San Antonio’s Pearl district shines in the heart of Texas

The emerging neighbourhood was the vision of salsa magnate Kit Goldsbury, who took inspiration from Granville Island

The emerging neighbourhood was the vision of salsa magnate Kit Goldsbury, who took inspiration from Granville Island

At Cured, a much-lauded restaurant in the Pearl district of San Antonio (pictured above), the hostesses fill water jugs at stainless-steel sinks that brewery workers used for decades as hand-washing stations (pictured below). They’re among many artifacts preserved and given new life in the historic Pearl, which was the south-central Texan city’s largest brewery for most of the 20th century. Now the collection of restored and new buildings on the 22-acre site is a thriving community with rental apartments, shops, restaurants and entertainment.

“We didn’t want to turn it into something like Chili’s where there’s an old guitar on the wall and you don’t know why it’s there,” says Cured chef and owner Steve McHugh, who rescued the steel sinks from storage. “Not only did we get to reuse something that had meaning, but it also had purpose.”

Meaning and purpose abound in the Pearl, which accomplishes a rare feat for a relatively new development—it feels like it’s always been there. The brewery closed in 1999; two years later, the site, a 10-minute drive north of downtown, was put on the market. The area was desolate and underpopulated, and two major highways converged nearby. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. took interest, but fortunately for San Antonio, so did Christopher (Kit) Goldsbury.

Known as a reclusive tycoon (he sold Pace Foods, producer of cult favourite Pace Picante salsa, to the Campbell Soup Company in 1995 for US$1.12 billion), Goldsbury bought the Pearl property in 2001. While sketching out their vision, he and his development team visited other revitalized industrial sites across North America, including Vancouver’s Granville Island. There they admired the abundant public spaces, the culinary focus, the vitality of Emily Carr University of Art and Design, the local pedestrian traffic from nearby residential areas and what the Pearl’s chief marketing officer Elizabeth Fauerso calls “that feeling of organic street energy.”

The Pearl Stable (pictured right), a venue for weddings and other events in the restored former home of the brewery’s horses, was the first operation to open, in 2006. From the start, Goldsbury wanted to showcase independent, chef-run restaurants and one-of-a-kind boutiques, Fauerso says. Although such tenants, with their idiosyncratic business models, may be unattractive to many developers, he thought they contributed something authentic. “We wanted this to be a representation of San Antonio so locals will say, ‘This feels like my city,’ Fauerso explains, “and visitors say, ‘I get a view of this place.'” 

A wander through the lobby of the recently opened Hotel Emma (pictured below) is a must-do. It’s named for Emma Koehler, the intrepid boss of the brewery from her husband’s death in 1914 until 1933, through the difficult years of Prohibition. The hotel lives up to its historic namesake with inventive industrial chic design—piping in the lobby is treated as sculpture, fermentation tanks in the hotel bar are fitted with seating, and a solid-bronze bottle-capping machine imported from Germany in 1915 makes for a striking chandelier.

Food and drink is the heart of the Pearl, and Goldsbury stubbornly convinced the prestigious Culinary Institute of America to open a campus here in 2008 to train local chefs.The many restaurants range from Bakery Lorraine (pictured right), which raised eyebrows in San Antonio with its $4 croissants (worth every penny), to Botika, a highly anticipated Peruvian-Asian restaurant owned by chef Geronimo Lopez. Bedecked with sleek teal velvet seating, Botika serves inventive takes on traditional Latin American cuisine, like steamed buns (hoisin-and-shiitake-braised pork jowls, pickled slaw) and salmon tiraditos (Latin-inspired sashimi, with passion-fruit tiger’s milk, sesame seeds and plantain chips).

Cured now occupies the Administration Building, which has the staunch elegance of an early-20th-century bank. The tin ceilings were reconstructed, and several layers of stucco were stripped from the original brick interior walls. The menu, which changes daily, is an expression of owner McHugh’s desire to “be a friend to the farmer.” He buys whole animals and uses different parts—think pork-cheeks poutine and smoked-pork gumbo—until everything’s gone. Cured’s name alludes to the restaurant’s focus on charcuterie (the whipped pork butter is from another planet) and McHugh’s victory against lymphoma.

Like the Pearl, he’s enjoying a renaissance. “Kit [Goldsbury] could easily have said, ‘We’re going to put an Outback Steakhouse there and a Starbucks here,'” McHugh notes. “But he said, ‘There are people that need a shot,’ and I’m forever grateful that he gave me my shot.”


With 30-plus retailers, restaurants and cafés, the Pearl offers plenty to explore. Some of the district’s brightest spots:

Stroll Follow the city’s famous 24-km Riverwalk, along the banks of the San Antonio River all the way downtown, to attractions such as the Briscoe Western Art Museum. The section of the river near the Pearl was restored during the early 2000s in a massive civic effort, and the walkway also features public art.

Drink | Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery, which occupies the original 1894 brewery premises, offers South Texas-inspired cuisine and housemade beers. Go traditional with German-style Gold Export Lager or adventurous with We’re Goin’ Streaking! (Belgian-style quadrupel with 10 per cent alcohol).
Dance | In the basement of the Bottling House, a reconstructed 1894 building, is Jazz, TX, a club founded by well-known local musician and bandleader Brent (Doc) Watkins to showcase the music of South Texas: jazz, blues, Texas swing and salsa. Startlingly well-dressed patrons of all ages are given to spontaneous dancing.
Shop | Most of the Pearl’s boutiques feature unique local wares, and the Twig Book Shop is no exception. In operation since 1972, the store is a favourite of the literary set, with special attention given to Texas writers. Frequent author appearances recently included feminist Civil War historian Catherine Clinton and San Antonio Spurs scribe Jim Lefko.