Serna's shaker could serve up martini magic.
Serna's shaker could serve up martini magic.
Nicole Frug

Last Call

The master of the martini is dead.

Near the end, 62-year-old Jose Serna was an elder of sorts to thousands of new arrivals into a revitalized downtown. With his trademark bow tie and black-rimmed Buddy Holly eyeglasses, he was the supreme mixologist behind the bar at Warren's Inn. He treated customers to a wit as dry as the martinis he served up. Serna accented his drinks with a wry grin that warmed in a way that a scotch on the rocks could never rival.

"A good bartender is 75 percent personality," Serna told the Houston Press in 1997. "The job is a balancing act. I do everything here but own the place. The key is getting in a rapport with the customers."

Serna took that rapport to high levels in more than three decades as bartender and manager of Warren's and its sister pub, La Carafe.

Christopher Reyes remembers Serna as a bartender from the old school, the kind not often seen anymore. "He was the epitome of a bartender: black bow tie, white shirt, black pants and always ready with a joke," says Serna's old customer. "This place had class because of Mr. Jose."

The most veteran of customers at Warren's and La Carafe remember Serna when he was one of them, the quiet new stranger, the former Air Force sergeant who bedded down in a dollar-a-day Salvation Army room.

Not surprisingly, Jose Serna showed up around the time that Warren Trousdale, the late owner of the bars, would put out a tray of sandwiches to feed the regulars. Carolyn Wenglar, Trousdale's sister, recalls the group marveling at how poverty did not erode this man's honesty and pride.

"Jose wouldn't get a sandwich until he had bought a beer. He figured if he had one beer, he could have a sandwich," Wenglar recalls. "I remember a time when a customer offered to buy Jose a beer and he replied, 'No, when I can buy you a beer in return, you can buy me a beer.' "

Impressed, the bar operator hired Serna as a janitor in 1978. But one day he showed up to collect his last paycheck. Puzzled, Trousdale asked why he was leaving. Serna answered bluntly: He'd caught the bar's manager stealing liquor, and the manager had fired him on the spot. Trousdale acted with equal swiftness -- he immediately canned the crooked manager, rehired Serna and promoted him to manage both bars.

Another long and close relationship was developing at the same time. Serna had become friends with a woman named Bonnie who lived in a downtown residential hotel. He started sleeping in her room, on the sofa. After all, he'd explain, her hotel had air-conditioning -- the Salvation Army didn't. The coolness found a way to his heart. Their marriage lasted until Bonnie's death four years ago.

Serna's rare vacations usually meant trips to one destination: "He lived to go to Las Vegas," local businessman and Serna friend Bill Jones remembers. "He had this little camper, and I mean little, that he and his wife would pack up and drive to Vegas."

Regulars would await his return, to be entertained by his funny travelogue tales. Night bartender Jan Cage remembers when Trousdale lent Serna his Lincoln Town Car for a New York trip with Bonnie. Driving into a very light rain, Cage says, Serna turned on one of the car's new features, the intermittent windshield wipers.

The infrequent sweeps of the wipers fascinated Bonnie, who had never seen anything like it. Serna grinned sheepishly as he later told the bar crowd about his reply when Bonnie asked if something was wrong with the car.

"No, not at all. The Lincoln's wipers are set to swish across the windshield after five drops hit it,' " Serna had deadpanned. Cage giggles at the end of the story: "Bonnie started counting. Then Jose's luck got better and it began to rain harder. He slowly adjusted the wipers to a higher speed as his wife sat spellbound by the car's modern technology."

For Serna, humor was to be shared with everyone -- even Liberace, one of Trousdale's Hollywood friends. The eccentric entertainer once came in to Warren's after a concert, clad in a bizarre outfit, and took a seat at the bar, squarely in front of Serna's drink-mixing area. The bartender noticed Liberace's gaudy jewelry. Serna said, "I took a bar towel and threw it over his hands and said, 'Your rings are blinding me. I can't get any work done.' " Trousdale, who was with Liberace, said he "almost had a heart attack, but I just couldn't stop laughing."

"Jose always had a joke," Cage remembers. "He had stories galore."

The liquor and laughter flowed smoothly, even as downtown took an uncertain course. Serna had started during one of the distinctly different eras for downtown. He had arrived when Market Square was ringed by buildings. It thrived with nightlife in such clubs as the Golden Fleece, Mother Blues, The Cellar, La Carafe and The Ali Baba. As those places shuttered into darkness, the crowds thinned, but Warren's and La Carafe survived. In 1988 the wrecking ball chased Warren's across the square, to its present location on Travis near Congress. Trousdale died that year, but the family kept the bar operating.

Another seeming threat arrived more recently with downtown revitalization -- and competition from the clusters of trendy new bars. Warren's and Serna were different; they were veterans; they were genuine. The young crowds discovering downtown soon filled the modest establishment. They loved Serna's martinis.

"Presentation is all of it, especially with the weather so hot," Serna explained. "The trick is to chill the glass and then shake it, so that it's frosty on the rim, with the little icicles forming on the top." As for the mix and garnishment, "listen to the customer," Serna advised.

A regular customer, legal assistant Jo Ann Napier, says Serna's secret was in providing a cozy home away from home. "He genuinely cared about us." His deft management touch awed Napier. "He ran a tight bar. If somebody got out of line, they were gone. He could control the crowd. He could get everybody's attention with a joke."

While the work escalated, Serna delighted in showing off his mixing abilities for new fans. And last fall he enjoyed planning a vacation to see a friend in Fargo, North Dakota. Of course, there was to be a stop at various gambling centers as well. "His dream was inspecting KOA campgrounds, he would tell us, going from campground to campground, casino to casino across the country," says Cage.

That dream trip would never happen. Serna was becoming seriously ill. The diagnosis: cancer. Incurable cancer.

In a 1977 interview Serna talked with quiet pride about one of his achievements: There had never been a bar fight in all his years at Warren's. He was able to head off trouble early.

"I never went to school on this, but I've learned which guys can handle three drinks and which ones have a chip on their shoulder," he said. "I sense what's going to happen; I'm always one step ahead of the game."

His words may have been an ominous indication of what happened last in his life. With the disease worsening until he could no longer work, Serna went into solitude, far from the clanking of highball glasses and the din of chatter and jukebox. Authorities say that on February 21 he killed himself with a gunshot to the head.

"We just sat here and kept hoping that he would get better," Napier says. Serna never saw the giant Valentine's Day card, with more than 100 signatures, waiting for his return. That card now rests in the back corner of Warren's, as a memorial to a master bartender.


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