Havana social

by Natalia Ciolko

Published in the San Antonio Current, March 2010

Oil and water. Fire and ice. Locals and tourists. Was there ever a rivalry so needlessly twisted? While visitors crave the authentic experiences enjoyed by the natives, we all but recede to distant hometown corners, and never the twain do meet, despite a shared fondness for the River Walk, the Spurs, and margaritas.

Given this state of affairs, imagine the local outcry when the historic Hotel Havana — and its rare gem of an underground cigar bar — closed up shop for renovations under new ownership, rumored to be from Austin. Protests and conspiracy theories abounded; what would happen to the downtown hotel bar that even (especially?) the locals loved? Just a week shy of the scheduled grand reopening, it’s time to pull back the wool on the whole affair.

Purchased for just $7,500 in 1909, the prime piece of riverbank the Havana occupies is situated near the Municipal Auditorium, which is slated to become the Bexar County performing arts center in 2013. The hotel first opened its doors in 1914, and for the next 70 years changed hands occasionally without significant structural changes. In 1992, Theresa Greer, a developer with an eye for restoration, bought the place, and in 1997, the Havana Riverwalk Inn reopened to the public. Soon thereafter, San Antonio’s movers and shakers discovered the basement bar, and established it as the de-facto drinking headquarters for the city’s downtown scene. Artist Jesse Amado fondly recalls the bar as an out-of-the-way, romantic nook where he courted his now-wife Melissa.

“It had that old-world charm,” he said. “It was a place you could just get away from everyone and be one on one. Or sometimes there’d be a dozen or more of us, and we’d get all the chairs and circle them around.”

Soon the bar, christened Ocho will open its slightly hidden doors again to the general public, and this time, we’ll be stepping into the 1950s-inspired Cuba-vision of Texas’ hottest hotelier, Liz Lambert. A spunky West Texas native, Lambert is responsible for the stratospheric success of Austin’s San Jose Hotel, the affordable kin to her other casually luxurious property down the street, the Saint Cecilia. Lambert also lays claim to a West Texas property called El Cosmico, an experiential lodging outpost where visitors can rent a hammock for the night, sleep in a teepee, or pitch their own tents.

“She’s kind of a Renaissance person,” says Amy Cook, an Austin musician and Lambert’s longtime girlfriend. “She’s just got this active mind that’s always exploring.” In addition to the Havana, Lambert is currently at work expanding El Cosmico’s trailer space and pondering a swimming pool, but today, she’s in San Antonio, dressed to sweat. A bandana is tied Hank-the-Cowdog style around her neck, and her cropped hair is rakishly mussed.

“I feel like I’m on a game show,” Lambert says, glancing around the barren lobby. “Ninety days or 120 days to re-do and re-open the hotel.” Armed with a savvy tribe of assistants and business partners, Lambert has led a complete renovation of the hotel in less than four months.

In that time, architects David Lake and Kim Monroe of Lake/Flato Architects orchestrated a pretty basic maintenance job on the property, including reshingling the cheery red roof and cleaning up the landscaping, while leaving intact the antique tiled porch and original palms and cypress trees.

Structurally, the hotel’s interior is the same as it ever was, but it now feels fresh and spacious by way of the careful detailing of the materials. The dark, antique wood floors and white walls have been smoothed to subtle perfection, while the candy-hued bathrooms and chrome-handled minibars are all colorful play.

Lambert says more than 95 percent of the furniture in the hotel remains from its previous ownership, but everything’s been refurbished and in many cases, reupholstered — as I chat with Lambert, we stand beside a pack of blood-red patent-leather wingback chairs and a shapely couch, now bedecked in wild orange mohair.

Sensory experiences are key for Lambert. When I first stepped onto the grassy lawn of the Saint Cecilia Hotel, I was surprised and delighted by the scent of Nag Champa incense in the air. At the Havana today, wearing a Creamsicle-colored coat and cowboy boots, is Robin Kelley, artist of taste and purveyor of all you eat, drink, and smell at the hotels. Everyone is oohing over her latest presentation: the Havana breakfast basket, which she describes as “a picnic delivered to your room.” Folded atop a tidy straw basket is a copy of La Prensa, and inside, carafes of hot Cuban coffee, warm milk, sliced fruit, and fresh pan dulce from El Sol Bakery in Southtown.

Encouraging guests to entertain in their rooms is a theme Lambert will continue at the Havana, and the  suites are designed for company. “Obviously, we can’t provision guests a full kitchen,” Kelley said, “but crack open a bag of chips, some salsa, open up the beverages, and call it a day.” The minibar is packed with local salsas, cane-sugar Cokes, and a haul of Mexican street snacks, some of which you’ll have to see to believe.

“We just want to restore the Havana to its Cuban roots, while adding some Old Mexico flair,” said Kevin Osterhaus, Liz’s partner at Bunkhouse Management, which oversees all of the properties. Osterhaus emphasized that San Antonians need not fear a distortion of the hotel or the bar that they love. “We’re not trying to do Austin in San Antonio,” he says.

Beginning April 1, the basement bar will be open from 5 p.m. to midnight, Sunday through Thursday, and 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. on the weekends. Reservations for rooms are available now at havanasanantonio.com. With rooms starting at just $149 a night, and an evening of rum and cigars even less, the Hotel Havana is poised to retake its title as the common ground for visitors and tourists alike on the banks of the River Walk. •