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A Pearl of A Place

By Julie Catalano  ::  Photography courtesy of The Pearl District

The phrase “something for everybody” is vastly overused, but it perfectly describes this hip, historic hotspot in San Antonio loved by locals and tourists alike. 

Next to the famed River Walk and the venerable Alamo, the Pearl District has become a must-see on any respectable tour of the Alamo City. And with very good reason: The 22-acre mixed use live/work/play space just north of downtown on Broadway boasts 19 restaurants, 15 retailers, a luxury boutique hotel, weekend farmers market, food hall, amphitheater, park space aplenty and a happy vibe that says all are welcome.

That vibe is no accident, says Elizabeth Fauerso, chief marketing officer of the Pearl, who compares the new life of the former Pearl Brewery site to Old World town squares. “If you think about cities in Europe or Latin America, the plazas are beautiful places, public gathering places.” They also cater to a variety of tastes and budgets. “You can sit on a bench and have a churro and coffee or spend $100 on dinner.”

The brewery itself has a rich and layered history, beginning with its founding in 1883 as the City Brewery, renamed the San Antonio Brewing Association, and eventually taking its name in 1952 from its signature product — Pearl Beer, a frothy brew that first showed up in Texas tap rooms in 1887. German-born Otto Koehler became president of the brewery in 1902, taking it from micro-brewery to major player.

But it was Koehler’s wife Emma who really kicked it up a notch after Otto’s death, increasing production from 6,000 barrels to 110,000 a year, making it the largest brewery in Texas by 1916. Not even Prohibition in 1919 deterred Emma, who produced the near beer “La Perla,” started bottling soft drinks, and successfully diversified the business to ride out the storm. Minutes after Prohibition ended on September 15, 1933, 100 beer-laden trucks and 25 railroad boxcars rolled off the site.

Emma weathered the Great Depression and the start of WWII, led the brewery until 1940, and died in1943 at age 85. Numerous highs and lows followed — in the industry, the economy and in management — and the brewery barely survived the millennium. Pearl Brewery ceased production and moved out in 2001.

The property was essentially abandoned until 2002, when Silver Ventures acquired it. “The first couple of years was a process of taking stock and categorizing all of the historic equipment and ephemera,” says Fauerso, along with working closely with the city as the River Walk expansion to the Museum Reach was developed. Growing steadily in size and popularity since then, “The Pearl is all about transforming the culinary landscape of San Antonio,” says Fauerso, “re-energizing and bringing back to life a historic neighborhood.”

Now, River Taxis ferry visitors from downtown to the Pearl, meandering past landmarks like the San Antonio Museum of Art and going through the very cool lock and dam system like a mini Panama Canal. Passengers disembark at the steps near Chef Johnny Hernandez’s La Gloria Ice House restaurant and the amphitheater. From there, information boards tell visitors where they are, and paper maps are available at the shops or cafes.

In a district chock full of history and happenings, here are just a few highlights:

Pearl Stable

This was the Pearl’s first historic renovation project and the original home of the brewery’s draft horses — heavy build warmbloods from northern Europe — that pulled the beer delivery wagons in the late 1800s. The painstaking restoration involved taking the structure back to its roots — stripping away layers of paint, revealing the original vaulted wood ceiling, and preserving the foundation. Now a luxe special event venue for everything from corporate breakfasts to Western-themed weddings, the Stable has an open house every Sunday from 2:00 to 4:00pm unless booked for a private event.

Culinary Institute of America 

One of only four CIA campuses in the country, the prestigious 30,000-square-foot institute opened in 2011. There are degree programs, professional courses, boot camps, demos, tastings and food enthusiast courses in cooking, baking, wine and beverages. Or skip the classes and go straight to Nao, a restaurant run by students on the verge of graduating from the CIA’s degree program and supervised by chef instructors and maître d’ instructors.  www.ciachef.edu

Pearl Farmers Market 

Started in 2009, this fresh air market draws 3,000-5,000 shoppers each weekend looking for everything from soup (ingredients) to nuts. “Freshly grown products come from a 150-mile radius,” says manager Nancy Fitch. “That’s part of the sustainable promise that we make, that our vendors are certified producers only,” meaning no resellers allowed.  Saturdays 9:00am to 1:00pm focus on fresh produce; Sundays 10:00am to 2:00pm skew more toward artisanal vendors and specialty foods. Year round, rain or shine.

Hotel Emma 

Originally the 1894 brewhouse and named for Emma Koehler — the savvy widow of brewery president Otto Koehler —  the posh but personable Emma “harkens back to the role hotels used to play, when they were the cultural hub of the city,” says Fauerso. Renovations included going down seven layers to find the original floor, and using master crafters and woodworkers for authenticity. Opened in 2015 with146 rooms including seven top-floor suites, the lobby features the flywheel of an old generator, the Sternewirth Bar and the deli/grocery store Larder, open to all.  www.thehotelemma.com

Bottling Department Food Hall 

Brand new in 2017, “This is the next chapter of the Farmers Market and the new Pearl Park,” says Fauerso. Built on the site of the original burnt out bottling department, “we wanted to bring back this beautiful historic space because it was part of the original Pearl footprint.” Now a home for six exciting, emerging operators on a short lease simple fee structure, “it allows new energy into the food scene and inculcates an entrepreneurial pipeline in this growing community of restaurants here.” Casual fare includes burgers, donuts, ramen, sustainable, southern comfort food, and a beer and wine bar. “The Food Hall encourages diners to try something new,” says Fauerso, “and then spend time in the park, with food, family and live music. People spend hours and hours here.”  www.bottlingdept.com

A Pearl for All Seasons

There are spring flings, summer songfests and holiday happenings. Now fall is in the air, and that means DJs and dance parties, family theatre, butterflies gone wild, plenty of pumpkins and two Days of the Dead. 

Sound Cream Sunset Sessions

A weekly Wednesday dance party that brings in DJs from everywhere spinning hits from old school vinyl to salsa to R&B, housed in a renovated vintage Airstream trailer.

September 6, 13, 20, 27, 5:30 to 9:00pm

Magik Theatre Touring Show

Not for kiddies only, San Antonio’s premier professional family theatre presents special performances in Pearl Park.

September 9, The Three Little Pigs, 5:00pm; September 19, Rumpelstiltskin, 5:00pm

Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival

A celebration of San Antonio’s role in the migration route of the Monarch butterfly.

October 22, 9:00am to 1:00pm

Pumpkin Patch at the Pearl Farmers Market

October 28, 29, 9:00am to 1:00pm

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)

A Mexican tradition to honor and celebrate the lives of lost loved ones, with music, flowers, decorations and lots of food.

November 1, 4:00 to 7:00pm; November 2, 5:00 to 9:00pm

For more information, www.atpearl.com.