San Antonio has long been synonymous with Tex-Mex cooking. Perfected over the centuries, the rich array of dishes created by this adaptation of south-of-the-border fare relies on heaping helpings of tradition. But these days, the dining scene’s sizzle comes from far more than fajitas. San Antonio’s designation as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy recognizes both the unique contribution and evolution of Tex-Mex and the fact that a wider culinary revolution has been slowly simmering. The Mexican influence is still key, but now chef-driven restaurants come in all flavors—French, Italian, New American, vegetarian, fusion—as do the more modest dining rooms that locals flock to. You can also find lots of down-home barbecue shacks, local taquerías, and popular neighborhood dives.
Downtown restaurants, especially those along the River Walk, still draw the most visitors—often deservedly so. But the two epicenters of San Antonio’s serious food scene reside in adjacent neighborhoods. To the north of downtown, along the Museum Reach stretch of the San Antonio River, The Pearl multi-use complex is the city’s newest foodie magnet, anchored by the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) (www.ciachef.edu/cia-texas; tel. 210/554-6400), with its student-run cafe, and the Hotel Emma. Some of the city’s best-loved chefs as well as up-and-comers operate restaurants in the Pearl (several reviewed below), where you’ll also find a farmers market on Saturdays and Sundays year-round and the Bottling Department (www.bottlingdept.com), a food hall with five fast-casual eateries and a bar. Just downstream from the city center, the eclectic, vivacious Southtown area became popular a couple of decades ago with artists, gallery owners, and innovative restaurateurs; the neighborhood and food scene are still predominantly Mexican-American, but now creative south-of-the-border dining rooms and holdover taquerías mix with fine dining spots of all ethnicities.
There’s also no shortage of restaurants, new and well-established, farther afield, especially in such prosperous northside neighborhoods as Monte Vista, Olmos Park, and Alamo Heights.
Along with the restaurants listed in this guide, you may also want to consider Paesanos Riverwalk, 111 W. Crockett St., #101 (tel. 210/227-2782), a downtown branch of the beloved Alamo Heights restaurant Paesanos.
Reservations—San Antonio’s serious foodie scene is still a bit under the radar, which is good news for visitors. You’ll rarely find yourself unable to get a table at the restaurant of your choice if you book a few days in advance; even if you turn up without a reservation, you might have to wait but you’ll eventually get seated. Willingness to sit in the bar speeds up the process.
Dress Code—San Antonio is a very casual town—in part dictated by the warm weather. I can’t think of any place where men would be required to wear a jacket or tie. Even the fanciest steakhouses are fine with business casual—khakis, say, or intact jeans, and a nice short-sleeved shirt. That said, a lot of San Antonians, especially younger women, like to get gussied up for a night out. Don’t hesitate to strut your fashion stuff.
Smoking—San Antonio was one of the first cities in Texas to ban indoor smoking, so diners are guaranteed smoke-free indoor environments. Smoking is permitted in designated areas on most restaurant patios. San Antonio’s “Tobacco 21” ordinance, which went into effect in September 2018, bans the sale of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to anyone under 21. It’s hard to predict, but that seems likely to inhibit patio smoking by a younger crowd.
Dining Times—Typically of dwellers in warm weather cities, San Antonians are early risers—and early diners. Most kitchens close by 10pm. The most popular time to eat is from 6:30 to 7:30pm.
Categories of Cuisine
Rather than trying to make fine distinctions between overlapping labels such as Regional American, New Southwestern, and American Fusion, which generally identify the kind of cooking that tweaks classic American dishes using out-of-the-ordinary ingredients—roast chicken with tamale stuffing, say, or blue cheese fritters with pesto dipping sauce—I lump them all into the category of New American. Tex-Mex is, of course, Tex-Mex, and should not be confused with the cooking south of the border, which is labeled Mexican.
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