Always open, also always closed, always worth a stop.
Cartoon Saloon’s inclusion under the heading of ‘dive bar’ is a bit of a misnomer as the building constructed in 2018 is more a saloon than a dive, no alcohol is offered for sale and the opening hours are both always and never. On the edge of cartoonist J.P. Rankin’s property, Cartoon Saloon is more an attraction than anything else, a haphazard-looking but intentional collection of rustic-looking buildings and a tree filled with hanging Lone Star beer bottles aptly-named the Lone Star Beer Christmas Tree.
As the sign above the property’s main structure says, the Cartoon Saloon is located “halfway between Comfort and Welfare,” two of Texas Hill Country’s city centers north of San Antonio. The Lone Star Beer Christmas Tree appeared here first in 2013, created on a whim by Rankin and daughter Ammeke Herrera. A conversation about how to celebrate Texas Independence Day five years later in 2018 resulted in an equally impromptu decision to serve free beer and hot dogs next to the tree, handing out provisions to those traveling by as an unexpected celebration of the state’s independence.
What started as a few beers and a grill quickly grew to the network of structures seen today on the site of Cartoon Saloon, including the main saloon building (not a saloon), a nearby structured marked as Sal Men Nello’s Café (not a café) and a short wooden structure in between that houses an array of Rankin’s work and an honor system refrigerator filled with beer and topped with a donation bucket. Visitors are welcome to bring their own beverages or dip into the refrigerator for a Lone Star or two in exchange for a donation of some kind.
The roadside oddity element of Cartoon Saloon attracts visitors interested in a couple of pictures, but the real Cartoon Saloon experience includes stumbling upon a regular or two sitting next to the honor system refrigerator. There are no defined hours of operation at Cartoon Saloon, though catching someone helming the fridge is more likely on a Saturday afternoon or other prime drinking time. Though Rankin and friends Paul Denmark, Brian Coyle and Marc “Biscuit” Lafrenais started the ball rolling on what became Cartoon Saloon, a handful of other regulars today make Cartoon Saloon a recurring stop.
After grabbing a beer, wandering the property is the natural next step but the nondescript building that houses Rankin’s art selections is filled with its own set of stimuli. A boar head with a cowboy hat, cutouts of Elmer Fudd and John Wayne, a Lone Star-branded armadillo, all of it exists in the gaps between framed pieces of Rankin’s work. A small dispenser filled with loaner beer koozies sits on the wall just outside of the alcove that houses the refrigerator.
The nearby Cartoon Saloon itself is a hollowed-out, open-air imitation of a bar caked in decorations both original and those left behind by visitors. The bar counter is made out of concrete and beer bottles, the exposed beams are lined with empty Lone Star cans and used license plates can be found throughout the space. Markers can be found next to the guestbook that hangs off of the wall for the purpose of not just allowing but encouraging visitors to leave their literal mark on the Cartoon Saloon.
The Lone Star Beer Christmas Tree may be the marquee exterior attraction, but odds and ends can be found throughout the grounds, including a wind chime made out of animal bones and a motorcycle manned by a skeleton. Numerous seating options dot the wooded area next to and behind the saloon, wooden chairs mixed with industrial-sized spools as tables. The surroundings are unique and Hill Country-scenic enough to have attracted multiple weddings over the years, one of them presided over by Rankin in full Elvis costume.
Capturing a full log of Cartoon Saloon attractions defeats the serendipitous purpose of the property, a collection of buildings that may not qualify as a dive bar but matches the same spirit of authenticity. Timing a visit is the key here, everything enhanced by sharing a Lone Star with members of the small community that keep Cartoon Saloon alive.