Thursday, May 19, 2016

Those Places Thursday: Cooper's Alley and Cantina Santa Fe

I'm in the midst of planning a long weekend trip to Corpus Christi for next month, so naturally that makes me nostalgic for the time I used to live there - April 1979 through October 1984.

I worked for the city government, first in the Park and Recreation Department, then for Information Services (which in those days meant the public information office), and finally for the Budget Office. Early on, though, I met a lot of the bigwigs in city government, and somehow got invited to join them at local bars after work. Two stand out in my mind, since they were so close to where City Hall was at that time (on the bayfront).

Cooper's Alley was located at No. 15 Gaslight Square (1016 Santa Fe), in a two-story building.  Lawyer and former Texas State Representative, Corpus Christi native  W. O. "Bill" Harrison and his friend Larry Williams owned and operated Cooper's Alley Restaurant and Saloon from 1975 through 1986.

I found an early reference to the place on page 133 of the March 1976  Texas Monthly, in the Corpus Christi Restaurants section under "Small, new, or offbeat places to try":

"Among a rash of new restaurants, Cooper's Alley stands out for its inspired decor.  A wealth of oriental rugs cover the wide plank floors, and a second-floor area with wing chairs and fireplace offers cozy and refined evening dining."

The March 1977 Texas Monthly, on page 23, described it further:

"The atmosphere is extremely well done, with artifacts from the historic old Nueces Hotel, and other early Corpus Christi-ana."

And in May 1979, Texas Monthly had this to say (on page 34):

"Choose a spot for romantic dining - upstairs by the fireplace, on the balcony viewing backgammon players under the ceiling fans, in a cozy booth, or a private room with stained glass."

I don't remember eating there much though.  So for me, this description on page 41 of the November 1980 Texas Monthly describes the Cooper's Alley I most remember:

"The saga of Cooper's Alley continues.  Happy hour is a rookery of councilmen, legislators, young professionals, and beautiful women, set against a backdrop of nostalgi-ana from turn-of-the-century Corpus Christi.  But if happy hour is animated, the dinner hour consistently suffers from the culinary blahs....Obviously food isn't always the point here, as evidenced by huge Monday night crowds that come just to drink and make merry."

SO true!  All of it.  I don't remember eating there much, so I can't really comment on the food, but it was THE place to go for anyone connected with local government.  For example, I remember being introduced to ouzo by Jimmy Lontos, the city's director of engineering services who was of Greek origin, on one memorable visit (and no, I did not get sick).

In Texas Monthly's May 1983 issue (p.136), in an article on "The 89 Greatest Texas Bars," Cooper's Alley was, "...despite all the brass and old railroad ties and pina coladas and lip gloss, it's the bar for the young and upwardly mobile."

I have SO many good memories of this place.  Unfortunately, no pictures from the interior, though.  Just the matchbox cover pictured above, and the wooden nickels pictured below (not sure what THAT promotion was all about).  Gaslight Square and the building Cooper's Alley was in still exist; it now is a wedding/event venue - which makes me happy.

Just across the street, at 1011 Santa Fe, was another bar - aptly named the Cantina Santa Fe.  I also found an early reference to the place on page 133 of the March 1976  Texas Monthly:  "This new club is quite popular..."

The March 1977 Texas Monthly, on page 23, described it further:

"A Southwestern flavor, augmented by stained glass and unpainted wood, presides here, and a trellised patio in the back enhances the casual, happy atmosphere.  Frequented by the young professional set."

And in May 1979, Texas Monthly had this to say (on page 32):

"Take a stroll through a Southwestern setting adorned with photos of Mexican revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.  Weekends usually offer Austin area jazz bands."

The description on page 38 of the November 1980 Texas Monthly is a little different, when it comes to the music:

"The mood here is relaxed and laid back in a setting reminiscent of the Southwest and Mexico.  There aren't many attractions on weeknights, so we recommend going on weekends when live duo or solo acoustical acts perform.  If you prefer just good conversation, have a drink on the verandah out back - very civilized.  Young crowds with deep tans and long blond hair."

My husband (who back then was part of my bar crowd) took these two pictures of a group performing at Cantina Santa Fe, sometime in this time period.  He doesn't remember the name of the group, only that the trio played a banjo, acoustic guitar, and bass guitar, and that the girl did an outstanding rendition of the Eagles' song "Desperado."

I don't remember going here a whole lot.  Neither of us remember this feature in the men's room, mentioned in the article on "The 89 Greatest Texas Bars" in  Texas Monthly's May 1983 issue (p.136):

"Worth noting if only for the niftiest rest-room gimmick I came across:  a large wall unit that dispensed Brut, Aramis, or Musk Oil for a quarter."  Cologne?!

Cantina Santa Fe was still in existence in November 1999, but it's not clear after that.

© Amanda Pape - 2016 - click here to e-mail me.


  1. I played for Bill Harrison's Coopers Alley basketball team back in 1976-77. As I recall it was in a County Industrial League. I remember him as a great guy who would buy us drinks when we won. It was the place to go back in those days.

    1. It sure was! Thank you for commenting!

    2. P.S. I worked at the Coastal Bend Council of Governments (1976-78) and met several City workers, most names I've forgotten. There was a fellow who played C&W at Coopers on the weekends at that time, his last name was Snow. He had a 3 name handle. Anyway, all fond memories.

  2. I dated the nicest guy that was a singer (with guitar) sometimes at The Cantina. Do you happen to know who i am talking about? It was 1977/78 when he played there. I must be getting old, but I can't think of his name! I loved reading brought back so many memories. Also I worked with someone at Southwest Airlines at the time who was the girlfriend of one of the owners of Coopers Alley and I can't remember her name! (I think I had too much fun in those days, probably the reason for memory loss!)

    1. Pam, I wish I knew his name too! I didn't move to CC until 1979, and my husband (who'd lived there since 1974) can't remember the name of the group that he photographed in this post! Neither of us can help with the Southwest Airlines employee who was the girlfriend of one of the Cooper's Alley owners - but it might have been Cathy Williams, who Bill Harrison married about 1985.