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San Antonio Emerging Food Scene

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“The emerging food scene here confirmed my feeling that San Antonio is ready for adventurous dining,” Executive Chef Mark Bliss told Southern Living this fall. Bliss, whose eponymous new restaurant in San Antonio’s hopping Southtown district was the San Antonio Express critics’ choice (along with fellow newcomer Sustenio, both featured in this story) for best new restaurant in 2012, has been defining the dining here scene for over 20 years, so these are telling words indeed.
 
Groups can plan a variety of culinary adventures in dynamic San Antonio, which is expanding beyond its traditional Tex-Mex base in a number of exciting ways. Eight of the 37 AAA Four Diamond restaurants in Texas are in San Antonio, including Las Canarias at Omni La Mansion del Rio and Antlers Lodge at the Hyatt Hill Country Resort.
 
Held each May, the city’s annual wine and culinary arts celebration, Culinaria, is Vanity Fair’s “most popular” seasonal food and wine festival in the U.S. The dining scenes in Southtown and at the Pearl Brewery are justifiably putting San Antonio on the national food map.
 
For conventioneers and small groups alike, all the ingredients are in place for flavorsome culinary adventures across the city, with the following eight choices just a sample of the diversity in store.
 
FRANCESCA’S AT SUNSET
www.westinlacantera.com
The Westin La Cantera Hill Country Resort has so much for groups. Located in booming northwest San Antonio some 15 minutes from the airport, the 508-room destination resort commands a hilltop perch in an old limestone quarry (“la cantera” in Spanish). Modeled after the historic million-acre King Ranch in South Texas, the Texas Colonial-style property features over 39,000 square feet of handsome meeting space, 36 holes of championship golf, a spa and fitness center and lagoon-style pools.
 
Several appetizing culinary options are also on the menu, including its fine dining experience, Francesca’s at Sunset. Located on the third floor of the Citadel Tower, the AAA Four Diamond restaurant satisfies all the senses, combining glorious Hill Country and sunset views with delicious fare and a wine cellar recognized by Wine Spectator.
 
“Featuring locally sourced South Texas cuisine with a Southwestern flair and sommelier-paired wines, this Zagat-rated restaurant is the perfect stage for entertaining and impressing clients,” says Shane Tiller, Francesca’s general manager. “With seating for 12, our elegant private dining room is an ideal choice for board and other executive gatherings.”
 
SUSTENIO
www.eilanhotel.com
An original member of the “Gang of Five” chefs who revolutionized Southwestern cuisine in the early 1980s, celebrity chef Stephan Pyles made his San Antonio debut earlier this year with this upscale concept at the recently opened Eilan Hotel Resort & Spa, also in the La Cantera hills.
 
While featuring such Pyles signatures as his ceviche appetizers, bone-in cowboy ribeye and Heaven and Hell Cake, the menu is a joint effort with his friend and colleague David Gilbert. A star in his own right, Gilbert, who serves as executive chef, brings his own innovative touch to sustainability focused (hence the name Sustenio), farm-to-table specialties, such as his signature six-course tasting menu.
 
Sustenio and its chic adjoining cocktail bar offer several enticing spaces for groups. With access to the display kitchen for cooking demonstrations, the private dining room accommodates up to 66 guests. Smaller groups can dine in the VIP Room or glass-enclosed Wine Room, seating 10 and 14 guests, respectively, or convene around the 20-person communal table.
 
ROSARIO’S MEXICAN CAFE Y CANTINA
www.rosariossa.com
Located at the gateway to San Antonio’s hot, hot, hot Southtown district, this acclaimed local favorite serves classic Tex-Mex fare in an unabashedly loud and fun atmosphere. No pretense or fuss—just reasonably priced beer, margaritas and hearty food starting with ceviche and burnt-tomato salsa and then proceeding through big plates of enchiladas, fajitas, tacos and other standards.
 
A popular choice for cocktail parties, sit-down dinners and other special events, Rosario’s accommodates private parties and is available for complete buyouts. Decorated with Latino artwork, the spacious Gallo Room can seat 70 people or 80 for a standing reception, while the rock-walled Cellar in the basement can accommodate 30 for sit-down meals and 40 people standing. The restaurant offers customizable menu options and typically decorates event space with traditional festive Mexican items, including pottery, linens, knick-knacks, flowers and candles.
 
If you are hungry for more Rosario’s on the way out of town, there is an outpost at the airport.
 
BLISS
www.foodisbliss.com
Chef Mark Bliss has been a mainstay of the San Antonio scene for over two decades. After first working with another local culinary hero, Bruce Auden (his Biga on the Banks on the River Walk is a personal favorite), Bliss opened his celebrated Silo Elevated Cuisine in 1997, which he ran until 2010 before taking a sabbatical.
 
To the delight of locals hungry for his return, he came back, opening his eponymous new restaurant in early 2012. It’s good news for groups, too. Housed in a converted gas station in the heart of Southtown, his stylish new concept comes with flexible seating options for events, including complete buyouts of the 52-seat main dining room.
 
Flexibly accommodating up to 30 guests in various configurations, the private event room comes fully wired with power and data points, a speaker system, high-definition, flat-screen television and Wi-Fi.
 
“When booking exclusive use of this room, guests have full access to the back patio and seasonal use of the fire pit,” says Lisa Bliss, his wife and business partner. “This is a popular spot for after-dinner gatherings.”
 
Chef Bliss’ contemporary American cuisine is the main draw, of course, which groups of up to 10 can savor via the five-course tasting menu at a true chef’s table in the heart of the kitchen.
 
FEAST
www.feastsa.com
Located in the middle of the King William Historic District (part of Southtown), Feast opened in September 2011 and was an immediate hit, distinctively setting itself apart from any other restaurant in town. Closer to Manhattan than San Antonio, the chic glassed-in white interior draws a cosmopolitan crowd that seems to have just flown in from somewhere else. Loud and lively, Feast offers an exciting and refreshing option, serving Mediterranean-influenced small sharing plates from Chef Stefan Bowers, who spent five years in the Navy as a helicopter rescue swimmer before entering the kitchen.
 
Cleverly organized across six categories including “Hot,” “Chilled,” “Crispy” and “Comfort,” menu highlights include the Jack Cheese Mac and ground lamb kebabs. Partial or complete buyouts are available on select mid-week nights, and with 90 seats inside and more out front, groups can also organize outdoor events on the patio behind the restaurant.
 
ACHIOTE RIVER CAFE
www.achioterivercafe.com
Boasting 1,003 rooms and 115,000 square feet of flexible function space, the Grand Hyatt San Antonio is among the city’s premier convention hotels. Situated on the River Walk and the only property adjacent to the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, the hotel is also a distinctive dining draw, courtesy of its artfully decorated Achiote River Cafe restaurant.
 
Highlights of the Asian-influenced Latin menu start with the winning tableside guacamole, a hit with the happy hour crowd and served both traditional and Sansei-style, with mango, ginger, scallion, wasabi and wonton chips. From there, the spicy Cubano burger and teriyaki-chipotle chicken sandwich are among the flavorsome choices.
 
With its open kitchen providing an inviting draw, Achiote has two small private rooms for gatherings of up to 10 people, along with larger divisible banquet space for up to 140 guests. The hotel’s street-level Bar Rojo, with outdoor seating on the River Walk, is open until 2 a.m. and is a great spot for finishing out the night.
 
MI TIERRA CAFE Y PANADERIA (RESTAURANT AND BAKERY)
www.mitierracafe.com
It doesn’t get any more San Antonio than this landmark institution in the heart of the old Mercado, or Market Square. Founded as a three-table cafe in 1941 by Pete and Cruz Cortez, Mi Tierra today seats over 500 and never closes, drawing locals and tourists alike with its authentic Tex-Mex fare, strolling musicians and festive atmosphere.
 
Still run by the Cortez family, the restaurant has flexible space for groups, each requiring minimum booking requirements. The famed Mural Dining Room, which features an entire wall painted with notable Latino figures (Cortez family members included) and an exuberantly decorated bar, can accommodate banquets of up to 200 guests.
 
The striking Mariachi Bar, featuring a full tequila bar and framed displays of traditional mariachi costumes, is available from Monday to Wednesday for groups of between 35 and 70 guests. The outdoor patio, meanwhile, can seat up to 50 people. Groups can also utilize a number of available spaces at the Cortez’s adjacent La Margarita restaurant, housed in a two-story, balconied New Orleans-style building.
 
OCHO LOUNGE & RESTAURANT
www.havanasanantonio.com
Originally a residence hotel built in 1914, Hotel Havana reopened in 2010 after a transformation by renowned hotelier Liz Lambert. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 27-room property is an elegant triumph, with an irresistibly distinctive pan-Latin identity. Seeming to hide in plain view on a quiet stretch of the River Walk, it is also home to the hot spot Ocho Lounge and Restaurant.
 
“Representing the light and spirit of the New World with an emphasis on classic service, Ocho is a truly unique space ideal for intimate gatherings,” says Sandra Puente, the hotel’s general manager. “From private dinners to staff retreats, we create a specialized experience for groups.”
 
Serving traditional Latin fare in a country club setting, Ocho’s lounge and riverside terrace can accommodate 70 to 80 guests for seated dinners and 150 for cocktail receptions. The second-floor terrace can host groups of between 30 and 60 people, and there is additional space in the front courtyard and band stage area.