In the classic metaphysical thought experiment known as the Ship of Theseus, a wooden vessel has its planks replaced one by one as they wear out, and the question is whether the end product is the same boat—and if not, at what point it became a new one. The same could be asked of the San Antonio building that sits at the corner of Avenue A and Grayson Street just north of downtown and that, beginning in September, will be the home of a wildly ambitious new restaurant, eight years in the making, called Carriqui.
Most anyone who spent time in San Antonio between 1985 and 2010 knows the building. It’s the one that housed the original location of the iconic Liberty Bar, which now occupies a former nunnery in the King William Historic District. In those days, the white, two-story wooden structure, which dated back to the late 1800s, stood a block north of its current location and faced the end of a busy freeway off-ramp. Motorists stopping at the red light would inevitably find themselves captivated by the building’s pronounced leftward lean, the second-floor balcony tilting perilously toward the street, and marvel that it was standing at all—let alone that inside was one of the city’s most happening nightlife scenes, where artists and writers and business and political leaders gathered under the same rickety roof.
The debut of Carriqui marks the start of a spate of openings over the next eighteen months that will double the amount of dining and entertainment space in the Pearl neighborhood, located on the San Antonio River at the former Pearl Brewery. The restaurant is one of the first projects from Potluck Hospitality, a company that recently spun off of Silver Ventures, the firm that developed the Pearl and its celebrated Hotel Emma. Elizabeth Fauerso, the CEO of Potluck and a former longtime Pearl executive, counts the Carriqui project as one of the most important developments yet for the area, which over the past fifteen years has become home to shops and residences as well as a Culinary Institute of America campus and notable restaurants such as Cured.
“It’s not dissimilar to what we did with Hotel Emma,” Fauerso said while walking through the building one blazing afternoon this summer, as construction workers hammered around her. “It’s like the Emma of restaurants, in that there’s this special place with incredible history that has fallen fallow and it could be really meaningful to San Antonio again.” And as with the hotel, the project has required such painstaking work that none of the conventional business wisdom has applied. “With Emma, everyone was like, ‘It’s not the right part of the River Walk; it’s not big enough—it won’t work,’ ” Fauerso said. But after the luxury hotel opened, in 2015, it started earning accolades as one of the country’s finest, almost instantly helping put San Antonio on the global travel map in a way it had never been before.
Fauerso stepped over some construction debris and pointed out the ornate old mahogany bar top from the Liberty days, which was lying on the floor, waiting to be attached to a newly built wooden horseshoe-shaped bar structure that will occupy the center of Carriqui’s main floor and be surrounded by dining tables. Above the bar, an open atrium ceiling led to a wraparound mezzanine with additional seating, and parallel to that the old balcony outside, with a sturdy new balustrade whose spindles were half original and half perfect replicas, awaited its own ring of tables, on a now miraculously level floor. “It was kind of a surgical process to thread structural steel under the balcony so that it could actually support dining and keep the original wood,” Fauerso said.
Those were just a few aspects of a long renovation process that began back in 2014, when Silver Ventures—owned by Pearl mastermind Kit Goldsbury, the Pace Picante salsa billionaire—bought the building.
Constructed in 1890, the building was first a boardinghouse, saloon, and general store opened by a German immigrant named Fritz Boehler, whose descendants owned and operated the property for nearly a century, relying on employees of the Pearl Brewery, just down the street, for much of its business.
Legend has it that the devastating flood of 1921 caused the foundation to shift and started the building’s slow-motion lean. But according to Jeff Fetzer, a restoration and preservation architect who helped oversee this most recent transformation of the building, the flood story is a myth. “I’ve got a photo from the eighties that shows the building standing pretty straight,” said Fetzer, whose official title at Pearl is “protector of the historic fabric” and who has worked on many important renovations in Texas, including that of the Capitol and the Alamo. The truth? Sometime after the Liberty Bar opened, termite damage and an air conditioner leak, particularly in one corner, combined to weaken the foundation, and the floor and walls began to tilt. By the nineties, the Liberty Bar defied gravity.
That’s when Allen Sikes, the design and construction manager for the current renovation, started hanging out at the bar, sometimes several nights a week. “The floors were so sloped we would joke that if you could make it out to your car without stumbling and bumping into something, you were okay to drive,” he recalled. He and his wife celebrated their engagement there, over dessert at a corner table. Everything about the building was odd angles and creaky character, in the intimate way that a drafty old house becomes all the more homey for its quirks. Guests entered through a side door and had to walk past the kitchen to get to the bar.
Despite its past, the building was not landmarked or in a designated historic district. Where once Boehler’s establishment had sat proudly on a main thoroughfare into town, the Liberty Bar’s warmly lit front windows now faced a pharmaceutical manufacturer next to a U.S. 281 exit ramp. After the Liberty moved in 2010, the structure was briefly home to Boehler’s Bar & Grille and then Minnie’s Tavern and Rye House, which closed in 2014, the year Silver Ventures bought the building.
Following a year’s worth of structural assessments, the Pearl team found that part of the second floor was about a foot out of plumb. One of the first orders of business was to essentially bind everything together with a series of cables and screws. Every week or so, workers would crank the screws just a bit more to cinch things back into alignment. With the help of a local company, Dodson House Moving, they lifted the structure high enough off its foundation for carpenters to get underneath and began the slow process of removing and reconstructing the first floor while keeping the second intact. Then they poured a new concrete foundation a block away, to move the restaurant farther from the highway and closer to the rest of the Pearl. After receiving approval from the city, they then used steel rollers to move the building over to that site, rotating it ninety degrees in the process so that it would face east rather than north.
It was a custom-engineered operation that even seasoned pros like Sikes and Fetzer can’t quite believe worked, requiring “all kinds of hydraulic jacks, massive steel beams, tractor-trailer wheels, shims and blocks, and the equivalent of a land-mounted tugboat,” remembered Sikes. “And patience. Lots of patience.”
With the amount of time and money Goldsbury’s team has poured into the building (the firm won’t divulge the dollar figure, but it’s easily in the tens of millions), the restaurant needs to haul in vast sums to justify the investment with a handsome profit—and soon. So Silver Ventures spent more money and erected a second building, a limestone structure called the Rock House, next door, as well as an expansive patio with custom faux bois planters designed by local artist Rene Romero and custom barbecue pits by Lockhart’s Mill Scale Metalworks. Between those spaces and the two floors of the original building, Carriqui will seat almost four hundred people at a time.
Fauerso makes a bold prediction. “By year three, this will be the highest-grossing restaurant in the state of Texas and one of the highest in the country,” she said. (Houston’s Taste of Texas steakhouse and Austin’s Matt’s El Rancho are the highest-grossing independent restaurants in Texas, according to recent figures from the trade publication Restaurant Business.) Fauerso compares the scale of Carriqui to Joe’s Stone Crab, in Miami Beach—“the kind of restaurant that becomes an institution.” According to the company’s projections, margarita sales alone will top $2 million annually.
The menu will include a greatest-hits list of Tex-Mex classics: nachos, enchiladas, churros. But lest that sound like a cynical cash grab, Fauerso argues that it’s part of an effort to define a regional South Texas cuisine. The idea came to her in 2018 during a visit to Tennessee’s famous Blackberry Farm, a boutique resort and culinary destination in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. “It struck me, as I came to understand the history there, that they had started calling what they do ‘foothills cuisine.’ It wasn’t like they’d invented something new; it was that they’d been doing something for a long time and said, ‘Let’s claim it and name it.’ ” For Carriqui, the idea filled a need for a culinary concept that would match the building’s history and enduring spirit.
Executive chef Jaime Gonzalez, who previously helmed the food program at Hotel Emma, developed a menu that includes Gulf seafood (ceviche with redfish marinated in citrus from the Rio Grande Valley) and barbecue (pit-cooked barbacoa and brisket served with charro beans and corn tortillas), as well as hand-shaken margaritas, a tribute to the version at the late, great Cadillac Bar, in Nuevo Laredo—for decades a destination restaurant for South Texans, who’d cross the border just for lunch. One of the nacho dishes arrives not as a pile of chips but as toppings on a tlayuda, a plate-size Oaxacan tortilla meant to be torn apart and shared. The signature items are three enormous botana platters inspired by the RGV tradition of communal variety plates, the centerpieces of which are grilled meats, seafood, or vegetables.
The food, said Fauerso, “is that experience you have if you go to a ranch that has that South Texas combination of high and low, where the land is scrubby and hard-core, in the middle of nowhere, with rattlesnakes, but then you have these margaritas served in super-beautiful glasses that are an heirloom from someone’s grandma, and then a tray of perfectly presented nachos. One night you might have King Ranch casserole, and the next you could have something more refined, but it’s all stuff that has stories behind it.” That, she argues, is South Texas cuisine.
The region encompasses a triangle that runs down along the Rio Grande from Del Rio to Brownsville, up the Coastal Bend to around Matagorda Bay, and back across the state through San Antonio. That also happens to be a near-perfect description of the sole U.S. habitat of a kind of bird called a green jay, or a carriquí de montaña, the restaurant’s namesake. “It doesn’t even go to Austin—that’s too far north,” said Fauerso.
The birds, she added, “are also big personalities. They’re colorful and hang out in groups, in families, together.” She trilled her voice to imitate birdsong. “They’re super gregarious.”
So is Carriqui a new place or an old one? Fetzer estimates that as much as half the building is now new material. And much of the old material has been repurposed rather than reused for its original function—including the old floorboards that now make up the second-story ceiling. Wherever possible, such as with the balcony spindles, the original pieces face Grayson Street for maximum visibility—but just around the balcony corner is a row of replicas. Nonetheless, “it’s still the same building,” Fetzer said, “because even though a lot of it has been replaced, we only did so where it was beyond restoration or had to meet code.”
Sikes puts it in less technical terms: “The soul is still there.” He talks about Carriqui less as a renovation of the old Liberty Bar building and more as a reanimation. “You know, so many buildings are just buildings, but some take on a life of their own. This one had that, and you could never build that again.”
To Fauerso, maintaining the soul of the old structures around the Pearl is key to the area’s success and explains why the development has felt like an organic part of San Antonio even as it has reinvented a large swath of the city’s core. “What I’ve always felt with San Antonio is that, like New Orleans, it has many layers, this idea of a secret city that’s not immediately apparent on the surface.” Carriqui, she hopes, will reflect that idea. A newcomer will perceive that it occupies a historic space but will have no idea the lengths the builders went to in preserving it. Similarly, the most old-school Liberty Bar regular who sees only the changes won’t immediately grasp how much of the original structure remains.
“The number one question I get is whether we took all the lean out,” said Sikes. “But they don’t understand that we were looking not for perfection but stability. I challenge anyone, as they enjoy dinner, to find the places where it’s still not straight. Because you can find them if you look—maybe not on your first visit, but you might find it on the fifth or sixth. It’s still got some slope. We’ve just given it energy to keep on living.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Leaning Into Its Heritage.” Subscribe today.
What’s on tap next for the Pearl district.
Over the next eighteen months, Potluck Hospitality is rolling out several big projects in addition to Carriqui, some of which have been announced. Mediterranean restaurant Ladino will honor executive chef Berty Richter’s Sephardic roots with a menu built around a wood-burning grill (the name comes from the language he spoke at home while growing up). It’s opening in September, along with Full Goods Diner, spearheaded by native San Antonio restaurateur Ryan Harms and chef Patrick Jackson, of Austin’s beloved Paperboy. It will serve updated takes on classic comfort food for breakfast and lunch. Then, in fall 2023, the music venue Stable Hall, with a capacity of one thousand, will open in the building that once held the Pearl Brewery’s draft horses.