A Cultured Pearl

By Kathleen Seaman

Visit a neighborhood of local flavor since 1883

Up until a month ago, when I thought of things to do in San Antonio, the only things I could come up with were the old faithfuls like the River Walk, the Alamo, Fiesta Texas and Sea World. I didn’t realize I was missing out on one of the city’s newest, yet historic, and just plain cool attractions: The Pearl District.

Located just north of downtown San Antonio, Pearl is a 22-acre site that’s home to restaurants, retail shops, green spaces, a riverside amphitheater, business offices, luxury apartments and more. It’s also the site of the former Pearl Brewing Company, which operated from 1883 to 2001 and was once the largest brewery in Texas. Over the course of its 118 years of operation, Pearl changed ownership and names several times, including in 1985 when its parent company bought Pabst Brewing Company and united all of its holdings under the Pabst name. Ultimately, the Pearl Brewery was closed when Pabst began contracting out the production of its products and closing its breweries. But luckily, that’s not where Pearl’s story ends. Pearl beer is still in production today — it’s just now made at the MillerCoors facility in Fort Worth — and the brewery site is once again alive with activity.

After production ceased at Pearl, the property was bought by an investment firm, Silver Ventures, in 2002. Just as Waco’s downtown revitalization has been a slow, steady progression over the last decade or so, the Pearl District has had a similar journey, and it’s hard to pinpoint when the area truly came back to life. Was it the arrival of the first tenant in 2006, the creation of a year-round farmers market in 2009, the introduction of the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus in 2010, the opening of Park at Pearl in 2011, or was it the return of a brewery in 2015 that really kicked things into high gear? Whatever the catalyst, today Pearl’s rich history and diverse range of indoor and outdoor activities, restaurants and shops make it a cultural destination for both locals and visitors.

If you’re headed to the Pearl District, your No. 1 priority should be food. There are more than 20 dining options in the area, all of them diverse and distinct, and it’d be hard to go wrong with any of them. At Pearl’s restaurants, you’ll find charcuterie, kosher vegetarian, Peruvian-Asian, wild game and seafood, Latin cuisine, barbecue and more.

If you want Mexican, check out La Gloria. It highlights street food from all over Mexico — the menu actually has a cool map that shows the regional influence of each dish — and they have delicious margaritas. It’s a casual, laid-back restaurant right on the River Walk that’s good for families as well as the happy hour crowd.

The previously mentioned brewery is actually found at Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery. The restaurant serves Southern cuisine and seafood, much of it inspired by the chef’s childhood in Galveston. It also has an on-site brewery that offers original craft beers, all with some pretty fun names, such as a Belgian called “Uber Punched Me in the Face” or a witbier with watermelon puree called “One in a Melon.”

I haven’t been to Bakery Lorraine (any of the four locations in San Antonio or the one at The Domain in Austin), but the French bakery and its macarons get so much hype, it’s definitely on my list for next time.

It might not be making Pearl beer anymore, but the Bottling Department is open for business and serving customers. Today, the Bottling Department is a food hall built where the brewery’s original bottling department previously sat (the actual building burned down in 2004). This is nothing like the food court at the mall with D-list fast food chains. This food hall is home to an eclectic assortment of five chef-driven vendors that serve rotisserie chicken and slow-cooked pork, grass-fed beef hamburgers, ramen and other Japanese dishes, fresh and delicious clean eating options, artisan donuts and fried confections, and, of course, The Bar, which serves cold beer, cocktails and wine. If you visit on a weekday, The Bar at Bottling Department has happy hours Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. with $3 Texas beers, $3 off glasses of wine and $3 off Frozé. Hours of operations vary by vendor, so visit bottlingdept.com for details.

Located in front of the old brewhouse, the Pearl Farmers Market takes place every Saturday and Sunday, rain or shine. Saturday’s market is from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and is a “producer-only” market. Sunday’s market is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and highlights artisanal items and prepared food too. All the vendors are within a 150-mile radius of San Antonio and sell things like fresh eggs, handcrafted pastas, local cheeses and meats, seasonal fruits and veggies, Texas wildflowers and plenty of ready-to-eat treats, such as handmade pies, empanadas and crepes. A personal favorite, the fair-trade caramels from Wildflower Caramel are delicious (the maple bourbon is where it’s at!) as well as charmingly packaged, making them a great snack or special gift. A current list of detailed vendor information and products can be found online at atpearl.com/farmers-market.

The Culinary Institute of America has four U.S campuses, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that one of them is in San Antonio (the others are in New York and California). Surrounded by on-trend restaurants and a vibrant foodie scene, the Pearl District is the perfect place for a world-class culinary school. Of course, the CIA offers degrees in the culinary arts and pastry arts and has programs for food industry professionals, but it also has several classes, events and facilities that are open to the public too. You can take a one-day cooking class, a weeklong boot camp or a wine class and guided tasting. Attend a chef demonstration in one of the theaters or catch a student whipping something up at the outdoor cooking station located right in Pearl Plaza. As if there weren’t enough restaurants to choose from, the CIA has two student-staffed options: Savor and CIA Bakery Café. Information about classes, events and restaurant hours can be found at ciachef.edu/cia-texas.

In between all the eating that seems to be going on at Pearl, there’s also plenty of opportunities for shopping. Pearl is home to a community of independent retailers, boutiques and artisans. You can find handcrafted jewelry, authentic guayaberas (a men’s summer shirt), home décor, unique gifts and treasures and a bike shop. The Twig Book Shop is an independent bookstore, and it has lots of events for adults and children, including Twiglet story time with Miss Anastasia every Friday at 10:30 a.m.

The Pearl District also has several outdoor spaces that are all open to the public and dog-friendly. There’s outdoor seating in the Plaza where the farmers market takes place. The Parkito is a great place to let the kids run around, either on the lawn or at the neighboring splash pad, Gustav’s Geysers, and it’s also a regular venue for events like live music or the First Thursday Night Markets. The amphitheater sits along a part of the “Museum Reach” of the River Walk, which was completed in 2009, and is a great place to just lounge or take group yoga classes.

Not only can you eat, shop and hang out in the Pearl District, you can also spend the night there, specifically in the old brewhouse. Hotel Emma is a 146-room hotel that occupies the original Pearl brewhouse from 1894. It’s named to honor Emma Koehler, the woman who ran the brewery after the Pearl president and her husband, Otto, died in 1914. She managed to keep Pearl in operation through Prohibition by temporarily switching production to other things like soda and near beer, and she served as the CEO for almost 20 years, until her nephew took over in 1933.

Her namesake hotel is an award-winning property, beautifully blending the flavor of the old Texas south with modern elements and amenities, and it’s even been recognized by Travel and Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler. Depending on the day and availability, the Classic Brewhouse Queen room starts at about $325 a night when you take advantage of an early summer booking offer, but rooms are typically well above $400 a night after taxes and fees. If you really want to treat yourself, you can check out one of the penthouse-level suites, like the Otto Koehler Suite.

Even if you don’t stay the night, you can enjoy the ambiance of Hotel Emma by visiting one of its dining options: Sternewirth, an intimate tavern; Supper, which serves creative Americana; or Larder, a refined deli and grocery inside the old fermenting cellars. Book your room at thehotelemma.com.

With Austin and Dallas only an hour and half away from Waco, it’s easy to fall back on them as easy destinations for the weekend. But just a little bit further down the road, San Antonio is working hard to give the capitol and D-Town a run for their money on just which city is the cool kid on the block. A neighborhood that’s rich in history but modern in its culinary innovation and slate activities, the Pearl District offers San Antonio a lot of street cred. To learn more about the Pearl District, visit atpearl.com.