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Destination 2018: San AntonioBy Jessica Thomas

Think San Antonio is just for strolling the River Walk and remembering the Alamo? Not anymore. One innovative neighborhood is helping to transform the 300-year-old city’s image—and paving the way for its revitalization.

  • The Witte Museum. Photo courtesy of the Witte Museum
  • Former brewhouse Hotel Emma. Photo by Nicole Franzen
  • Hotel Emma’s lobby. Photo by Nicole Franzen

It’s an unusually hot Friday in early June in San Antonio, but even 100-degree weather isn’t stopping people from descending on the city’s most exciting neighborhood. Children shriek as they run across a splash pad, and parents keep a watchful eye from under the shade of blue umbrellas. In air-conditioned cafes, freelancers tap away on laptops while students from the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus stride to class in white chef’s jackets and clogs.

There are restaurants everywhere in this neighborhood—17, to be exact, many of which are helmed by chefs who graduated from the CIA’s program here. At the moment, power lunchers are filling the restaurants. One of the most popular is Cured, where a meat locker dominates the middle of the dining room, demanding homage; Steve McHugh, the chef, has been nominated for the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest three times since Cured opened in 2013.

At the heart of this community is the magnificent Hotel Emma, whose lobby is filled with guests sipping margaritas from hand-etched blue glasses and tourists taking a peek at the Roman and Williams-designed property, which is housed in a 19th-century brewery, the longtime maker of Texas icon Pearl beer. Hotel Emma, which opened in 2015, is not just one of the finest new hotels in the region, it’s one of the finest hotels in the country, period. You can see its perfectionism in details such as custom guayabera-style robes in the rooms, minibars stocked with Texas favorites like Topo Chico water and service that is wonderfully anticipatory while never obnoxious: Go for breakfast two mornings in a row at restaurant Supper, and the waiters will remember your coffee order from the first day.

All of this constitutes Pearl, a 22-acre development north of downtown that’s home to some of San Antonio’s most coveted apartments, restaurants, shops, a weekly farmers market, event venues like the sonically state of the art Jazz, TX and the CIA’s 30,000-square-foot campus, its third in America.

“Pearl was the start of an urban revitalization in San Antonio,” says mayor Ron Nirenberg. “It has become a model for how public-private partnership can spur quality development.”

It’s hard to imagine that this site was a brewery as recently as 2001. But the San Antonio of 2001 wasn’t the San Antonio of today, and with year-over-year population growth that ranks among the highest in America, it’s not the way San Antonio, which now has a metro area population of about 2.5 million, will look in 2050. So how does a city that’s now celebrating the 300th anniversary of its founding stay true to the roots that make it one of America’s most culturally—and demographically—diverse cities while planning for growth? With the help of a forward-thinking local government, a supportive business community and visionary leaders, Pearl is leading the way.

  • Couples eating at Cured and watching the action. Photo by Scott Martin

In 2002, a local billionaire named Christopher “Kit” Goldsbury, who made his fortune in 1994 when he sold Pace Foods (maker of Pace Picante sauce) to Campbell’s for $1.1 billion, bought the Pearl Brewery site through his private equity firm Silver Ventures. In business from 1883 to 2001—Pearl is now brewed in Fort Worth and distributed regionally—the brewery had been abandoned. Goldsbury saw the potential to create a culinary and cultural hub.

At the same time, the city was embarking on a $72 million expansion of the San Antonio River called the Museum Reach project. Though San Antonio is known for its River Walk—the downtown district where the banks of the river are lined with hotels, restaurants, bars and shops popular with vacationing families and convention attendees—the riverbanks north and south of the core district weren’t navigable by boat. In some places, water levels were so low that the river looked more like a creek. “There was a general feeling within the city that it was time to re-look at the river and what it could be,” says Suzanne Scott, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority.

The Museum Reach project was so named because this 1.3-mile stretch of the river runs past the San Antonio Museum of Art, the natural history Witte Museum and the DoSeum, a museum for children. That same stretch also ran by the Pearl Brewery site. “Kit Goldsbury knew the Museum Reach project was going to be a catalyst for making his Pearl development a destination because the connection to the river was going to be important,” Scott says.

“Pearl would’ve made a lot less sense to us if the city and the county hadn’t made this commitment to bring the river back up here,” says Elizabeth Fauerso, Pearl’s chief marketing officer. “As we’re in our tricentennial year, we realize that the river is the artery that connected all our neighborhoods. It’s kind of our raison d’être as a city. It’s been amazing to be a part of a project that brings that back.”

One of the best ways to understand the city’s evolution is to visit the current “Confluence and Culture: 300 Years of San Antonio History” exhibit at the Witte Museum, which walks museumgoers through the city’s founding by the Spanish in 1718, the building of its five Spanish Colonial missions, its development as a military hub that was the site of the famed Battle of the Alamo and its emergence as a modern city.

“Houston, Dallas and Austin boomed, while San Antonio grew slowly but surely.”

“The Witte was the largest museum in Texas for a long time, but it went through this quiet phase, like San Antonio,” says Marise McDermott, the museum’s president and CEO, who took the helm in 2004 and has since overseen a $100 million fund-raising campaign and expansion of the 92-year-old museum. “But the city always had a sense of itself and its music, food and culture. Houston, Dallas and Austin boomed, while San Antonio grew slowly but surely. ”

Bill Shown, managing director of real estate for Silver Ventures, agrees. “When we started on this journey with Pearl, we said, ‘Let’s create a place for San Antonians.’ We knew that if we did a good enough job with it, visitors would be attracted to it too.”

A culinary education center opened in 2006. Two years later, Kit Goldsbury donated $35 million to found the CIA campus in that center. Most of that gift is earmarked for scholarships for local Latino students, a recognition of the city’s demographic and culinary heritage. Residential and retail developments followed, as did Hotel Emma.

Goldsbury, 75, almost never gives interviews and didn’t for this story. But those who know him say that in investing in an undistinguished parcel of land surrounded by warehouses and highways, he was motivated by a love for San Antonio as much as a quest for profit. When you look at the spare-no-expense transformation of the Pearl Brewery, it’s clear that a typical bottom line-driven private equity firm would never have made the same choices.

“We spent months envisioning what we wanted Hotel Emma to be,” Shown says. “Then we asked, ‘What is this vision going to cost?’ And, ‘What might this vision return?’ ”

Elsewhere in San Antonio, that vision seems to be contagious. Silver Ventures is developing another site south of downtown near the 1968 World’s Fair site, and the city has developed another 8-mile-long stretch along the river called Mission Reach, which helped the area’s five historic Spanish missions sites and a nearby ranch win designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015. Developer Graham Weston, who cofounded cloud-computing company Rackspace, has been instrumental in bringing businesses back to downtown by developing coworking and office spaces. Through a public-private partnership with the city and Frost Bank, his Weston Urban development company is building the city’s first new skyscraper in decades: the $142 million Frost Bank Tower, slated to open in early 2019.

“Pearl has become iconic for the vision San Antonio has, if we make the right decisions,” Mayor Nirenberg says. “We have so much opportunity for an urban renaissance.”

  • Cityscape

    Where to work, play and invest in San Antonio

Geekdom

After serving as CEO and chairman of San Antonio–founded cloud computing company Rackspace, Graham Weston, a native of the city, has made it his mission to “create an ecosystem where the next Rackspace can happen,” says Lorenzo Gomez, chairman of the coworking space Weston cofounded, Geekdom. Housed in a downtown San Antonio building Weston owns through his Weston Urban real estate development company (he owns quite a few of them), Geekdom provides low-cost memberships to entrepreneurs who are committed to starting and growing businesses in San Antonio. 100 E. Houston St., 210.373.6720, geekdom.com

The San Antonio Economic Development Foundation

Under the leadership of the dynamic Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, San Antonio’s EDF is tasked with bringing new business to San Antonio, retaining the companies that currently do business there and fostering a pool of talent for those companies to hire from. The city is expected to double its civilian labor force by 2040, so the SAEDF’s role in the city’s network of businesses will become even more important. 112 E. Pecan St., Suite 2635, 210.226.1394, sanantonioedf.com

Hotel Emma

This stunningly renovated hotel is the epicenter of the Pearl Brewery complex and a draw for locals and tourists alike. Named after Emma Koehler, who kept Pearl Brewery running through Prohibition after the death of her husband, Otto, Hotel Emma pays homage to the brewery’s past without sacrificing any comforts—rooms are the epitome of low-key luxury, outfitted with Frette linens and custom robes from local company Dos Carolinas. The onsite restaurant, Supper, specialty food store and grab-and-go café, Larder, and cocktail bar, Sternewirth, all defy the stereotypes about boring hotel restaurants. And for a place that’s bustling with locals and nonguests all day, one of the things Hotel Emma does best is create small experiences that make those staying in the hotel feel special (think margarita cocktail hour, morning coffee and baked goods in the library and a rooftop pool reserved just for guests). 136 E. Grayson St., 210.448.8300, thehotelemma.com

Hotel Havana

Liz Lambert made her name as a hotelier in Austin, Tex.; Hotel Havana, the 27-room property her Bunkhouse Management runs in San Antonio, was her debut in the city. Housed in a 19th-century building near (but somewhat removed from) the busy River Walk, Hotel Havana caters to the same hip crowds that love Lambert’s Austin properties. Ocho, the in-house restaurant, is popular with locals and guests alike. 1015 Navarro St., 210.222.2008, havanasanantonio.com

La Cantera Resort and Spa

Golfers flock to this sprawling resort north of San Antonio on the edge of Texas’ famed Hill Country. Two 18-hole courses—one designed by the Arnold Palmer Design Company—are among the best links in the area. La Cantera’s family-friendly pools and proximity to Six Flags Fiesta Texas make it popular with those with young children, but the resort’s more recent additions are designed to cater to adult travelers. In recent years it debuted Seven, an adults-only floor with a private lounge and separate check-in desk, and renovated the Villas at La Cantera for guests who prefer the privacy of their own villa. In 2017 La Cantera opened the 25,000-square-foot Loma de Vida Spa, a secluded area to relax away from the hubbub of the main resort building while taking in sweeping views of the Hill Country. 16641 La Cantera Pkwy., 210.558.6500, destinationhotels.com/la-cantera-resort-and-spa

Cured

Housed in the former Pearl Brewery administrative offices, chef Steve McHugh’s Cured has been a Pearl staple since it opened in 2013. If its menu’s focus on charcuterie and pickled vegetables isn’t obvious to diners based on the name, it certainly becomes apparent when they open the doors and see the walk-in meat locker that sits in the middle of the dining room. It’s bustling during lunch hours, and build-your-own charcuterie plates and inventive cocktails make Cured a happy hour go-to for San Antonians. 306 Pearl Pkwy., Suite 101, 201.314.3929, curedatpearl.com

La Gloria at the Pearl

Johnny Hernandez is something of a celebrity chef in San Antonio, and his Pearl restaurant La Gloria is one of the most bustling spots in the neighborhood. The menu focuses on street foods from Mexico’s interior states—the spicy shrimp ceviche and bubbling skirt steak molcajete aren’t to be missed. And the outdoor patio, complete with misters to keep diners cool even when temperatures soar, is the perfect place to sip a margarita while overlooking the meandering San Antonio River. 100 E. Grayson St., 210.267.9040, chefjohnnyhernandez.com/restaurants/la-gloria-pearl

Mixtli

A celebration of Mexico and its vastly different regional cuisines, Mixtli is one of San Antonio’s most unique restaurants. In a tiny kitchen housed in an old train car behind a strip mall, chefs Diego Galicia and Rico Torres prepare 10-course tasting menus that focus on regional Mexican cuisine and change every 45 days. The vegetable-heavy early fall menu, El Campo, focuses on “farms, milpas, ranches, and growing fields all over Mexico” and includes everything from tomatillo sorbet with lemon oil to cauliflower barbacoa with carrot and avocado. Mixtli can only seat 12 guests per night and requires prepaying $135 to reserve a seat, but Galicia and Torres are drawing local regulars and curious out-of-towners with their inventive cooking. And others are noticing: The duo was named to Food and Wine’s Best New Chefs list in 2017, and they were both semifinalists for Best Chef: Southwest at the 2018 James Beard Awards. 5251 McCullough Ave., 210.338.0746, restaurantmixtli.com

Signature, Inspired by Chef Andrew Weissman

Andrew Weissman was one of the first chefs who helped put San Antonio on the national culinary map—he has been nominated for four James Beard Awards and written up in the New York Times for his French fine-dining spot Le Rêve, which was open from 1998 to 2009. Since then, he’s opened a number of more casual spots around town. But Signature at Hill Country resort La Cantera is his first return to fine dining since Le Rêve closed. Set among the rolling hills of the resort’s golf course, the restaurant is housed in a former golf clubhouse that has been transformed into a stand-alone restaurant. With its wide-planked wood floors and cozy furnishings, stepping into Signature almost feels like taking a trip to Provence. And the South-of-France-inspired menu (try the black tea smoked duck breast) is full of surprises. 16401 La Cantera Pkwy., 210.247.0176, destinationhotels.com/signature-restaurant

Pearl Farmers Market

There’s no better time to experience Pearl than Saturday and Sunday mornings during its weekly farmers market. Peruse the vendors’ wares (all products must come from within a 150-mile radius of the city), pop into one of the many stores (Adelante Boutique for colorful embroidered pieces; Curio at Hotel Emma for delicate jewelry from Texas artisans) and stop for a bite to eat at one of the food hall’s many vendors or a beer at Southerleigh brewery. 312 Pearl Pkwy., 210.212.7260, atpearl.com

San Antonio Museum of Art

Housed in what was once home to Lone Star Brewery, SAMA is the first of three museums that make up the Museum Reach corridor of the San Antonio River. It’s home to a vast collection of Greek, Roman and Egyptian art and the Nelson A. Rockefeller Latin American art wing, which focuses on folk art. 200 W. Jones Ave., 210.978.8100, samauseum.org

Witte Museum

The 92-year-old Witte Museum is an ode to South Texas history and art, and it’s a must-see for first-time visitors to San Antonio. The museum’s new wing, dubbed the New Witte, opened in 2017 and houses its already wildly popular Naylor Family Dinosaur Gallery. Visit before the end of the year for the chance to see the important and informative Confluence and Culture: 300 Years of San Antonio History exhibit. 3801 Broadway St., 210.357.1900, wittemuseum.org

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