San Antonio's lively Pearl district was the vision of salsa magnate Kit Goldsbury, who took inspiration from Granville Island by Marcie Good
San Antonio's Pearl district shines in the heart of Texas
At Cured, a much-lauded restaurant in the Pearl district of San Antonio, the hostesses fill water jugs at stainlesssteel sinks that brewery workers used for decades as hand-washing stations. 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, 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 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, 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-andshiitake-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 smokedpork 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.”
INDUSTRIAL EVOLUTION (Clockwise from left) Hotel Emma; pastries from Bakery Lorraine; the Pearl Stable; Pearl Brewery; Cured restaurant