Meet Emma, Valencia, and more of San Antonio’s great women
Two unique San Antonio boutique properties are stylish gateways to the city’s historic, cultural, and culinary highlights—many of them led by enterprising women, reports US west coast editor Elyse Glickman
All photos by the author unless otherwise noted
With international travel off the table for Americans for the time being, San Antonio’s cosmopolitan character can satisfy your wanderlust. It is not only shaped by Mexican and Spanish culture but also has nuances of German (from immigrants coming in during the 19th century), Italian (parts of the Riverwalk do have a Venezia-like feel) and South American influences. Several of the city’s most important and worthwhile sites were the result of the efforts of women who saw potential others had missed.
San Antonio is also known as the Alamo City, thanks to the efforts of Adina de Zavala, the granddaughter of one of the men who fought Battle of San Jacinto. Over a century ago, she made sure Texans and other visitors would never forget the Alamo by fighting for the church’s and barracks’ salvation and preservation. She then moved on to organize the Texas Historical and Landmarks Association, which went on to place markers at 38 historical sites throughout the state.
This can-do spirit is also captured in different ways and in different parts of town at two high-end hotels: the Hotel Emma and the Hotel Valencia Riverwalk. The Hotel Valencia opened in 2003 but has come into its own when upgraded in 2017 by architect–designer Lauren Rottet. She updated the boutique property by blending the city’s classic Spanish colonial sensibility with a fresh-yet-earthy palette, clean-lined furnishings and clever repurposing. For example, she replaced the original registration desk with a library space that’s reminiscent of an old-school cigar lounge. It is further enlivened with artist Maksim Koloskov’s map of San Antonio, painted onto spines of books spanning one wall of the library.
Hotel Valencia also has a fabulous location going for it, with panoramic downtown views immediate access to the heart of Riverwalk’s dining and shopping and other key historic destinations (including the Alamo, the Spanish Governor’s Palace and historic Market Square). Dorrego’s, the hotel’s official restaurant, stands as the city’s only gastronomic trek into Argentina. Àcenar, adjoining the hotel, is a local favourite thanks to its fantastic river overlooks and creative takes on traditional Mexican fare. On the block’s opposite corner, one can get their daily dose of caffeine at SIP Brew Bar & Eatery, at the end of the hotel’s block, which also serves up fresh pastries and a sunlit, boho-cool setting.
Bohanan’s Prime Steaks and Seafood, a five-minute walk from the front door, still earns its reputation as the essential “splurge” destination restaurant with its superb steaks, beautifully plated seafood dishes and sides. It’s also regarded by many as the birthplace of San Antonio’s modern craft cocktail scene and San Antonio Cocktail Conference. About a decade ago, the late Sasha Petrosky—founder of the legendary Manhattan bar Milk & Honey and father of the American craft cocktail revolution—was spirited to San Antonio to train a generation of young bartenders who would later proliferate across town and push locals out of their margarita, shot and beer comfort zone.
Cathy Siegel, the executive director of the San Antonio Cocktail Conference and the Houston Street Charities (which the annual event has benefited) notes that although the conference won’t be happening in 2021, there are plenty of places to see and taste the lasting impact it continues to have on the city. Bars featuring conference alumni include several bars along the Riverwalk (Acenar, the Esquire Tavern, Soho Wine & Martini Bar, Drink Texas Bar, Zinc Bistro & Bar), La Villita (Low Country, Francis Bogside) and the Southtown, King William and Arsenal neighbourhoods (Bar 1919, Bar America, Liberty Bar, the Backroom Bar at TPC).
A slightly longer walk or short drive down Alamo Street from Hotel Valencia leads to La Villita Historic Arts Village, Southtown and the King William Historic District—some of the city’s hippest revitalized neighbourhoods and shopping. La Villita, once an affluent residential section of town, is a rich treasure trove of inviting boutiques, galleries and studios. Some spots worth checking out include the Starving Artist Art Gallery, Villa Tesoros, Capistrano Soap Company, Casa Manos Alegres and the Bird and Pear (featuring Mexican embroidered dresses refashioned into gorgeous pillows and accents).
Marisol Deluna’s has a bit of an etro vibe at first glance, thanks to clothing, accessories and home goods rendered in her signature prints that reflect her Texas upbringing. However, the New York-based designer’s store gives way to a workshop that reflects one of her philanthropic missions to support the education and mentoring of fashion and design arts students and professionals in Texas. The non-profit also includes the Linda Luna Duffy Creative Hope Initiative, headed by her educator sister. It provides creative education and mentoring opportunities for special needs’ kids and adults in Texas.
While the Pearl, on the northern edge of downtown, enjoys a similar cache, it dates back to 1881 when the J. B. Behloradsky Brewery—later renamed the Pearl Brewery—opened its doors. What makes the locale even more intriguing is the enduring presence of Emma Koehler, who took over the brewery in 1914 when husband Otto died under scandalous circumstances. Under her management, it survived Prohibition and thrived during the Great Depression. Even when her nephew took over the helm in 1933, she remained involved in its operations until her death in 1943. Although the actual Pearl Brewery relocated its operations to Austin, the Hotel Emma opened in 2015, and carries on the namesake’s lasting legacy of initiative and innovation. San Antonio design firm Roman and Williams honored her memory and her ingenuity by pulling together the original late 19th-century brewhouse and five other adjoining buildings into the perfect amalgam of industrial chic and classic grand hotel style. As a whole, it encompass 146 rooms and suites and conversation-starting event spaces, public areas and three restaurants. With so many one-of-a-kind suites and enclaves, it doesn’t fit it into any specific architecture genre as the architects and designers elegantly meshed original architectural attributes and materials with modern appointments and global touches.
The service and amenities are on a par with international luxury properties of the Four Seasons and Peninsula variety, but presented with its distinctly individual spin southern-hospitality flair. In every room, guests will find Cuban-style Guayabera robes custom-made by Dos Carolinas (one of the Pearl’s independently owned retailers, noted for their bespoke shirts), local Merit Roasting Company coffee, Frette linens, a macaron from the Pearl’s Bakery Lorraine instead of a mint on the pillow, and an ice box and in-room pantry that teases a few of the offerings available at the Larder, the hotel’s fancy food shop. Hotel Emma takes on the presidential suite (Otto Koehler, Emma Koehler) and two-storey Billmeier and Maritzen suites take things up a notch. Each of these rooms, on the seventh floor or inside the pinnacle of the original Brewhouse, were built with balancing the integrity of the 19th-century structure with the needs of discerning 21st-century executives and vacationers. Appointments customized for each room include a full wet bar, distinctive dining tables and seating areas, fireplaces, custom-designed furniture and original artwork.
Guests can kick back between meetings and presentations at the rooftop pool (which looks like a 1930s travel poster), grab a morning snack or afternoon relaxation inside the 3,700-volume library, work out in the immaculate fitness center, or enjoy craft cocktails with colleagues (preferably inside an actual fermenting tank) inside Sternewirth (a massive storage room built in 1896), open exclusively to guests at press time. The hotel has 6,160 ft² of event space within the six connected buildings and outdoor areas, applying the same attention to historic details and preserved architectural attributes as the suites and public spaces, while providing luxury catering options from executive chef John Brand as well as all of the technical and logistical essentials required for the meeting.
Other luxe services exclusively for guests include complimentary Electra cruiser loaner bikes as well as car service that can take you to must-see destinations away from downtown, such as the San Antonio Botanical Garden (first conceived by prominent local women in the 1940s) and the McNay Art Museum (originating from Marion Koogler McNay’s fortune, her important 19th- and 20th-century art collection and her 24-room Spanish Colonial Revival-style mansion). A short walk along the northern stretch of the Riverwalk will get you to the San Antonio Museum of Art.
Foodies can turn to Hotel Emma’s Culinary Concierge to arrange and book custom culinary and cultural experiences. The Pearl, meanwhile, opens out to a treasure trove of independently owned restaurants, a twice-weekly farmers’ market, as well as the San Antonio Branch of the Culinary Institute of America, which offers its own distinctive dining experiences.
Supper, Hotel Emma’s fine dining restaurant, is another showcase for Brand, who proves the familiar hotel dining formula of classic American–European menus weaving in seasonal ingredients stands the test of time, like the lobby (the former engine room) adjoining it. While the adjoining Southerleigh is not technically part of the hotel, it incorporates the location’s beer heritage through its on-premise brewery and a rotating range of craft batch beers on tap. Chef Jeff Balfour’s menus crackle with southern classics such as fried chicken, meatloaf, four cheese mac-and-cheese, crawfish sandwiches and other items that blend comforting portions and heartiness with the right-sized punch of spice and pepper.
Elsewhere at the Pearl, Chef Geronimo Lopez’s blend of Asian and South American flavours makes Botika one of the most original restaurants in town, while La Gloria fulfils the “eat like a local” requirement as it was created by Johnny Hernandez (a popular restaurateur who also has traction among locals with his margarita truck). Lick Honest Ice Creams not only scoops out some of the more unusual flavors in existence, but also compelling vegan offerings.
Shopping within and around the Pearl expands on the independent (non-chain) spirit established by the restaurants. While the Hotel Emma’s Curios gift shop is nicely curated, one will find chic, eclectic assortments of clothing and accessories at Ten Thousand Villages (specializing in Fair Trade goods from around the world), Adelante Boutique (favourite of local fashion girls), Niche at Pearl (noted for their exclusive textiles), Dos Carolinas, the Tiny Finch, LeeLee, the Twig Book Shop, and twin boutiques Feliz Modern and Feliz Modern Pop.
For more on San Antonio, visit visitsanantonio.com.
Author’s note: While there remain many questions and concerns about the safety of travel domestically and abroad at press time, my editors and I hope this story will provide inspiration on how you can plan for interesting, enlightening and responsible journeys in the future once circumstances allow for travel with confidence—such as increased availability of a vaccine or the dramatic slowing of new cases in the next few months. In the meantime, be sure to regularly consult sites such as the US State Department (state.gov), the Centers for Disease Control (cdc.gov) and the tourism offices and official government sites of your intended destination.