There’s a low-key, hard-working ethos to the current culinary renaissance in San Antonio. The chefs at many of the city’s leading restaurants are only too happy to recommend other restaurants of note and to share their favorite orders (especially with regards to tacos). The genuine sense of community has helped San Antonio build an unpretentious yet whip-smart group of restaurants and chefs that’s put the city on regional and national radars. The list below isn’t comprehensive, but it does represent a vibrant cross-section of San Antonio’s bountiful dining scene.
As the flagship restaurant for the luxurious Hotel Emma, Supper had every reason to play it safe for mass appeal. How surprising, then, to find that half the menu focuses on smart and innovative vegetable preparations. Chef John Brand (a veteran of Aspen’s Little Nell) and the Emma design team avoid many of the traps plaguing hotel dining: Prices are reasonable, there’s an abundance of natural light and the compact room design evokes the feeling of a smart European bistro. A subtle but deft hand from Brand gives the menu a light touch: Parmesan risotto is accented with lemon and dill, while grilled asparagus gains spice and earthiness from a miso mustard. Simple dishes like kale salad are made surprising through additions of sweet caramel apples and nutty Comté cheese. Supper doesn’t forget carnivores: There’s braised oxtail stew with mushrooms, and smoked crispy quail featured in the “large frame” section. We couldn’t stop eating the vegetables, though: The kitchen’s finesse in an $8 cauliflower, lentil and romesco plate shone as brightly as far more expensive mains. Amongst the beverage options, the short, curated beer list (Odell, Ommegang) and a lean cocktail menu both acquitted themselves well. 136 E. Grayson St.; 210-448-8351; supperatemma.com
The newest concept from Jason Dady, Shuck Shack takes a ramshackle space in trendy Government Hill and transforms it into a Martha’s Vineyard–style fish shack. There’s a small indoor seating area, but much of the crowd sits outside at picnic tables, many with kids in tow. Cold pints of beer, lobster rolls and a generous selection of raw oysters run the show here. Dady’s oyster supplier ships an array of small-batch oysters that rotates often, including recent selections from Prince Edward Island like Wild Fire Island, Daisy Bay and Osprey Point. Pairing these with a Ballast Point Sculpin IPA and a lobster roll is a wise late-summer choice. If you’re dining with those seeking seafood alternatives, the restaurant’s over the top “Tijuana Dog” is a worthy indulgence: The Angus Beef frank is sourced from notable Texas ranch 44 Farms and topped with pineapple, jalapeño, bacon, cilantro and lime crema. Sharing one in a group is a treat. For those with little ones, four children’s platters (including classic fish and chips) can be had for $8 or less. 520 E. Grayson St.; 210-236-7422; shuckshack.com
Moody, dramatic, opulent and a little goth, Stefan Bowers’s newest project in Starwood’s historic St. Anthony Hotel brings big ideas and wildly inventive cooking to a downtown block near many of San Antonio’s best performing-arts venues. The visuals here are a show in themselves: The room’s dramatic light fixtures and purple and red accents are initially jolting but add some brash showmanship. Bowers was already well known to San Antonio diners as a leading light in Southtown’s revival with his still-popular Feast, and Rebelle shares that restaurant’s mix of menu breadth and mix-and-match adventure. A starter of broiled oysters in a garlic confit butter was outstanding, complemented by triangles of charred sourdough to dip in the extra butter. Another appetizer dish, the roasted carrots in pine honey, was the most complex and rewarding treatment of the vegetable we’ve ever encountered, using pine nuts, tarragon, fennel confit and a bold tapenade to highlight the vegetable’s own combination of bitter and sweet. Even the now-ubiquitous beet made a strong showing, thanks to a preparation utilizing malted peanuts for crunch, crème fraîche for brightness and endive for bitter contrast. Among the main courses, the shrimp in hot and sour cashew sauce was a standout. The crunchy, spicy dish comes with crispy rice and quickly disappeared from our platter. Wine selections include budget food-friendly picks like a Jorge Ordonez Verdejo ($9/glass) and Lucien Albrecht Brut Rose ($12). 300 E. Travis St.; 210-352-3171; rebellesa.com
Two and a half years in, Steve McHugh’s Cured still packs in the crowds at all hours. On a recent brunch visit, the bar bustled preparing infused moonshine “Mountain Marys” and setting up champagne service from ice-filled, reclaimed stainless wash basins that once served as sinks in Pearl Brewery. The visual allure of the 1904-built structure is a bonus for fans of McHugh’s dishes: The back dining room was left with exposed ceiling trusses, while other rooms feature replicas of the original pressed-tin ceiling panels. Douglas fir tables and a timber beam bar complete the stunning interior. The restaurant loves to age, infuse and ferment, meaning that the charcuterie board is a must. On our visit, the meats arrived on a beautiful Keith Kreeger platter and were accented with a host of mustards and pickled veggies. While all were worthwhile, the Merguez lamb terrine, country pork pâté and local lamb and citrus terrine each rose above the crowd. The Cured “Blue Ribbon Burger” is another surefire hit: The patty is a mix of ground bacon, chuck and beef short rib, topped with American cheese and a smoked onion jam on a housemade bun. As a longtime New Orleans resident (and veteran of John Besh Restaurant Group), McHugh also takes the bar program seriously. There’s an solid beer list focused on lagers, pilsners and IPAs, and a strong and thoughtful cocktail list meant for connoisseurs. 306 Pearl Pkwy, #101; 210-314-3929; curedatpearl.com
Jeff Balfour’s homage to Southern Gulf cooking and beer may be the most beautiful brewpub in Texas, with architecture from Austin’s Clayton and Little and interior design by Joel Mozersky taking full advantage of the 1881-built brewery’s high ceilings and cavernous spaces with beautiful hardwood floors, an open kitchen, aging beer barrels on display and distressed walls and beams. The beer program here is large and ambitious: On a recent visit, offerings ranged from experimental goses, saisons and sours to more traditional styles like California common and German-style lager. The restaurant’s fried snapper throat was a revelation, served with a celery remoulade and Crystal hot sauce aioli; the throats are the seafood equivalent of the chicken wing, packed with flavor and best consumed messily by hand. Starchy sides like cheddar bacon chive biscuits and crab mac and cheese are weighty — order light if you want to proceed to main courses comfortably. Crowd-pleasers like fried whole chicken smothered in cream gravy and pork cutlets with roasted mushrooms are as rich as you’d expect, so go ahead and order another beer sampler to wash them them down. As with Supper and Cured, the restaurant’s Pearl location makes a stay at the adjacent Hotel Emma mandatory for culinary explorers. 136 E. Grayson St.; 210-455-5701; southerleigh.com
It’s a simple but effective proposition that Sukeban puts forth: Sushi plus bubbles means a great night out. From the wild comic-panel wall mural from Holden William Dunlap that greets you at the door to the husband-and-wife team guiding your selections, the restaurant is intended as a sociable and gregarious experience. Sparkling wine here is startling in its affordability: DuVal Leroy Brut for $42? Roederer Estate L’Ermitage for just $55? Order a bottle (or two) and pair them with selections like the standard sashimi platter, which co-owner Mon Shirley is often personally slicing behind the sushi bar. Yakitori skewers of ribeye were also a highlight, providing the grilled beef richness and satisfaction in a small, no-regrets portion. Note: The cocktail menu leans sweet, so we stuck with the wine list. The restaurant’s Blue Star Arts location is near several art galleries, and the combination makes for a perfect date night. 1420 S. Alamo St.; 210-562-3231; facebook.com/sukebansushi