By James Gregory Wilkinson
Walking along a green, park-like stretch of San Antonio’s River Walk, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in the middle of the countryside in New England. Here, tranquility abounds as people stroll along either side of a river lined by trees and colonial buildings above and around the canopy.
Then, as you pass around a bend, skyscrapers arise and at the base, bars, cafés and restaurants serving everything from Italian to good ol’ southern Tex Mex.
In an instant, you are hit with a vibrancy rarely seen in America, one that’s not just a stretch of bars for spring-breakers, but one that has restaurants filled with families, couples and given this city’s rich military history, soldiers being treated to an off-base meal by their loved ones.
It’s this part of San Antonio that’s been well known to travellers for many a year, but as this city continues its rapid food, beer and produce revolution, it’s become just one of the many culinary elements there to be enjoyed.
Just as we’ve seen in cities like Brooklyn, Portland, Los Angeles, Fort Worth and Indianapolis, San Antonio is becoming known for craft beer, farm-to-table restaurants and cocktail bars as much as it is for its most famous attractions, the Alamo and four Spanish Colonial Catholic missions, which were recently given UNESCO World Heritage status.
Before unearthing the city’s new culinary treasures, start your adventure in this city by visiting the Alamo, which was founded in the 18th Century as a Roman Catholic mission. It has been the site of the Spanish colonisation, where Mexico armed its independence and where the Confederacy stood its ground. Take a tour of the Alamo, where you’ll find an intriguing exhibition about the Texas Revolution and the state’s rich history. A must for fans of Texas Rising.
While loads of Americans and global travellers descend on this magnificent site, one that is surprisingly not crowded is the McNay Art Museum, which truly is one of America’s hidden gems and highlights the city’s vibrant and unheralded arts scene. Here you can find 19th and 20th century European and American collections, including celebrated works from Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Cezanne and Renoir, plus a large number of Native American and New Mexican pieces. Recently, the McNay held an exhibition showcasing Robert Indiana’s works, the artist well-known for his ‘Love’ sculptures in New York City, and find his works still there today. One of the most amazing aspects of this museum is you can stand a few feet away from a Monet masterpiece on your own for long periods of time without even seeing a single soul.
Where are all of these people? Checking out the new culinary scene, that’s where, because in a matter of 18 months, San Antonio has gone from cool to sizzling hot; it’s where award-winning beers are being brewed and where the nation’s most talented young chefs are setting up shop.
Perhaps the greatest example of this right now is the Pearl, a former mainstream brewery that’s been converted into tens of farm-to-table restaurants, brewpubs, coffee roasters, shops and bars. Still find the old brewery stack, heritage buildings and former offices loaded with bartenders, chefs and baristas, and soon, a new boutique hotel.
You can still get a fresh beer here, at Southerleigh Fine Food and Brewery, where the witbiers, porters, stouts, lagers and ales such as the Seawall Belgian Wheat and Fannie Porter are being microbrewed upstairs and then matched with ranch fried chicken, devilled eggs and plenty of Gulf shrimp in the dining room below. Save room for a locals’ favourite, the buttered pecan crumb cake, best washed down with a Smoke on the Water rye American Pale Ale.
Across the way at Cured, formerly the administration building of the Pearl Brewery, the city’s culinary gun, chef Steve McHugh, serves up the best fried oyster po-boy sandwiches in Texas alongside hand-crafted cured foods from local pickles, charcuterie plates and New Orleans BBQ shrimp. There’s also a brilliant smoked pork gumbo, some pork cheeks poutine and crabmeat ravigote. McHugh’s craft beer list is almost as good as the cured meat selection, with Texan drops the star of the show. Local brews to sip on include the Ranger Creek Oatmeal Pale Ale, the Freetail Witicus Double Rye Wit and the Branchline Shady Oak Blonde Ale, while also find beers from nearby Austin and Houston, and some top national drops including the Boulevard Brewing Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale from Kansas City and the Anchor Porter from San Francisco. Also find some infused Moonshine cocktails and a tasty Root Beer Old Fashioned.
There’s a common theme at the venues at Pearl, and that’s everything local, especially food and beer. And it’s the latter that San Antonio is becoming increasingly well known for. By the month, new breweries are opening up right across the city, from old warehouse districts to the middle of town and it’s embracing the craft beer craze that’s been taking America by storm.
Not only is this city adding dozens of new beers, it’s adding good quality beers; ones that are standing up on a national level for their originality and level of refinement. And by no means expect overly green, heavy hoppy beers that will never make you want to say the words India Pale Ale ever again.
While Southerleigh at Pearl is producing some great brews, also head to the huge and recently opened Alamo Beer Company, down under a bridge in a rapidly changing warehouse-laden corner of town, where you’ll find a lively courtyard with live bands, DJs, food trucks and a solid selection of brews. The Golden Ale is one of the best examples of its kind in America – it’s crisp, flavoursome and well balanced – while also expect a high standard from the Amber Lager and the Pilsener.
The more established Freetail Brewing, a leader for years in the city’s craft scene, is home to a sports bar inside and deck outside where you can sip on around 20 classic and creative beers, including the brilliant Rye Wit and as found at Cured, its tasty twin, the Witicus Double Rye Wit. Also expect good things from the Blue Star Brewing Company, where quirky craft creations side up alongside traditional brews such as the King William Ale.
For decades, you’d head to the bars along the River Walk for an oversized iced-up margarita or a daiquiri, but that’s no longer the case and several hot new venues are showing locals and tourists alike some of America’s best cocktails from New Orleans to New York.
At dive bar turned cocktail den Juniper Tar, the drinks are the toast of the city, from a Rye Old Fashioned, a watermelon gimlet, strawberry Tom Collins or the Oliver’s Twisted with gin, lime, cucumber, mint and rhubarb bitters, a drink named for the San Antonio Spurs’ pre-game announcer and the city’s tourism media head, Richard Oliver. What also impresses about Juniper Tar is not just the décor with wrought iron drinks shelves and vintage pendants, but the caliber of the bartenders, who are well-versed on rarely-called classics like Hemingway Daiquiris, juleps and flips, alongside sweeter martinis and twisted Negronis.
At Havana Bar, down in the basement of Hotel Havana, find tequila and rum cocktails aplenty in a space that’s lit up by candles in red holders and decked out with old couches and low tables. Here, your essential call is a Tequila Julep or Santiago Painkiller had every time with a side of Cuban salsa tunes.
While Havana Bar is one of the city’s hidden bar gems, it’s not the best aspect of this brilliant accommodation den. At Hotel Havana, housed in a Spanish Colonial building on the edge of the River Walk that dates back to 1914, find 27 bespoke rooms featuring pan-Latin influenced décor such as wrought-iron beds, plantation shutters and vintage Cuban artwork. At Ocho restaurant off the lobby, it’s about Latino inspired food from breakfast to dinner, alongside top drinks, an excellent wine list and the best coffee in town.
It would be remiss to talk about this city and not mention sport. San Antonio is a passionate sports town and here, the team that rules the roost is the Spurs, the NBA basketball team that’s had significant success over the last 20 years. Next season, they will be the team to beat in the West thanks to the signing of star LaMarcus Aldridge alongside veterans Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Australian guard Patty Mills and the league’s best defensive player Kawhi Leonard. They play an entertaining style of basketball and tickets are easily accessible. •
Photography by San Antonio Tourism and Shutterstock
Delta flies to Los Angeles with connecting flights to San Antonio. United Airlines flies to Los Angeles and San Francisco with connecting flights to San Antonio. Qantas flies to Dallas Fort Worth and on to San Antonio with American.
• Delta: delta.com
• United: united.com
• Qantas: qantas.com.au
Where to Eat and Drink
• Southerleigh Fine Food and Brewery: southerleigh.com
• Cured: curedatpearl.com
• Pearl: atpearl.com
• Southerleigh at Pearl: southerleigh.com
• Freetail Brewing: freetailbrewing.com
• Juniper Tar: juniper-tar.com
• Havana Bar: havanasanantonio.com
• San Antonio Tourism: visitsanantonio.com
• McNay Art Museum: mcnayart.org