The Hotel Emma at Pearl: Steam Punk Chic in San Antonio

Us Angelenos have a handful of go-to weekend getaway destinations: Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Ojai… usually North and coastal. Bonus points if you make it to a vineyard. South Texas doesn’t immediately come to mind. After my 2-night stay at Hotel Emma at Pearl, however, I’m already scheming another visit to San Antonio.

The Retro Reception at the hotel, photo by Nicole Franzen. All other photos courtesy of Hotel Emma, except otherwise credited.

Us Angelenos have a handful of go-to weekend getaway destinations: Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Ojai… usually North and coastal. Bonus points if you make it to a vineyard. South Texas doesn’t immediately come to mind. After my 2-night stay at Hotel Emma at Pearl, however, I’m already scheming another visit to San Antonio.

The very cool lobby

The hotel itself was the original brewhouse for Pearl Beer, the largest brewery in Texas in 1916, and the only brewery to survive Prohibition. The hotel’s namesake, Emma Koehler, innovated to keep the doors open, creating new products like near beers and soda, keeping everyone employed and the Pearl Brewery afloat. By the time Prohibition ended, it was the only San Antonio brewery left in operation. Evidence of Hotel Emma’s history is everywhere in the clever Steampunk/Southwest designs of Roman and Williams. Managing to maintain the integrity of the original brewery, they were also careful not to compromise any creature confronts for the guests.

The aptly named, “elephant cellar,” for example, repurposed massive tanks that used to stretch across the entire space and stored 25,000 gallons of beer each. These enormous beer tanks have since been sliced and now line the walls, creating a gorgeous event space with an industrial flair. The pipes going up from the tanks resemble elephant trunks, giving the room its name.

The bar at Sternewirth

Elements like this are found everywhere, from the beautiful chandeliers made from repurposed bottle-filling machines (crafted by metalwork artist Robert Diaz De Leon), to the giant red liquid ammonium compressor sitting in the middle of the main lobby—I never thought pipes, metal, and recycled factory parts could be so elegant (and look so cool).

The original brewery pipes at the entrance to Sternewirth

Nestled in a complex of restaurants and shops called Pearl (named after the famous beer), Hotel Emma is a destination for any avid foodie. The hotel itself has a wide variety of yummy offerings: Supper, the hotel restaurant, Sternewirth, the tavern and clubroom, and Larder, a grocery store/cafe filled with locally sourced provisions, wine and beer, flowers, and more. 

The Larder, photo by Nicole Franzen

I sampled Larder’s popular Banana’s Foster muffins (served complimentary along with coffee every morning at Emma’s private library) and a toasted marshmallow rice crispy treat, a tasty spin on the classic childhood treat. At Sternewirth, I treated myself to two cocktails: “19th Century,” created by Lauren Beckman (one of the talented and creative bartenders at Sternewirth), and “The Three Emmas” (named for a scandalous tale about Emma Koehler’s husband, Otto). I’m not a big drinker, but both were so balanced and delicious, I was tempted to order a third.

A cocktail at Supper

One of the stand-out dishes was the grilled cabbage created by Chef de Cuisine Amaris Diaz at Supper. Diaz shared her connection to growing food, explaining, “My mom worked the fields… My whole family comes from that kind of migrant work background, and my boyfriend's a gardener and…taking that approach and being like, ‘hey, it takes this long to grow a cabbage,’ Let's showcase it. It’s not just coleslaw.”

The inviting entrance of the restaurant

Before starting at Hotel Emma, Diaz became the first female woman of color to be the Chef de Cuisine at the Austin Italian restaurant, Vespiao. She was only 25-years-old when she secured the Chef de Cuisine title after she’d apprenticed under Ryan Sampson, the Executive Chef and owner there. Diaz, having no prior cooking experience, worked from the ground up learning complex cooking techniques as she climbed her way through the ranks.

A veggie feast at Supper

“I had really no idea what I was getting myself into,” confessed Diaz. She shared that whenever she told her mentor, “I’m not good enough,” he replied, “No, you just don’t know enough. Just read, take the time to learn.”

Diaz brings this encouraging atmosphere to the kitchen at Emma. “One thing that I really like to do is to take people out of their element…If there's something that you don't know how to do, let's do it together…let’s mess up together…just try, you know? Mess it up… it's going to be OK.”

Supper’s creative pancakes

Diaz is also a self-proclaimed “bread nerd” (the house sourdough is her recipe), so I obviously had to order a side of sourdough toast with my dinner… and then order it with every meal during my stay.

Hotel Emma and Pearl was always meant to be a food destination showing visitors the magic of local San Antonio cuisine, especially as the city was named a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy in 2017. A campus was built for the Culinary Institute of America even before CIA agreed to open up a school there. Now Pearl is home to one of three CIA locations in the United States (4 in the world) and attracts hopeful chefs from all over the country to hone their skills.

One such CIA graduate is Chef Sofia Tejeda, the pastry chef for Hotel Emma and recent James Beard Award nominee, the first and only pastry chef in San Antonio to be nominated.

“There's essentially like two kinds of chefs,” Tejeda explained, “those that do stuff for themselves and for their restaurant, and the ones that do it for their heritage or their city… I'm definitely super proud Mexican; I use a lot of Mexican ingredients… and then I'm really really proud to be from San Antonio….They’ve seen me grow here and San Antonio has given me this opportunity, so I try to bring back as much as I can.”

Emma Suite #2
The bathroom in the Garret Suite

Tejeda’s sentiment is echoed throughout Hotel Emma and Pearl. Just a quick exploration of your rooms gives you a taste of what San Antonio has to offer. From the custom-made robe by Dos Carolinas, to the seasonal South Texas snacks waiting in the ice box, every item tells a story and shines a light on a local artist.

Similar to Diaz, Chef Tejeda also found a mentor in Susana Mijares, co-owner of Délice Chocolatier in San Antonio. Tejeda’s goal as the pastry chef is to elevate the existing desert menu and, “make it more Emma…Emma is refined; it’s pretty; it has a lot of history… but it’s also a little bit different and unique…” That special intersection between modern and classic is emblematic of Hotel Emma’s style, food, and design.

Pastry Chef Sofia Tejeda

As tempted as I was to stay within the Emma bubble and eat at Supper and Larder for my entire stay (I still regret not trying the chilaquiles for breakfast), the hotel is only one piece of the puzzle that makes up Pearl.

I ventured out and tried some of the offerings around the area, including a very enjoyable crunchy kale salad at Full Good Diner, a perfectly thin and crispy slice of pizza at Wonderslice, and a mini grapefruit tiramisu from Bakery Lorraine (I would go back just for another serving of that tiramisu).

While I did my best to try a little bit of everything, I still left feeling like I’d only scratched the surface of this very unique place.


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