Meet San Antonio’s grand dame: Hotel Emma

The hotel transports visitors to a place that’s enchanting and magical.


Highlights

The hotel, built inside the old Pearl Brewery that dates to 1894, is the most spectacular in Texas.

The brick-lined road ends and your car shifts into a time-warping slow motion, allowing you to appreciate the sound it makes as it rolls over the crushed granite circular drive. The crunch of the stones beneath your tires evokes the sensation of entering an old estate in a foreign country.

Maybe it’s that hypnotizing sound, or the squared cupolas of the historic building’s Second Empire architecture or the polished attendants who greet you with accommodating smiles, but you are immediately transported to somewhere majestic where you are the royalty. Welcome to the Hotel Emma.

The hotel, which opened in the fall of 2015, is owned and operated by Kit Goldsbury’s Silver Ventures. Goldsbury, who sold Pace Foods and its famed picante sauce to Campbell Soup Company in 1994, bought the brewery in 2001 and transformed it into a self-contained neighborhood. The Emma, named after the Emma Koehler, the widow of brewery founder Otto Koehler and the steward of the company through the lean years of Prohibition, is the property’s crown jewel.

The glorious hotel will alternately bring to mind European elegance, South Texas ranch charm and 19th-century industrialism. But all comparisons will remain elusive and incomplete. There is no other place like it. The hotel, built inside the old Pearl Brewery that dates to 1894, is the most spectacular in Texas and one of the most enchanting in the country.

The reception area alone, with its art deco font, wall of small combination-lock banks and Mexican tiled floor, seamlessly blends styles and traditions and looks like something pulled from a Wes Anderson movie. You will be immersed in the building’s grand scale and glimpse a piece of history upon entering the lobby, with its endless height, chipped plaster walls and a giant red mechanical relic you will learn was the flywheel of an old generator.

Designers Roman and Williams found ways to weave elements of the building’s industrial past with luxe modernity while paying tribute to the brewery’s history. The octagonal tiles in the lobby are patterned after original tilework, which you can see preserved along with other artifacts in glass cases throughout the hotel. Plush button-backed leather couches surround a fireplace in the lobby and sit beneath original metal beams and massive light fixtures that, set against the room’s large scale, resemble toy tops with which steampunk giants might play.

After check-in, guests are welcomed into an ornate but cozy library. A cocktail hour features housemade margaritas and offers a chance to peruse the collection of almost 4,000 books curated by novelist and cultural anthropologist Sherry Kafka Wagner that ranges from tomes on Texas history to books on architecture, travel and philosophy. Two staircases lead to a floating upstairs mezzanine that overlooks several seating areas. Sitting in one of the rounded emerald green midcentury leather chairs, you can admire the brilliance of the design’s use of textures and materials. From the vantage of my reading nook, I noticed burlap, steel, concrete, leather, wood and wool in one snapshot of space. The depth and layers here and throughout the hotel pull you like a trance into the world of the Emma.

The rooms

The hotel, with its corridors lined with city-block-long die-cut rugs colored in rich oranges and royal blues, doesn’t just lure you with visual aesthetics. It is a multi-sensory experience. This becomes evident as you make your way toward one of the hotel’s 146 stately rooms. The air is perfumed like an idyllic South Texas day, scents of mesquite, mountain laurel, cedar and pomegranate emanating from candles and natural-oil room sprays.

The bar’s mini-fridge, labeled “Ice Box” for a vintage appeal, contains South Texas favorites like Pearl and Topo Chico, along with higher-end offerings like wine from Trefethen Family Vineyards and small bottles of tequila and Cointreau, along with a lime and citrus juicer, you can use to replicate your welcome margarita.

The calming bathrooms are tiled from floor to ceiling in dreamlike Williamsburg blue and cream, with some of the larger rooms featuring giant cast-iron claw-foot bathtubs that can accommodate more than one. The seersucker-style robes are made by local guayabera experts Dos Carolinas, who have a retail shop at the Pearl. Wrap yourself in one after a hot bath, fall into the downy embrace of the Frette linens piled atop the glazed black bed that references a Herter Brothers antique, dial up room service and find a way to bail on whatever plans you’ve made.

Food and beverage

But if you must leave your room. … The Sternewirth bar and clubroom in the lobby is one of the best expressions of Roman and Williams’ intermingling of old and new. Sectional sofas made from buffalo leather and Moroccan leather ottomans sit amid rows of giant original concrete columns in a room partially lighted by a circular light fixture made from an old German bottle-filling apparatus. Beer fermentation tanks have been reimagined and lushly appointed to serve as secluded drinking and snacking spots, and a railside seating area on the second floor overlooks a billiards table and bar with an impressive bourbon and rye list and a cocktail menu that pays tribute to trademark concoctions from other great hotels around the world.

You’ll find the hotel’s restaurant, Supper, at the other end of the lobby from Sternewirth, and you’re as likely to see a San Antonio resident (or Spur) at dinner as you are your fellow hotel guest from the third floor.

When chef John Brand came on board, he wanted to design a restaurant that would serve the community as well as it does hotel guests. After years of working in other hotel restaurants, Brand wanted to shatter the mold, and he found Emma ownership to be collaborative and wholly supportive.

“That was one of the beauties of it. Nobody told you what the menu had to be here. Nobody told you what the style of food was. It was very open,” Brand said. “That was one of the most exciting parts for me. Hotel restaurants often get a bad rap, and rightly deserved.”

Brand wanted to abandon the boring traditions of hotel restaurants. He wasn’t interested in crab cakes, beef tenderloin and salmon. People want that because that’s what you give them, he thought. He believed diners were better than standard hotel food and that hotels could be better than they previously imagined without scaring off the average guest.

Though he was unencumbered, Brand, who has solid Midwestern roots, wasn’t looking to dabble in molecular gastronomy or throw dishes with impossible-to-pronounce ingredients on the menu.

“Simple and really approachable and not precious,” Brand said of his cooking. “I don’t want to make it too cerebral.”

That means coaxing and heightening natural flavors to create dishes like smoked cauliflower and roasted carrots with kale and candied quinoa. Brand balances tart and earthy flavors for an elderberry and beet vinaigrette that zips and colors a seemingly simple salad. Brussels sprouts that might seem passe sing with apple cider vinegar and a vibrant vinegar powder. A coffee and cocoa rub elevates a steak dish served with whipped potatoes breathy with garlicky spinach. Freshness and small touches make all the difference; and flawless execution, as with a velvety beurre rouge beneath a crispy pan-seared bronzini, sets dishes at Supper apart.

“Simple food is the hardest to execute,” Brand says, adding that he’s not interested in creating dishes that demand a specialized skill possessed by only one cook in the kitchen.

Just because you don’t need to look up ingredients on your iPhone doesn’t mean Brand’s team forsakes an artisanal approach. The chef, who traces his lineage to the Alsace-Lorraine area at the France-Germany border, integrates poppy and mustard seeds into the dough to make springy spaetzle that they hand cut throughout the day and scatter with apple and Swiss chard for a sweet and bitter crunch.

His Midwestern upbringing taught Brand accountability and how to live off of the land in a useful way. Slow-cooking a pig head all day was a function on what was available, not trend chasing. That honesty and directness is seen in dishes like roasted lamb stew with onions, and prime rib with pickled cabbage, a dish that makes complete sense coming from a man whose family made their own sauerkraut when he was growing up.

“This is straightforward food. It’s honest,” Brand said. “It’s uninterrupted. Don’t get in the way of it.”

Even when he’s asked to cater to a specific request, he finds a way to work within his mission. The need for a breakfast sandwich at the all-day restaurant, which also services the pool area, Sternewirth and in-room dining, led Brand to a Virginia-style ham from Kite’s Hams. Add that to homemade sourdough with sharp white cheddar and apple relish that nod to his life in Wisconsin, and you have something more than just a breakfast sandwich.

“I’m the luckiest guy. To have this job and to work with these people in this environment and be able to react to guests’ interests and expectations,” Brand said. “There’s a ton of freedom in that just to do the right thing.”

That freedom has allowed Brand to create the best hotel restaurant in Texas.

The Hotel Emma’s devotion to food and the culinary arts extends beyond Supper. The Larder is a boutique grocery that serves prepared food like charred cabbage and turmeric yogurt salad and a salmon dill tart, specialty items like Champagne ketchup and La Quercia prosciutto, and an impressive variety of wine and beer.

Culinary activations and programming are also part of the guest experience. One day you may stumble upon a bloody mary and pickled green beans tasting in the lobby, and the other you might end up as part of a caramel-making demonstration in the professional kitchen located across from the 3,250-square-foot Elephant Cellar, one of several meeting and event spaces at the hotel.

A secluded patio with an outdoor fireplace is located just steps from the Elephant Cellar and looks out toward the Museum Reach section of the Riverwalk at the foot of the Hotel Emma. You can stroll the 1.33-mile trail and connect to the San Antonio Museum of Art in one direction and the San Antonio Zoo in the other.

But once you’ve ensconced yourself in the Hotel Emma’s luxury, it’s hard to imagine leaving. The fantasy holds you in its grips until the soundtrack that welcomed you repeats itself upon your departure. The last sound of crushed granite echoes in your mind as you pull away from the hotel. It sounds like exiting a dream.



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