If you only ever visited Austin and San Antonio, you could be excused for thinking Texas was a pretty good place to live. The people seem nice, and the cost of living is relatively cheap. Even better, you don’t see hordes of cowboy hats everywhere like you do in Dallas or Houston. In fact, you could probably get by your entire life there just fine without ever buying a pair of cowboy boots (assuming the 24/7 Country Muzak® doesn’t drive you effing insane first).
As I’ve said before, I tend to like any place where it’s more often sunny than cloudy, and San Antonio (or ‘SA,’ as they call it) certainly fits the bill. In the middle of February, we only had to deal with a couple of chilly nights and a freak 40mph windstorm that lasted six hours. Otherwise, the weather was similar to the Silicon Valley—sunny, warm and dry during the day, then dropping to -40F the millisecond that the sun goes down. But nobody goes to San Antonio for the weather. You go for the boring seminars, mind-numbing PowerPoint® presentations and useless team-building exercises.
At its heart, San Antonio is a convention town, and certainly, that’s why we were there. But unlike other convention towns such as Vegas or Chicago, there aren’t really any other big draws to bring in tourism. Instead of Vegas strippers or Chicago’s Blues scene, San Antonio has…uh, Hooters. Instead of world-class cuisine or super-thick pizza, there’s unremarkable Mexican food. Instead of gambling or Oprah, San Antonio has…the Riverwalk.
It’s almost like the town council had a brainstorming session about how to increase tourism, and the Mayor said: “What does San Antonio have the most of?” and someone answered, “Undeveloped downtown commercial space…oh, and a muddy river!”
Years later, San Antonio’s downtown skyline dazzles newcomers with its revolving steak house/Space Needle and a collection of mid-level business hotels! Sure, they have The Alamodome, home to the San Antonio Spurs basketball team. But where are the bank headquarters? The Oil Company’s nearly unoccupied, vanity skyscraper? Or scaled-down replicas of monuments from other, bigger cities? That’s right. In Vegas.
The city’s only cultural claim to fame is that it’s home to The Alamo, a former mission-turned-fortress that changed hands more times than Liz Taylor.
As an attraction, The Alamo is a little underwhelming and, thankfully, free. But the story of the Alamo is, to a former New Yorker who never learned it, a revelation. I had no idea of Texas’ early history, and that alone made the Alamo significant as a destination.
In 1824, Texas was part of Mexico, and a part they clearly didn’t much care for as they opened it up for colonization by offering cheap land to new settlers. Soon, both Americans (and by that, I mean, the original 13 colonies) and Europeans (French and Germans, mostly) relocated there.
In 1833, a Mexican general, one Lopez Santa Anna, was elected President but soon became an evil dictator. Declaring martial law, he jailed people for no reason and eventually his heavy-handed tactics caused freedom-loving Texans to revolt. So, in December of 1835, a force of 400 Texans defeated 1,000 of Santa Anna’s forces and took over The Alamo.
Not to be out-killed by a bunch of big, belt-buckle wearing yahoos, Santa Anna retaliated the next March with 4,000 troops, slaughtering 189 Alamo defenders, including volunteers like David Crockett and his “Tennessee Boys” who owned nothing in Texas and owed nothing to Texas, but really just liked “shooting shit.”
Finally, on April 21st, 800 pissed-off Texans routed the Mexican Army at San Jacinto, captured Santa Anna, and gave birth to the sovereign, Republic of Texas. This new country in between Mexico and a growing America stood for about 10 years. It became a U.S. state in 1845, and now we’re stuck with it.
More people could stand to learn that Texas was once home to the very same Indians, Mexicans, Spanish, and French that modern-day Texans themselves are repeatedly try passing legislation to keep out. It makes you wonder how Texas changed from a bastion of freedom, acceptance and tolerance into the home of so many small-minded, conservative and religious white-supremacists. Personally, I blame it on the idiots writing Texas school textbooks.
Nowadays, the biggest draw for San Antonio is The Riverwalk, which is, to be honest, pretty good with the exception of the tacky motor-boat tours ruining the almost ambiance every five minutes with captains giving miked tours explaining how the Riverwalk came to be, and that tips would be ’gratefully accepted’ afterward if you had any hope of ever walking on dry land again (why no romantic, peaceful, gondolas? Have Texans never been to Venice, Italy?) But, if they’d gone another way with it, it could’ve been a lot more amazing.
Dug out from about 15-feet under street level, this 2.5 mile meandering river flows from an underwater spring up in northern Texas somewhere. Stone, brick and concrete sidewalks are built alongside the entire length so you can take a relaxing stroll past all manner of cheesy chain restaurants and tacky themed bars. If it wasn’t actually a restaurant chain—i.e. a Hard Rock Cafe, Hooters, Applebee’s, or Rainforest Cafe—then it looks (and tastes) like one. Or worst of all, it’s the scourge of the Mid-West, a Howl At The Moon, dueling piano bar.
Charming bridges span the river’s width every couple hundred feet so you can change sides should you see a restaurant without neon lights or should you want to spit on ducks as they pass underneath. The sidewalks themselves pass under street-level bridges making for a very attractive subterranean spot to get robbed, or to vomit into a three-foot deep river.
The Hilton Palacio Del Rio (or “Palace on the River”) is notable for the fact that each room was built in its entirety on the ground and then craned up into position. Assembled rather than built, the hotel was ready for unsuspecting customers in just 202 days, breaking all previous construction speed records (as well as a number of State and Federal building codes, no doubt).
Fortunately, we stayed at the much more slowly and, presumably, more safely built Grand Hyatt. Ideally located right next to the convention center and across the street from the local mall(!), the hotel prevented us from getting much outside the downtown area, so I’m sure there’s lots more to the area than we got to see. For example, we somehow, we missed the Texas Institute of Culture. Likewise, we heard rumors of high-end shopping and expensive restaurants that were located in area’s we never visited. So my little tour of SA was like someone going to SF and judging it solely on a visit to Fisherman’s Wharf. Still, if you’re going there, and you don’t rent a car, you’ll have much the same experience we had. Which, frankly, wasn’t anything to write home about (but somehow, still sufficient for a CrosbyReport).
There’s food in San Antonio, just like other places.
Business folk from non-beef producing states can happily come to San Antonio and jam enough steak in their beef-holes to choke a cow. Not surprisingly, this city in the center of Texas is a beef town where probably 80% of the restaurants are steak houses, about 18% are Mexican (not Tex-Mex, as I had hoped) and the rest say they offer seafood or sushi, but really just serve more steak. Still, there are a few decent restaurant options in San Antonio.
Purported to be one of the best restaurants in town, Biga On The Banks lived up to its billing, although that’s not saying much. The food was decent enough, but hardly on par with SF or NYC. In addition, there were a few restaurants we didn’t patronize that looked promising (Restaurant Insignia, for one). Still, good food anywhere on the Riverwalk was harder to find than a sober guy wearing cowboy boots.
We also went to a champagne bar named Zinc that was highly rated and reminded us never to trust other people’s ratings. While the restaurant’s food wasn’t awful, two tables of conventioneers near us raved loudly and endlessly in defense of the drinks’ alcohol content. Zocca, an average Italian place, had terrific decor and lighting, but the bar noise bled into the dining room, killing the ambiance of an otherwise quiet location.
Still, our worst experience by far was Sazo’s Latin Grill (and that includes Schilo’s Delicatessen, a German Deli that served food no better than a High School cafeteria). When we got reservations at Sazo’s—entirely unnecessarily, as it turned out—we didn’t realize the place was inside a Marriott. Yes, a Marriott, for Pete’s sake. Its “Latin” menu looked more like a Johnny Rocket’s, offering burgers and sandwiches in an atmosphere that would only impress fans of fast food on an expense account. If you want a high-end meal, look elsewhere (like Vegas).
Still, I’ve been to more rednecky and annoying places than San Antonio. It didn’t live up to all the negative Texas stereotypes I was frankly expecting, in fact, it seemed closer to Austin in demeanor. Quiet, relaxed and subdued—in other words, very un-Texan. And for me, that’s a good thing.
So, in the end, I don’t know that I’d recommend San Antonio as a place to visit. But I’d probably recommend it as a place to live as long as you don’t have very high expectations, any real ambition, or any life-goals.