Searching for San Antonio
Liz Lambert's hypnotic Hotel Havana: Changing the face of San Antonio, onebedroom at a time
In the coming month’s CultureMap will present an ongoing series on the Austin’s backyard metropolis, San Antonio, a town many know as a cultural, tourist-driven place. But what few may know is the historic Alamo City is rich in art, music, modern cuisine and a hip, progressive spirit that may give even the likes of Austin a run for its money in coming years. This month, we begin with the Havana Hotel, a boutique hotel embellished with the distinctive style of Austinite Liz Lambert.
San Antonio’s Havana Hotel is not one of those uppity, gilded five-star accommodations with kiss-ass service that prompts a tip for every finger lifted; it’s not a new state-of-the-art construction boasting the latest in LEED certification; and it’s not a place brimming with over-the-top amenities enticing you to never leave the property. This lack of pretension is precisely it’s allure.
Now don’t get me wrong; a stay at the Hotel Havana affords plenty of perks, the most enticing of which are the comfy, stay-in-bed-all-day beds and a virtual artistic museum of Cuban antiques around every corner. (And let’s not forget the retro mini-frig in each room stocked with an array of local and international food and drink items, not to mention a Havana t-shirt, a stuffed monkey and a set of red maracas, which I greedily snatched up as a gift for my 10-month-old son on a recent visit.)
The charm of this hotel is in its layers of history. Originally built in 1914 as a hotel residence by a local grocer, the hotel has changed hands numerous times over the past century, at times receiving a breath of new life into the grand Mediterranean Revival building as a secluded destination along the far reaches of San Antonio’s Riverwalk banks. Perhaps that new life has never been so vibrant, intriguing and magnetic as today.
As you stroll through the low-lit halls adorned with darkly stained Bastrop pine framing and floors that creak a lingering whisper of the past and take a ride to the basement bar in the dark and stormy black-lacquered elevator vaguely lit with crimson backlighting, you may find yourself quoting the bewildered heroine from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, “Curious-er and curious-er.” And the likelihood is that Havana owner Liz Lambert is sporting a Cheshire Cat grin somewhere in the state of Texas.
The latest addition in Lambert’s boutique hotel ventures, managed by her hotel company Bunkhouse Management, the Hotel Havana is a boon for the city of San Antonio. It attracts a new sort of urban-chic traveler rather than the usual corporate conference-goer or textbook tourist out for the watered down show-circuit of the Alamo, the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Wax Museum, Seaworld and overpriced Tex-Mex on the Riverwalk—a sad cliché this beautiful cultural town has come to resemble.
In an odd way, the décor is a sort of luxury-meets-poverty theme with plush beds and linens packaged in ornate antique bed frames offset by rickety old dressers or chests, one rusted nail away from losing a piece of trim.
If you’ve ever stayed at any of the other Bunkhouse properties, you’ll recognize a similar style in the baby sister of Austin’s hip Hotel San Jose and Hotel Saint Cecilia and Marfa’s El Cosmico as delightfully similar in its effort to stay true to an eccentric-yet-tasteful Lambert-esque sensibility. Yet Havana is decidedly unique in its look and feel. You’ll find vintage antiques and furniture blended with a few additions of brightly colored contemporary pieces outfitting the 27 rooms and suites, but these details are modest, if not Spartan, in each bed and living area.
In an odd way, the décor is a sort of luxury-meets-poverty theme with plush beds and linens packaged in ornate antique bed frames offset by rickety old dressers or chests, one rusted nail away from losing a piece of trim. Beautiful white-tiled bathtubs with new and shiny European-style handheld shower and faucet fixtures dominate the sizable bathrooms, contrasted with a single dangling light bulb and a simple, old vanity mirror stained and cracked from years of wear and tear. It’s as if these little touches are intended to guide you to the bare white-washed walls, in an effort to focus your thoughts on the hotel’s Cuban inspiration, a place riddled with political volatility but bold in cultural soul.
Amidst these rather disparate themes, somehow it all melds together beautifully in an inviting, unobtrusive refuge dynamic with character. This is Lambert’s forte. She has a penchant for historic properties in need of a little TLC and an impeccable eye for detail that transforms old, forgotten knick-knacks and furniture into sparkly new accessories with modern flare. She’s drawn international recognition for her pioneering style and spirit with the contemporary-chic Hotel San Jose, the vintage rock-n-roll Hotel St. Cecila, and the quirky El Cosmico, which made camping cool for even the staunchest of outdoor adventure-phobes.
And while the hotel is a desirable destination in and of itself, its adjoining bar and restaurant, Ocho Lounge, sets its own pace with magnetic appeal as well. Ocho boasts two separate spaces: a dark and alluring candle-lit basement bar beneath the hotel with velvet-covered furniture and walls washed in deep gray paint, as well as a bright and airy atrium-style bar along the river side of the hotel with glass-paned walls framed in bright blue hues. The long and narrow locale is a vintage décor masterpiece in itself, but even better are the food and drink menus designed by Austin’s own Larry McGuire and Lou Lambert. Latin tortas, Cuban sandwiches, pork pozole and chorizo con queso pepper the menu. (Huitlacoche quesadillas and the bright and citrusy shrimp and crab campachena are must-haves.)
Signature cocktails offer a twist on old classics. The Hemingway Daiquiri, a smooth blend of rum, lime, grapefruit and a bit of coconut served ‘up’ in a martini glass puts to shame the modern version of sweet and syrupy frozen concoctions served in hurricane glasses with umbrellas. And they’re all best enjoyed to the background tunes of visiting musicians including regular visitor, Alejandro Escovedo. (Look for a lively set from him November 2, 16, and 30.)
Ocho may offer a festive nightlife, but it also makes for a welcome place to begin your day. Though you can certainly select from an in-room menu of Latin-inspired breakfast items, I prefer to stroll down to Ocho, take a seat at one of the quaint little tables and savor a bowl of steel cut oatmeal with piloncillo and berries along with a toasted fresh-baked bolillo with blackberry butter and a rich cup of Cuban coffee.
Having lingered at the Havana Hotel for a few days, I have to say that Liz Lambert’s decision to turn her attention to San Antonio was a blessing. This is a town for Texas to watch. It’s slowly undergoing an urban renaissance with the addition of the Culinary Institute of America and multi-phase projects at the old Pearl Brewery hosting San Antonio’s premier farmer’s market as well as chef-driven restaurant concepts from the likes of nationally-acclaimed (and San Antonio native) Andrew Weissman and a whole host of local retail boutiques such as a Latin-inspired kitchen store from celebrated cookbook author, Melissa Guerra. The King William District and near the South Presa area, local art is king and new restaurant concepts such as the local-food driven Monterrey are beginning to turn heads.
This combined with boutique spots such as the Havana Hotel are prompting many outsiders—including myself—to dig deeper into what else the sprawling Alamo City may have to offer.