BENEATH THE GUNTER, CAVETERIA THRIVED

Restau­rant in the base­ment opened in 1929 and seated 400

San Antonio Express-News - - METRO -

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.”

Cour­tesy UTSA Spe­cial Col­lec­tions

Be­sides serv­ing lunch and din­ner daily, the Caveteria was used as a night­club.

Bob Owen / Staff file photo

In ad­di­tion to the Caveteria, the his­toric Gunter Ho­tel’s base­ment fea­tured an 18-chair bar­ber­shop.

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