Every year, about 14 million people visit the San Antonio River Walk, and 2019 was no exception. Restaurant owners and others called it a banner year.
What followed last spring – during what is typically the busiest time of the year at one of the most popular attractions in the state – was anything but. The coronavirus pandemic, which led to restaurant closures everywhere, suddenly emptied the River Walk of the tourists and downtown workers and residents who once flocked there.
Yet through the holidays and after, some of the pre-pandemic foot traffic returned. Now that the city has thawed from its recent, unprecedented winter storm, the River Walk could again see a greater number of visitors – locals and perhaps tourists here for the NCAA Women’s Final Four.
More permanent changes are also on the horizon. Towering new hotels will open. Several new restaurants and bars are in the works and the City has begun a few upgrades.
“People are going forward with plans, so that’s helpful,” said Maggie Thompson, executive director of the San Antonio River Walk Association, which will soon close its doors and merge with the city’s convention and visitor bureau, Visit San Antonio.
Amid the pandemic, Thompson said, the organization has worked to convince the public that the River Walk is a safe place to visit and she believes that has made a difference in the number of people who are visiting.
“We ask [visitors to wear] a mask and park police will stop them and ask them to put on masks because if they go into a business they’re supposed to, they’re required to wear a mask,” she said, adding that about 75% of people appear to be wearing masks while walking on the River Walk.
Thompson and the River Walk’s many business owners hope they keep it up.
“Spring break’s coming up so they’re hopeful that the [COVID-19 case] spike will go down and we still have a good showing on the River Walk,” she said. “Over St. Patrick’s Day weekend events [we have] about 60,000 to 70,000 people down here.”
Though the usual spring schedule of Fiesta river parades and downtown festivals has been postponed, for locals and tourists who venture to the River Walk anyway in the coming weeks, things may look different in spots.
The City started work in December on a $3.2 million improvement project to upgrade walking paths, walls, handrails, and steps on parts of the River Walk. The project, which is phase 6 of a five-year improvement plan totaling $15 million, also includes electrical upgrades, new light fixtures, and improvements to the streetcar station elevator.
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In addition, the Historia restrooms, which are near the Go Rio ticket booth and the West Market Street bridge by the Hilton Palacio del Rio, will be renovated and the northern Navarro Street bridge will be improved. The work is set to be complete in December.
As for the restaurant scene along the River Walk, though places like Mexican Manhattan closed, a LandShark restaurant opened. Other establishments along the river have modified their hours, and some business owners and developers are planning to open the doors to new concepts soon, despite the pandemic.
“Yeah, call me crazy,” said Terry Corless, owner of Mad Dogs British Pub, On the Bend oyster bar, and other downtown watering holes.
But the restaurant he plans to open in March or April is the fulfillment of a longtime dream waiting for the right location.
For 50 years, the Little Rhein Steak House was a fine dining restaurant in La Villita’s Otto Bombach House, which is owned by the Conservation Society of San Antonio. Established by Frank Phelps, the Little Rhein closed temporarily in March 2020 due to COVID-19 lockdowns but never reopened last year.
“It was a dream of mine to do something that was authentically South Texan,” Corless said. “The settlers were so relevant to our part of South Texas. So we started putting this idea together, and we brought together pretzels and brats and sauerkraut, beer and craft beer.”
His BierGarten River Walk at Losoya Street didn’t have enough space for the kind of place and experience he envisioned, an outdoor dining experience with long communal tables and German polka bands. But the Little Rhein Steak House fit the bill.
“I think it’s perfect,” Corless said. “What I always needed was a building that would house the facilities. What I didn’t expect I’d be lucky enough to find was the oldest two-story German-built building in San Antonio. It was a beautiful opportunity.”
With an eye toward turning the restaurant and terraces into a traditional German biergarten he’s calling Little Rhein Prost Haus, Corless has leased the space from master-tenant and local restaurateur Sam Panchevre, who has River Walk plans of his own.
At another fine-dining staple on the River Walk, Panchevre, owner of Sam’s Burger Joint on East Grayson Street as well as restaurants on the river since 1987, is renovating both the Fig Tree Restaurant and a second space next door.
He plans to turn the Fig Tree, next to Little Rhein, into an upscale eatery with “small plates” and craft cocktails, and open in May. At the Dashiell House, previously a private venue, he plans to open a casual, sports-oriented drinking and dining establishment, opening in April.
The Dashiell House also is owned by the conservation society.
“Those three locations … have been in the same family for 50 years, mostly as an old-school-style steakhouse, and continental cuisine at the Fig Tree,” Panchevre said. “What we’re trying to do is really reinvigorate the area with more of a more casual fun-style type atmosphere and concepts.”
Panchevre also is renovating a space above Joe’s Crab Shack. The remade Acapulco Sam’s, 212 College St., will go from nightclub to upscale Mexican restaurant and open by early April, Panchevre said.
Gleaming new hotels are also about to open on the River Walk. Set to open Feb. 25, the 20-story Thompson Hotel looms large over the river at 115 Lexington Ave. and near the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Its rooftop lounges and restaurant, Landrace, are set to open soon.
The Canopy by Hilton Hotel, a 22-story hotel at East Commerce and North St. Mary’s streets, will open in late March or April, said developer Chris Hill.
Hill began the Canopy project four years ago alongside restoration of the Witte Building on the same block where he plans to open two establishments overlooking the river: a restaurant, House of Má, and a Tiki-style bar, Hugman’s Oasis.
It’s on that section of the river that the curious presence of a fig tree growing from the River Walk wall became a casualty of construction and one of many changes longtime River Walk purveyor Bob Buchanan laments along with last year’s furloughs, layoffs, closures, and a public health crisis that nearly decimated his industry.
The Little Rhein’s Corless acknowledges those struggles and sees it as a turning point.
“It’s been an extremely tough year, to say the least,” Corless said. “We’ve all found ourselves at times where we’ve wondered whether we had the resources to carry on through this, not knowing what was going to be the next problem that we encountered.”
But everyone was experiencing the same challenges, he said. “And some of them were at a time in life where they needed to add the resources or they just got to the time where it was a good time to close the book.”