Downtown San Antonio: A Love Letter

The Alamo City's vibrant central city is second-to-none in the state.

By John Nova Lomax July 24, 2014

My wife Kelly, daughter Harriet, and I spent Saturday night and Sunday in San Antonio, and I was reminded once again of the fact that the Alamo City is the realest city in Texas and it really isn't close. The rest of us are 100 years behind historically and it shows in the culture, the little scenes you see all over town.

Thanks to Kelly's astute booking skills we spent Saturday night in San Antonio's St. Anthony Hotel. It was built 105 years ago and faces the gorgeous Travis Plaza, but is not on the Riverwalk and so it missed the brunt of the tourist boom of the last 50 years. It's close to the Riverwalk and Alamo but the immediate surroundings are dive bars—including the Lola's-like Texan II and various tattoo shops.

Here in Houston the hotel—as glorious as it was in the Jazz Age—would have met the wrecking ball and become a parking garage years ago, but that is not the San Antonio way. A group of local investors bought the place a few years ago and are renovating it as they go. The halls are kinda dingy, some areas still have stripped ceilings and unpainted walls. From the outside you can see that many of the windows are broken. Signs ask your forgiveness as we wait for "a legend to be reborn."

But the lobby, bar, and ballrooms are back to their former marble-floored and chandeliered glory, and the beds were as comfortable as any I have ever slept in on the road. The staff was awesome, and there were some interesting fellow guests (some from a punk wedding) and the price is right. In a few years it will be a showplace again. Houston could learn from that: think, the Wilshire Village Apartments, the Lamar Hotel, the old YMCA, so many others. San Antonio decided decades ago not to sacrifice downtown / central city to the automobile and now it is the most vibrant downtown between New Orleans and San Francisco. Yes, we have convenient parking here, but at what price? 

We got lunch at Acenar, a multilevel neo-Tex-Mex Riverwalk restaurant with mango colored walls and a cave-like level of darkness even in the brightest sun. Make that lunch, dinner, and the next day's breakfast: We ordered a parrillada called poquito de todo, and that was no lie: our waiter delivered us a hillock of sizzling meats that encompassed a little bit of everything. Fajita, sausage, chicken, grilled shrimp, and carnitas came on a platter amid chunks of potatoes and slivers of caramelized onions alongside charro beans, guacamole, pico, and tortillas. Advertised as being enough for two, it fed us all for 12 hours. "It's enough for two San Antonians," the St. Anthony desk clerk told us as we retired back to our room for a post-feast siesta. 

Acenar's poquito de todo.

Image: Facebook.com

That night we did the turista thing: a paseo on the Riverwalk. I think we were there at the busiest time (dinner) of the busiest night (Saturday) of the busiest time (Summer) of the year. At that time, parts of the Riverwalk—say around the Fertitta restaurants and the Hard Rock and the older Tex-Mex joints—can be unendurable. You keep expecting two overserved, overheated, henpecked dads to lock eyes or bump shoulders and throw down, with one or both of them ending up in the drink as their wives and kids screamed behind them. Nerves frayed, we grabbed an overpriced ice cream cone before heading for more tranquil environs.

We deemed it far safer and more family-friendly to take Harriet to a bar—the Esquire Tavern—far from these madding crowds. There we lucked into a table on the balcony overlooking the river.

Open since 1933 (with a five-year interregnum a few years back) the Esquire is the oldest bar on the Riverwalk and it possesses the longest wooden bar in Texas. They also concoct some of the tastiest margaritas on the planet; these explosions of fresh key limes, a mixture of highland and lowland tequilas, French Triple Sec, and salt tang will put the pep back in your step and rejuvenate the sodium you expelled in the daytime heat. (And you will also help save the tequila industry: $1 of the $11 price tag is donated to preserving agave growing in Mexico.)

The longest wooden bar in Texas at the Esquire Tavern.

Image: Facebook.com

A few random scenes...

There was the 60-year-old, pig-tailed male docent at Mission Concepcion getting miffed at us for not asking questions, then singing hymns softly but insistently from the back of the chapel while in National Park Service uniform... There was the gray-haired old lady chatting raucously with her descendants on a downtown street corner and taking a huge rip off a joint in broad daylight... There were the Miss Latin SA contestants waiting to take the stage in El Mercado, while a marimba player purls, soothing their nerves... There was the bride and groom posing for photos amid the wrought iron, marble, and chandeliers of the St. Anthony Hotel's loggia...

Newlyweds in the St. Anthony Hotel.

Image: Facebook

A defunct convenience store with the hand-lettered sign out front reading simply "I can't do it alone"... The ink on the people: skeletons, guns, death, heritage, pride... There's the non-stop hullabaloo of Alamo Plaza: African American high school girls practicing a rip-roaring cheer routine even as a horde of tattooed kids prepare in earnest to defend their turf against outsiders with cries of "Go get your boys, mayne!"... Bandidos putt-putting through Southtown, old mares clip-clopping around San Fernando Cathedral... The tourist kids bursting into tears and hiding behind their parents as they behold the animatronic freak-shows in the garish museums and haunted houses across from the Alamo. (Though the museums are garish, it's somehow fitting that several of them are devoted to the macabre, built as they are on a the blood-soaked grounds of a historic blood-letting.)... And the Alamo itself, by moonlight a luminous memorial to lunatic courage.

Every Texan has two hometowns: his own and San Antonio.

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