More than a month had lapsed since Mother’s Day, both my mom and sister’s birthdays and the birth of my adorable niece, and every one of those milestones was deserving of a celebration. But as is the case for many busy moms (and helpful grandmas), finding time to escape from the hurried pace of everyday life isn’t always easy and almost never immediate.
We’d been searching for a nearby, low-stress girls getaway where we could rest, relax and reconnect while remaining an arm’s length from delicious dining and eclectic shopping experiences — and we found it all in 24 blissful hours spent in San Antonio’s Historic Pearl District.
If you’ve never been to the Historic Pearl District (or haven’t been in a while), put this vibrant culinary hub just an hour and a half from Austin on your radar. Peppered with chef-driven restaurants, bars and shops that are all stand-alone concepts and home to the award-winning historic Hotel Emma, Pearl offers an unforgettable escape to enjoy with your favorite gals, pals or significant other — even if you only have a day to stay and play. But trust me: arrive hungry.
Lunch at Mi Roti and Markets at Pearl
We arrived around noon on a recent Sunday and immediately set out to explore the excitement unfolding at Pearl, which has continued to blossom into a global culinary experience, even welcoming a handful of highly anticipated new restaurants despite the pandemic. This 22-acre food and cultural mecca sitting just north of downtown San Antonio puts cuisines from all around the world at your fingertips, serving as home to everything from The Culinary Institute of America (one of only three in the entire country) to more than two dozen (and counting) eating and drinking establishments offering something to satisfy every craving.
We ducked into the Bottling Department Food Hall — the city’s first food hall — and ordered a delicious spread of Caribbean street food from Mi Roti, a Caribbean concept by Chef Nicola Blaque and Chef Lionel “Butch” Blache that opened late last year. The restaurant’s expansive build-your-own roti menu is chock-full of authentic Caribbean flavors that immediately transported me back to my days living in the islands. Touting 33,649 different possible meal combinations, let your taste buds guide your selections from Mi Roti’s encyclopedic rotating list of proteins, toppings and sauces, including grilled lamb, tikka masala, jerk chicken, a vegan Jamaican jerk jackfruit (which tastes shockingly similar to pulled pork), shredded cabbage, kale, roasted Brussel sprouts and piquant sauces like chimichurri and mango chutney. You seriously cannot go wrong with any of the authentic Jamaican-inspired flavor combinations created inside Mi Roti’s kitchen, but be sure to order the masala fries, red beans and sweet plantains as sides to accompany your roti wrap or bowl.
On the sunny Sunday we visited, the area was bustling with local artisans, shoppers, diners and gleeful children keeping cool in the newly-reopened splash pad located in the heart of the Pearl. Time your visit with Pearl’s year-round weekend markets — on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., you can pick out the freshest produce, meat, eggs and cheese at the producer-only Farmers Market featuring 50-plus local vendors, and on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., you can shop for prepared foods and culinary-inspired wares at the newly launched Makers Market spotlighting the specialties of more than 40 artisans and makers.
The area is also home to a diverse lineup of shops that all support local and independent merchants such as The Twig Book Shop, Adalante Boutique and Ten Thousand Villages, which sells treasures handcrafted by fairly paid artisans from around the globe.
Check into Hotel Emma
With full bags and bellies, we headed to the highly revered Hotel Emma at Pearl. But first, some background on the historic hotel. Before Hotel Emma was recognized as one of the top hotels in the world and recently ranked as one of the best hotels in the country, it was originally a 19th century brewery called Pearl’s Brewhouse. Designed by Chicago-based architect August Maritzen, who specialized in breweries and designed some 80-plus throughout the country, Canada and South Africa, and built in 1894, the building has long been a San Antonio landmark. Hotel Emma is named in honor of Emma Koehler, the powerhouse female figure from Pearl’s past who ran the brewery after her husband, Otto Koehler, died in 1914 — even keeping the brewery operational and her workforce employed during Prohibition by pivoting operations to dry cleaning and auto repair, and making near beer, ice cream and soda.
Today, the building has been stylishly reborn as a 146-key luxury boutique hotel boasting a distinctive design aesthetic that marries Old World extravagance, Texas grandeur and raw industrial elements that give nod to its brewery past. Guests at the riverfront hotel can experience an array of culinary and cocktail offerings without ever exiting the doors, including the hotel’s signature restaurant Supper, craft beers and classic cocktails served at the on-site tavern and club room Sternewirth, and fine groceries and provisions at Larder.
Another standout of a stay at Hotel Emma are the thoughtful, locally curated special touches and details that are sprinkled throughout your visit. Upon check-in, guests receive tokens for a complimentary welcome cocktail known as the La Babia Margarita — a refreshing simple margarita made with premium tequila, orange liqueur and fresh lime shaken up inside the hotel’s stunning multi-level Library. We sipped the signature cocktails as we settled into our classic queen room, brimming with special touches including a Hotel Emma Ice Box filled with local beer, farmers market provisions and ingredients to make your own La Babia Margarita; guayabera robes custom-made by Dos Carolinas; bath and body products from Albuquerque’s Los Poblanos Lavender Farm; and elephant remembrance charms that you can take home with you. There are even sleep kits on the nightstands containing earplugs, an eye mask and a soothing sleep mist to enhance a good night’s slumber. We slipped into our swimsuits and made a beeline for the rooftop pool, where we lounged on canvas chaise chairs beneath a shaded cabana (complimentary for guests) and ordered snacks and refreshments from the charming vintage 1960s-era Pearl beer delivery truck turned Poolside Provisions bar.
Dinner at Supper
Chef John Brand, a self-taught chef who worked his way up from a teenaged dishwasher to the esteemed kitchens of The Broadmoor, The Little Nell in Aspen and Keswick Hall, is behind the seasonal and intriguing dishes served up at Hotel Emma’s flagship restaurant Supper. We started off with the Three Emmas, a delightful concoction of Botanist gin, Amontillado sherry, Pearl & Rose cordial and citrus before sharing an artful appetizer of smoked salmon and caviar with goat cheese, burgundy cabbage, pickled cauliflower and fried capers. An artisan arugula and peach salad created a fresh segue to my melt-in-your-mouth pan seared halibut served with a lemony beurre blanc and pickled fennel salad. In addition to dinner, Supper also serves a crave-worthy farm-to-table menu for breakfast as well as lunch if you never feel like venturing beyond the American bistro.
Stroll along the San Antonio River
After ordering a carafe of rich coffee to our room (complimentary to all hotel guests), we grabbed fresh-baked pastries from the Library and set out for a morning walk along the river. Perched on the banks of the San Antonio River, Hotel Emma is perfectly positioned to enjoy a peaceful walk or run along the quiet, meticulously maintained Museum Reach of the river, where you can spot ducks and turtles swimming in the emerald water.
If you plan in advance (which we unfortunately didn’t), book a pampering treatment at the neighboring Hiatus Spa + Retreat, which features 13 treatment rooms, nail therapy services and also offers in-room spa services booked through Hotel Emma’s concierge. Or consider signing up for a hands-on cooking or wine class at the Culinary Institute of America, also located in the heart of the Pearl district. Hotel Emma recently partnered with the CIA to introduce a new “Food Enthusiast” package, which includes a discounted CIA class, complimentary access to an exclusive culinary event with the Hotel’s Executive Chef John Brand, 20 percent off best available rate and more (available until Dec. 26, 2021).
Lunch at Mon Chou Chou
After working up our appetites along the river, we checked out of Hotel Emma and stepped right over to a quaint sidewalk café table at Brasserie Mon Chou Chou where we experienced the most delicious finale imaginable to our much-needed girls getaway to the Pearl. Opened late last year, Brasserie Mon Chou Chou (the name translates to an affectionate French term of endearment given to a person who is special to you) is the creation of its three Frenchmen founders: Chef Laurent Réa, who hails from Strasbourg and formerly served as the executive chef at Andrew Weismann’s Signature Restaurant; the culinary team behind Southerleigh, which includes Philippe Placé, who comes from Chartres; and Jérôme Sérot, a native of Lyon. Here we tucked into authentic French comfort food classics inspired by various regions and flavors throughout France (many of the recipes were derived from the three founders’ own grandmothers).
A few of our favorites, enjoyed with glasses of chardonnay from Burgundy, included a chef-picked selection of imported fromages, a butter lettuce salade Mon Chou Chou lightly dressed a house vinaigrette, the moules marinières avec frites (mussels swimming in garlicky herbed white wine accompanied with a side of French fries) and the most delicious baked branzino I’ve ever tasted, served in a brown butter caper sauce with fondant potatoes and haricots vert. If you can, save room for the mocha pot de crème with sea salt caramel and Chantilly cream –– it’s worth it.