San Antonio may be America’s most vibrant city. It’s a city where cultures collide and the best of each is absorbed into its fabric. It’s a city of mariachis and margaritas, fiestas and fajitas, beer and brisket. A city with a history that few other American cities can equal.
If there’s any doubt about the latter, catch “The Saga,” a 25-minute journey through San Antonio’s epic 304-year history projected in multimedia images on the facade of San Fernando Cathedral. From the early Spanish settlers to the defenders of the Alamo to the cattle barons, they are all there.
If some cityscapes resemble a black-and-white movie, San Antonio’s is in full blown Technicolor.
For all these reasons, Conde Nast Traveler magazine named San Antonio one of the 23 places Americans should visit in 2023.
It didn’t have to convince me. I visit often, my most recent trip being in October over the weekend of both Halloween — which San Antonians celebrate riotously — and Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), which they celebrate reverently.
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And, as if things weren’t lively enough, it was also the weekend of the inaugural Tasting Texas Wine & Food Festival.
Is there such a thing as too much celebration? In San Antonio, the answer is no. Throughout the year, locals and visitors alike eat, drink and dance at events such as the Bud Light St. Patrick’s Day River Parade (March), Fiesta San Antonio (April), Texas Folklife Festival (resuming in the fall of 2024), Cactus Pear Music Festival (TBA), and now the Tasting Texas Festival (October).
The rest of the year, you’ll just have to make merry on your own at the iconic multi-level Riverwalk, or in the burgeoning Pearl District.
The Riverwalk needs no introduction. It’s a destination in its own right — along the same vein as the Las Vegas Strip, New Orleans French Quarter or Miami South Beach. Plus, it has the added advantage of being just a short walk from the city’s most revered attraction, the Alamo.
Unless you’ve been to San Antonio in the past few years, you might not be as familiar with the Pearl District. And even if you have, you’ll be surprised at the constant evolution of this area at the “quiet” end of the San Antonio River.
At one time, this was the site of the historic Pearl Brewery, one of the largest breweries in the state. The brewery made one of Texas’ favorite libations, Pearl Beer, from 1883 until it closed in 2001.
Today, The Pearl is a vibrant entertainment district, with an award-winning hotel (Hotel Emma); specialty shops, a soon-to-open concert venue, bars, restaurants and the third campus of the Culinary Institute of America, all set amongst landscaped grounds.
The Pearl has quickly become one of San Antonio’s culinary hotspots with not only the CIA and an expansive Farmer’s Market, but with two nationally recognized restaurants — Supper in Hotel Emma and Cured, occupying what was once the brewery’s administrative office (you can still see the vault where the money was kept).
They have been joined by an impressive trio of newcomers, each promising a dining experience not to be forgotten.
Brasserie Mon Chou Chou looks as if it had been magically transported straight from Montmartre. Try to snag an outdoor table and sip an aperitif while deciding which of the bistro’s comfort food dishes to order.
Will it be Gratinee Lyonnaise (Lyon-style onion soup with Emmental cheese and cognac), Croque Monsieur, or Confit de Canard au Poivre Vert, Puree de Pomme de Terre (crisp duck confit in a green peppercorn sauce and country potatoes).
Next, it’s off to the Mediterranean at Ladino. Frequently referred to as a Judeo-Spanish restaurant, the inventive menu is a mix of Castellano, French, Italian, Greek, Turkish and Hebrew.
Chef Berty Richter’s intent is to showcase the Jewish-Balkan cuisine he grew up with, having a Turkish mother and roots in Italy, Greece and Bulgaria.
It’s safe to say San Antonio has never seen a restaurant like this. If you’re adventurous, select the curated dining experience, Mezas De Alegria (Tables of Joy), and expect to be joyful.
Should you want to stick closer to home, opt for Carriqui, a short walk from Ladino. Its name comes from the colorful green bird whose flight path across South Texas is also the inspiration for the menu.
The restaurant features dishes such as Tuna Tostado with jicama, cucumber, citrus habanero marinade and aioli; BBQ Cabrito served in a banana leaf with Texas pecan mole, and the staple of South Texas cuisine, Beer Braised Barbacoa, a slow-cooked meat with salsa verde.
There’s a reason the city formed an organization known as Culinaria, “committed to food, wine, spirits and fine tastes,” with a variety of events held throughout the year.
San Antonio is one of only two U.S. cities, joining Tucson, Arizona, as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, which means it’s less about the number of restaurants than the city’s culinary heritage and how it will sustain it for future generations.
Still, the restaurants can’t be underestimated. In 2022, this culinary powerhouse boasted — count them — seven James Beard Award semifinalists.
There is culinary life beyond the Riverwalk and The Pearl. Chef Elizabeth Johnson is all about sustainability at her restaurant, Pharm Table, on South Presa Street. Her mission is to share plant-forward dishes from her Apothecary Kitchen with its unique spice library.
For a twist on a Texas favorite, try her guacamole with cilantro chutney, pomegranate seed salsa and heirloom corn tortillas, or her grass-fed Beef Short Rib with Tomato Ragout, Oyster Mushrooms, Spices and Turmeric Sauerkraut.
If there’s one chef who is synonymous with San Antonio food, it’s Johnny Hernandez. A CIA graduate, his mission to further advance the eclectic cuisine of Mexico has resulted in nine restaurants in the city, from La Gloria in The Pearl District, a paean to the rich street foods of Mexico’s interior, to his newest endeavor, Casa Hernan in Southtown.
Evoking the grandeur of a Mexican hacienda, lovingly furnished by Hernandez himself, it will open in early 2023 as an upscale cantina specializing in shareable small plates and killer cocktails.
Finally, don’t even think about leaving San Antonio — or anywhere else in Texas — without stopping at one of the Whataburger outlets. And, yes, I am serious.
The Corpus Christi-based chain began serving burgers so big and so good that customers couldn’t help exclaiming, “What a burger!” Texans won’t even think of ordering any other burger if there is a Whataburger within 200 miles.
Each burger is made to order with fresh beef, and made-to-order means just that — they say they have 36,864 different ways to make their signature burger. Just tell them how you want it, and they’ll do their best to oblige.
Maybe that’s why Texas’ favorite burger joint (it has 720 stores across the Lone Star State) has now opened in 10 other states as well.
Since Whataburger is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you can even have a burger for breakfast, although you might be tempted instead by the Chicken Honey Biscuit.
Finally, if you want to experience the wines and food of the Lone Star State at the 2023 Tasting Texas Festival in Travis Park, make your headquarters at the historic St. Anthony Hotel, directly across the street from the park.
This AAA Four Diamond property — the first luxury hotel in the city — is on the National Register of Historic Places, having hosted a variety of guests, from Lyndon Johnson, who spent his honeymoon there, to the Newton Gang, who spent their winters there. They could afford to as the early 20th century outlaw gang reportedly took in more money robbing banks and trains than the Dalton Gang, Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch and the James Brothers combined.
The St. Anthony has an elegant restaurant, Rebelle, complete with antique wooden staircase, chandeliers and an Italian marble bar; an accommodating staff, and more than one ghost. Just ask that accommodating staff and they will happily fill you in on all the ghosts in residence — the Lady in Red, the guest in Room 536, and the ghost of the Men’s Locker Room, among others.
It’s no wonder no one ever wants to leave this historic hotel — or this historic city, where there always seems to be a celebration going on.