A Neighbourhood Guide to The San Antonio Pearl

Emerging as a new centre for food, shopping, art, education and fun, the San Antonio Pearl neighbourhood is exploding on the scene with new and exciting things for locals and visitors to love.

Fourteen years ago, the San Antonio Pearl Brewery building complex was a big empty space reminiscent of Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory: an eerie smoke-stack and tall-fences place where no one went in, and no one ever came out.

A Neighbourhood Guide to The San Antonio Pearl

A retro-style sign points the way to the Pearl, a campus of restaurants, shops, bars, residences and more © Scott Martin

Established in the 1800s by the City Brewery, the buildings with their tall factory chimneys, ornate rooftops and striking brick façades went through several incarnations, during and post Prohibition, until finally the space was shuttered in 1999. Pearl then sat empty and seemingly forgotten, serving as just another pretty part of the San Antonio skyline, until 2007 when activity and life started to stir in a handful of renovated buildings.

Since then, like Willie Wonka’s magic elevator, Pearl’s popularity and success has shot through the roof.

Now a stylish urban-chic neighbourhood with restaurants, bars, coffee shops, bakeries and boutiques on every corner, and a host of other great offerings for locals and visitors, alike, the San Antonio Pearl has become a destination in its own right.

A Neighbourhood Guide to The San Antonio Pearl

San Antonio sunfish public art installation at night © SACVB/Al Rendon

A local developer with a vision for business and an eye for design purchased the urban property, and today the 22-acre compound is one of the most popular bike- and pedestrian-friendly areas in the city. Its grounds and glamorous, historic brick buildings have been repurposed to create a vibrant mixed-use complex for restaurants, retail spaces, residences, music venues, a culinary arts school, and even a new boutique hotel.

With all the urban/retro touches of a historic industrial space, the San Antonio Pearl has helped to revitalize a part of the city that had lain dormant for years.

More than just a pretty tourist spot

A Neighbourhood Guide to The San Antonio Pearl | Cured

Old buildings of the Pearl Brewery have been renovated and repurposed to create dynamic new spaces. Here, Cured at Pearl stands in a limestone space with tin ceilings and old hardwood floors © SimoneInk PR

While some may assume the Pearl is merely a handful of restaurants and shops””just another pretty tourist destination like the rest of the River Walk””it really isn’t that at all.

Pearl is actually a young and thriving neighbourhood, home to more than 500 residents inside its boundaries, with more than 2,000 more people also living within walking distance. So it’s easy to see why the area is actually less a tourist destination than an evolving new community.

A Neighbourhood Guide to The San Antonio Pearl | Cured

Hard at work in the kitchen at Cured © Cured

“Pearl is more than just a collection of shops and restaurants,” says Chef Steve McHugh who owns Cured, a popular gastro pub at Pearl. “I always refer to Pearl as a campus because it is a true collaboration of like-minded people living and working together for the betterment of the entire complex. Just about everyone here, including me, are first-time business owners, and so the learning process is really where the word “˜campus’ becomes truly defined. Now all we need is a Pearl football team.”

A Neighbourhood Guide to The San Antonio Pearl | CURED

Masa Flash Fried Oysters at Cured © Jonathan Alonzo

Good Eats

Restaurants are one of the Pearl’s biggest draws for visitors and locals alike. Celebrity chef Andrew Weissman’s Il Sogno Osteria and Sandbar Fish House and Market were among the first restaurants to pop up at the San Antonio Pearl. Chef Johnny Hernandez’ La Gloria restaurant, featuring “Mexican street foods” and fruity margaritas, also made a big splash when it first opened on the banks of the San Antonio River at Pearl. Soon came more restaurants, including the Boiler House Texas Grill & Wine Garden, set in the brewery’s massive old boiler rooms that showcase the brewery’s giant-sized machinery.

A Neighbourhood Guide to The San Antonio Pearl | La Gloria

Chef Johnny Hernandez, owner of several restaurants in San Antonio, serves Mexican street foods at La Gloria © Janis Turk

Of course the Culinary Institute of America, which opened its third branch location at Pearl, has always been popular with visitors who come for special cooking classes offered to the public on their campus. The CIA chefs and students have also opened their own restaurant NAO, celebrating “New World Cuisine” and showcasing their culinary talents.

Before long, Chef Steven McHugh’s popular gastro-pub and charcuterie bar Cured at Pearl opened, receiving high accolades from many national magazines, including Bon Apetit, which named it one of the top new restaurants in America. Celebrating the restaurant’s 1st anniversary this Christmas, Cured is already expanding with a new patio out back.

A Neighbourhood Guide to The San Antonio Pearl | CURED

Cured Charcuterie Case © Scott Martin

“This January (2015) we will be hosting our quarterly “Young Guns” dinner where I turn the restaurant over to my sous chefs and lead cooks to put on a dinner. It gives them the opportunity to stand in my shoes for an evening, talk directly to guests and own everything they put on the plate,” says Chef McHugh.

“Pearl has quickly become the go-to place for anyone visiting San Antonio,” says Chef Johnny Hernandez, owner of La Gloria restaurant at Pearl, as well as several other restaurants in Texas, including The Fruiteria and El Machito in San Antonio, and True Flavors Catering. “What has made Pearl so special has been the owners’ dedication to excellence and partnering with chefs to create unique spaces and allowing us (the chefs) to do what we love most: create wonderful food experiences.”

A Neighbourhood Guide to The San Antonio Pearl | CURED

Chef’s Bar at Cured © Scott Martin

Today, there are 10 restaurants and bakeries that call the Pearl home””and even a microbrewery, bringing beer making back to Pearl. That little brew pub and barbecue spot, The Granery, has become quite popular”” in fact, it was recently heralded as “the new face of BBQ” by the Wall Street Journal and Esquire Magazine.

Boutique Shopping

A Neighbourhood Guide to The San Antonio Pearl | Tiny Finch

You can pick up some great gifts at The Tiny Finch © Tiny Finch

Shopping at Pearl always yields unique and delightful finds, because so many of the boutiques and galleries offer items made by local artisans, and many of the shops are locally-owned and run. Today, stores at The Pearl include Adelante Boutique, Dos Carolinas, LeeLee Shoes, Leighelena, Melissa Guerra, Niche Boutique, Tiny Finch, and Twig Book Shop“”with more retail spaces opening in the coming year. Find everything from handy kitchen utensils to Mexican folk art””or drop by for a book signing at The Twig or a handmade guayabera from Dos Carolinas. Pop-up art galleries also keep the Pearl exciting to art lovers.

Sweet Dreams

A Neighbourhood Guide to The San Antonio Pearl

The Boiler House shows off the good bones of the old brewery building and always draws a crowd © Boiler House Texas Grill & Wine Garden

In spring 2015, Hotel Emma (a Kimpton Hotel), is slated to open in the old brew house””making it the first hotel to call the San Antonio Pearl home. The space, housed in the main building of the old Pearl Brewery, will become a 146-room boutique hotel complete with restaurant, bar, catering and in-room dining.

“Over the past couple of years Pearl has started to become a cultural and culinary hub for San Antonio,” says Elizabeth Fauerso, chief marketing officer for Pearl, “and we feel that with the opening of Hotel Emma and the expanded plaza and park space opening in 2015 and 2016, Pearl will act as one of the most important and well-used neighbourhoods in San Antonio. In Hotel Emma, we hope to offer a place that truly feels like San Antonio’s living room, playing the role that great hotels of bygone eras used to play, where we gather before we go out, to have important meetings, to celebrate and mark special occasions, and to dine. It’s a role that we don’t see hotels play so much anymore, but we feel we will be bringing that cultural institution back with Hotel Emma”.

A Neighbourhood Guide to The San Antonio Pearl

The old Pearl Brewery building, outlined in white lights, will house the new Hotel Emma, to open spring 2015 © Nick Simonite

Urban renewal takes on a whole new meaning when looking at what Pearl has so quickly become. No longer an empty brewery or scary forgotten Wonka-style factory, Pearl is now a sumptuous treat for locals and visitors. A new San Antonio is emerging here, one that is young, vibrant, trend setting and tremendous””all within the good bones of a great old brewery.

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Have you visited the San Antonio Pearl? Where are your favourite places to go there? Let us know in the comments section below.

Written by Janis Turk 

About Janis Turk

Janis Turk is an award-winning travel writer and photographer and the author of the popular travel guide book, Frommer’s San Antonio & Austin Day by Day. Turk’s travel writing and photography have appeared in magazines such as Hemispheres (United Airlines), Spirit (Southwest Airlines), Pontiac Performance, Chile Pepper, New York City Resident, AAA Texas Journey, and more, as well as popular newspapers such as The Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, The Houston Chronicle and others. She also scribes online pieces for popular travel sites such as Frommer’s and GoNOMAD. Turk divides her time between New Orleans, Louisiana, and her home in Seguin, Texas.
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