San Antonio River Walk

By Kevin Tankersley

The first item in Phil Collins’ collection of Alamo artifacts was a simple receipt for a saddle sold by John W. Smith, who was a courier at the Alamo. He left prior to the battle, and eventually became the first mayor of San Antonio when it was in the Republic of Texas.

That receipt, and hundreds of other pieces from Collins’ collection, is now on display at the Ralston Family Collections Center, a 24,000-square foot space which opened in March. It’s the first new building constructed on the Alamo grounds since the 1950s. In addition to the Collins Collection, the Ralston building also houses the Donald and Louise Yena Spanish Colonial Collection, as well as some interactive exhibits.

Collins — former drummer and lead singer for the band Genesis, and a hugely successful solo artist — donated his priceless collection of Alamo and Texana objects to the Texas General Land Office, the guardian of the Alamo, in 2014.

We learned this and much more on a private tour of the Alamo, its grounds and the Ralston building, which was led by researcher Thomas Ledesma, who has worked at the trust for five years. He graduated from the University of Texas in 2015. Ledesma was more than a typical tour guide rattling off a memorized script. He was knowledgeable about his subject matter. As members of our group raised a question, he was able to give an in-depth answer, providing even more information and background. We were also accompanied on the tour by Emily Baucum, public relations manager for Alamo Trust, Inc.

The Ralston building won’t be the last new construction on the grounds of the Alamo, either. A visitor center and museum is scheduled to open in 2027 and includes a theater, event space and restaurant. All the materials in the Ralston building will be moved to the new museum, and the Ralston space will be used for traveling exhibits.

This private tour — for me and my wife Abby and representatives from a few other media outlets — was part of a travel package that was provided to us by a partnership between Visit San Antonio and the San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter on the River Walk, at 101 Bowie Street. (In full disclosure, we were provided hotel rooms and on-site parking, meals, Uber credits and admission to some attractions at no cost to us. We were on our own for dinner one night, and was our only expenses for our stay in San Antonio.)

The Marriott Rivercenter on the River Walk is a newly-renovated 1,000-room hotel with 38 floors. We had a standard room with a king bed on the fifth floor, the lowest floor with guest rooms. The hotel also has rooms with two queen beds; upper-floor rooms with one or two beds and a city view; and various size suites. On the hotel’s website, rates for a two-night stay in late July started at $271 a night.

On the ground floor of the hotel is the bar and restaurant, Tributary, where we were hosted for a private buffet dinner on our first night in San Antonio, and where we ate breakfast each day. The buffet included samples of many of the offerings from Tributary’s lunch and dinner menus, such as street tacos, sliders and much more. As many ingredients as possible used in Tributary’s kitchen are locally sourced, such as steaks — New York strip, filet mignon and ribeye — from Dean & Peeler Premium Angus Beef in Floresville, 30 miles from the hotel.

We were fed well on our trip. During one lunch, servers at Smoke Texas River Walk brought out tray after tray of brisket, chicken, sausage and ribs, along with sides of corn, potato salad and mac and cheese.

The next day, we dined at Jardín, the restaurant at the San Antonio Botanical Garden, at 555 Funston Place. We were first offered our choice of cocktails from a wonderful menu prepared for our group. We sampled numerous appetizers: Sicilian Cauliflower, White Cheddar-Stuffed Dates, House-Marinated Olives, a couple of varieties of hummus with naan, Garden Bruschetta … all delicious and beautifully plated. Just as we — meaning everyone at our table — were just about sated, our server said that the main dishes would be right out. And then we were presented with plates of seared salmon, Tuscan Turkey Bolognese Campanelle and Pan-Seared Potato Gnocchi, and all just wonderful.

The kitchen at Jardín is overseen by chef Jason Dady, a James Beard Award semifinalist whose restaurant group also includes Tre Trattoria at the San Antonio Museum of Art; Two Bros. BBQ Market; and Range, an Italian steak and seafood concept in the Embassy Suites Downtown.

After that abundant meal, we were all ready to stretch our legs and explore the beautiful botanical gardens. Our favorite exhibit was “Imaginary Worlds: Once Upon a Time”, a collection of six living sculptures created by Mosaïcultures® Internationales de Montréal. The dragon, for instance, is about 25 feet tall, weighs 27,552 pounds and was created from 14,916 plants. Other sculptures included in the collection are a mermaid, peacock, Rip Van Winkle, storybooks and a Pegasus. “Imaginary Worlds” will be on display until October 29.  

The botanical gardens’ regular offerings include the Mays Family Display Garden, which changes seasonally; a culinary garden and teaching kitchen; an authentic Japanese garden; an adventure garden where young visitors are encouraged to climb and tumble; and more throughout the 38 acres.

We were also given a private tour of Hopscotch, an immersive art exhibition space at 711 Navarro Street. There were about 15 installations created by artists from around the world, all of which made for great photo ops. One room, called Perspective, makes it appear that a guest standing next to one wall is a giant, while just a few feet away, another looks tiny in comparison. The Secrets room contains telephone handsets along the walls, and guests can listen to secrets left by others. A nearby phone booth allows one to record a secret. Be warned that some of the recorded secrets are intended for mature listeners.

Hopscotch also contains a laser graffiti room, an Infinity Box, where a series of mirrors appears to multiply your face over and over and over; a giant LED ball pit; and several other fun, eclectic experiences.

The bar at Hopscotch offers a fun variety of cocktails and non-alcoholic beverages. Some of the ingredients used include edible flowers, sangria ice cubes, a tamarind-flavored straw and a “Cotton Candy Cloud of Starburst,” a sparkly addition that will add fizz and color to a drink.

At Hopscotch, tickets must be purchased online and in advance of a visit, and the bar and gift shop only accept cards, not cash.

After a Visit San Antonio-furnished barge tour along the River Walk, we stopped for a drink at The Esquire Tavern, a bar our tour guide pointed out during his narration. The Esquire is the oldest bar on the River Walk, having opened in 1933, just after the end of Prohibition. It’s a long, narrow, dark room, a welcome cool respite on a hot south Texas day. We had a Pimm’s Cup — Pimm’s #1 liqueur, cucumber, lemon and ginger beer — and a Commerce St. Buck, which was made with rum, sherry, ginger beer, lime and demerara. We were on a tight schedule, so there wasn’t nearly enough time to soak in the atmosphere of this historic space, but we’ll make it a point to do so on our next visit.

We were on our own for dinner one night, so we headed to The Pearl, a historic district of San Antonio that was once home to the Pearl Brewing Company. We had a reservation at Best Quality Daughter, an Asian fusion restaurant in a building built in 1906 that was once the home of Pearl’s chief barrel maker Ernst Mueller and his family. Best Quality Daughter is run by the chef and owner Jennifer Dobbertin. The eatery was named by USA Today as one of the top 10 best new restaurants in the country in 2022.

From the small, well-curated menu, we chose to split appetizer-sized plates of Korean Corn Cheese Spring Rolls and Impossible Potstickers, along with a larger serving of Curry Guisada Dan Dan, prepared with Wagyu beef from Peeler Farms in Floresville. This constituted one of the best restaurant meals we’ve had in a long while. It reminded us of (the now-closed) Lilly’s Din Sum Then Some, one of our favorite restaurants when we lived in Little Rock. And we enjoyed our time at the art-filled atmosphere of the historic space.

We made some stops at the vintage stores Pink Dreams Vintage, Urban Goods, The Queen of Vintage and GG’s Emporium, all within a few minutes of each other on Blanco Road and Fredericksburg Road. We also had time for a quick visit to Cheever Books, at 3613 Broadway.

Cheever, which opened in 1986, limits its inventory to the unusual and interesting, store manager John Peace said in an interview on Texas Public Radio. It specializes in “things that you don’t see normally. We don’t have a lot of self-help books,” he said.

There are sections of the store dedicated to books on history, art, religion, the sciences and nature. A wall of shelves near the front contains an impressive collection of first editions and signed works.

With so many new places to explore, your next visit to San Antonio is sure to be filled to the brim with good food, unique art and fond memories.