Mention San Antonio, Texas, and the first image that likely pops to mind is the Riverwalk. Hallmark of the city’s downtown, the core of this 15-mile-long pathway packs both sides of the San Antonio River with a delightful collection of hotels, bars, restaurants, and shops. This waterside walkway may hog the city’s limelight, but if you hop a water taxi north along the Downtown Reach to the Museum Reach, you’ll discover Pearl, a once-seedy area reimagined into a lively neighborhood and entertainment district.
Pearl’s beginnings fermented in beer. The J.B. Behloradsky Brewery took root there in 1881, but was purchased two years later by the San Antonio Brewing Association. The brewery was rechristened Pearl Brewing Company, deriving its title from a German brewmaster who likened the bubbles in a freshly poured beer to fizzy pearls.
Otto Koehler served as president of Pearl Brewing until his death in 1914, when his wife, Emma, took the reins. She gradually modernized the facility and increased production, until, by 1916, Pearl ranked as the largest brewery in Texas—capable of producing 110,000 barrels per year.
District Charge: Once, San Antonio’s Pearl District’s heart was its popular brewery Pearl Brewing, which closed in 2001. Since then, its property and surrounding acres have been revitalized and restored as one of the city’s best hotels and prime areas for entertainment.
After expanding its reach to national markets in the later 1900s, Pearl Brewing closed its doors for good in 2001. Silver Ventures purchased the 22-acre plot, and, in tandem with Lake/Flato Architects and Giles Design Inc., envisioned a grand plan to revitalize the area as the village now known as Pearl. “Preservation has always been a key part of the project’s mission, and, as such, many original buildings have been renovated for reuse,” notes Elizabeth Fauerso, Pearl’s chief marketing officer.
Today, dozens of chef-owned restaurants and locally run retailers, apartments, a jazz club, and a boutique hotel occupy Pearl’s historic structures, a glowing example of adaptive growth. Events such as a twice-weekly producers-only farmers’ market; seasonal concerts at the riverfront amphitheater; and the Tamales! Festival—which ushers in the Christmas holidays each December—have fashioned Pearl into a dynamic district.
Everywhere you look, vestiges of the district’s past appear. Slide into the sleek lobby of the Hotel Emma, housed in the seven-story 1894 Pearl Brewery, the cupola-crowned landmark of the campus. Named for Emma Koehler, the hotel displays a refined design that smartly incorporates artifacts from the brewery’s manufacturing process. The flywheel of a generator from the brewery’s cooling system forms the centerpiece of the lobby, once the engine room. In the hotel’s Sternewirth bar, beer silos have been cut out and retrofitted with cozy banquettes as semi-private seating areas.
Jazz TX, part jazz club, part dancehall, recently filled the basement of the Pearl Brewery bottling house. Meanwhile beer-making has returned to the neighborhood at Southerleigh, a restaurant and craft brewery also located in the old Pearl’s brewhouse.
Amid the district’s historic buildings and brick-paved pathways, you’ll find the third location of the esteemed Culinary Institute of America. Stop in at the CIA’s student-run Nao Latin Gastro Bar, which pays homage to traditional Latin American flavors in its indoor and outdoor cooking stations.
Despite its name, despite its charm, Pearl is more than just a pretty place. The district’s developers took sustainability to heart when reclaiming the area. It now claims a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold Certification for its environmental initiatives, which include a 200-kilowatt solar installation to generate power and recycled beer cisterns to catch rainwater to supplement irrigation of the drought-resistant xeriscaping.
With its industrial image polished up, Pearl successfully juxtaposes old and new. It now gleams as an extraordinary gem, looking toward the future while honoring its past.
/// Hotel Emma
Industrial chic meets modern finesses at this new hotel, housed within Pearl’s original brewhouse. The décor features painted ceramic tiles and Mexican pottery, which complement buffalo leather sofas and Kilim-upholstered chairs. In the spirit of south Texas hospitality, margaritas are presented to guests at check-in.
136 E Grayson Ave. (210) 448-8300, thehotelemma.com
/// Bakery Lorraine
Lauded for its rainbow of French macarons, Bakery Lorraine also offers lunch specials including tartines, quiche, and a savory bread pudding. Don’t pass up dessert—the owners honed their pastry skills at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery in the Napa Valley.
306 Pearl Pkwy, Ste 110. (210) 862-5582, bakerylorraine.com
Lodged in Pearl Brewery’s 1904 Administration Building, Cured shows off Chef Steve McHugh’s fabulous homemade pickles and house-cured charcuterie, crafted from the purest regional products.
306 Pearl Pkwy, Ste 101. (210) 314-3929, curedatpearl.com
/// Il Sogno Osteria
Owned by James Beard Award nominee and San Antonio native Andrew Weissman, Il Sogno turns out house-made pasta and wood-oven–fired pizzas, as well as whole roasted branzino and rabbit cooked in red wine. Locals choice—try the tortino alla Nutella.
200 E Grayson St, Ste 100. (210) 223-3900
/// Dos Carolinas
Owner Caroline Matthews designs pleated and embroidered men’s guayaberas that are hand-tailored to order at her shop. The cotton and linen fabrics keep their cool in the South Texas heat.
303 Pearl Pkwy, Ste 102. (210) 224-7000, doscarolinas.com/guayaberas
/// Melissa Guerra
Run by cookbook author Melissa Guerra, this Latin kitchen market offers etched Mexican glassware plus everything you need to whip up a meal, from volcanic molcajetes to cast-iron tortilla presses.
303 Pearl Pkwy, Ste 104. (210) 293-3983, melissaguerra.com
Photographs of Hotel Emma lobby and Hotel Emma courtyard by Nicole Franzen; photographs of Hotel Emma’s cupola and Pearl Brewery by Scott Martin; photographs Cured courtesy of Cured; photographs Jazz TX courtesy of Jazz TX