for 15 cents, this was premium pricing.
Besides serving lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner from 5 to 8 p.m. daily, The Caveteria turned into a nightclub at 10 p.m., with live music for dancing and food ordered a la carte from the Gunter kitchens.
Sometimes the Nite Club in the Cave featured cabaret acts, “novelty numbers” and vaudeville acts, but dance bands were the norm. One of the serving lines was moved back, and the center of the room was cleared for insertion of a mahogany dance floor.
Several organizations held luncheon or dinner meetings there for years, and debutante parties and wedding celebrations routinely were held there.
The Cave survived a few renovations, including one in the 1950s that whitewashed those old Oklahoma clinkers, but the restaurant ceases to appear in social news after 1963. In the 2006 National Register nomination, Pfeiffer says the basement by that time “contain(ed) the barbershop laundry, pastry kitchen, offices, employee cafeteria and boiler room.”
Besides serving lunch and dinner daily, the Caveteria was used as a nightclub.
In addition to the Caveteria, the historic Gunter Hotel’s basement featured an 18-chair barbershop.