Tim Foolery

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Dining in San Antonio – Eater Recommendations?

I made my first trip to San Antonio this week and as you know, finding great dining options is always a high point on my list of things when visiting a new city.  Googling “Top New Restaurants in San Antonio” let me to an Eater.com article from last year outlining The 13 Hottest New Restaurants in San Antonio.  I read through the quick descriptions, checked out the menus and booked a few dinner reservations.  Not all of the places I dined were on this list, but they’ve all be recommended by Eater.

The restaurants I visited, along with the Eater notes and my impressions are below.

Weathered Souls Brewing Co.

What Eater Says: The latest brewery to open in San Antonio, Weathered Souls is gaining followers with flights and inventive one-off, small-batch brews. Though the Malterial Girl dry-hopped ale has garnered attention from Madge’s lawyers, the brewery is hoping to weather this storm.

What I Say: A strip mall brewery with interesting, but not innovative beers.  The burgers were quite tasty and the service was genuine and welcoming.  It was a decent schlep from the main tourist area and the Riverwalk.  For a quick trip to San Antonio, I say skip it.

Chisme

What Eater Says: The Empty Stomach Restaurant Group (Hot Joy, Barbaro, the Monterey) turns its attention to Mexican fare with Chisme (Spanish for “gossip”) on the St. Mary’s Strip. Housed inside a former Tex-Mex institution, Chisme is winning fans over with a fun brunch (think barbacoa bennies and fried chicken and churros), massive micheladas, and free chips and queso during happy hour.

What I Say: Fried Chicken and Churros – need I say more? Their take on chicken and waffles was really good and I’d order it again in a heartbeat.  The salsa and the guacamole were so mild and bland, they reminded me of something you’d get while in hospital.  The service was really warm and welcoming and the Bloody Mary went down a little too easily – I did stop my self at just one though.

Fried Chicken and Churros is a great take on Chicken and Waffles

Battalion

What Eater Says: As the third concept from the team that opened Feast and Rebelle, Battalion had to deliver great results from the get-go. Chef Stefan Bowers and his team take a modern approach to Italian fare with shared plates of housemade pastas and charred squared meatballs, all served inside a renovated former firehouse in the city’s Southtown area. Two words that seal the deal: amaro cart.

What I Say: I’m a sucker for a good pasta dish and when you start off with daily housemade pastas how can you go wrong?  Well, you start by overcooking your pasta like the folks at Battalion.  My lasagna was very overcooked – not quite to a paste level, but close plus the sauce was used so sparingly. My dining companion had the bucatini and his sauce was mostly water and wouldn’t stick to the pasta.  We split the Veal Piccata and it was so salty we couldn’t finish it.  It was tender but the only flavors we got were salt – and salt licks are great for cows, but not for me.

Very salty veal piccata at Battallion

Rebelle

What Eater Says: After receiving accolades from Texas Monthly, the San Antonio Express-News, and the San Antonio Current, Rebelle’s holding its own inside the St. Anthony Hotel. Chef Stefan Bowers (Feast) and his staff are adding French techniques with global flavors to the dining scene within its glam and upscale walls (most San Antonians still reserve it for a special night out). It’s by far and away the biggest opening of the year since our last heatmap.

What I Say: I loved the space – it was fun, modern and exciting.  The service was pretty slow – all the servers appeared to spend their time hanging out by the central bar area and not their sections. Water was never refilled without asking for it twice.  We should know better, but don’t trust the servers here with wine recommendations.  Paired very poorly.  The wine service itself was just off too – opening the bottle you ordered at the bar, serving one guest out of a tasting glass, the other out of a proper sized glass, the bottle kept being removed from our table and put back near the bar – we finished that bottle much quicker than we thought we should have (maybe others were helping us reach the bottom).

Cured

What Eater Says: The crown jewel” of the Pearl offers dishes like hot goat sausage and catfish mortadella while incorporating San Antonio’s Mexican culture with items like masa-fried oysters over sopes with black beans and avocado mousse.

What I Say: Loved this charcuterie.  Four of us split the large charcuterie board and about half a dozen other items, including a steak.  The service was attentive, but not oppressive.  The drinks were unique and delicious. I loved my final drink of the night: My Sherry Amour with sherry and mezcal.  I’d return here in a heartbeat too.

Downstairs

What Eater Says: If the Esquire helped turn San Antonians into cocktail hounds, Downstairs, the not-so-speakeasy bar below it, is turning them into refined bar-goers. Seating is limited in this intimate establishment that retains details of its sister bar with taxidermy fish, but with a cocktail menu dedicated to corn. Elaborate charcuterie boards and excellent service make Downstairs feel like you’re more than five feet away from the kitschy River Walk.

What I Say: This was my favorite spot in San Antonio. We just had a couple of stellar cocktails and perfect oysters. The bartender, Hank, was really knowledgeable and welcoming.  My dining companion wanted hot sauce for the oysters and the servers were a little snobby about it – commenting on how hot sauce would just destroy the flavor and your tastebuds for future cocktails (which they are right), but they could have been a bit less judgy.  I really loved this place and would return just for the Sazeracs alone – I tried both the regular and the reserve versions and while both were great, I think you can just stick to the regular – amazing and quite a bit cheaper.

Perfect sazerac at Downstairs.

In addition to these places, we stopped off for drinks and snacks at various places along the Riverwalk, none of which are worth mentioning here.  All in all, I will say, I was pretty disappointed in my dining selections in San Antonio.  For a city with 1.7M people (the 7th largest in the US), I was expecting something a little brighter.  Many of the folks I spoke with had the same feelings, but my sample all come from major food cities like New York, LA and Chicago – it’s tough to compete with the restaurants in those markets.  That being said, there’s got to be something else we are missing.

What are your favorite places to dine in San Antonio?  When I return, where should I eat?  What’s a popular restaurant that you think is overrated?  Did you know that San Antonio is the 7th largest city in the US – I KNOW!

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Embassy Suites O’Hare

I am not really a Hilton guy, I much prefer Stawrood Properties. I was speaking at a conference being held at the Embassy Suites near O’Hare. I had stayed at this property a few years ago when I had a 12 hour overnight layover at ORD – I didn’t want to deal with heading home for just a few hours.

This stay was two midweek nights. I checked in around 17h00 and was given a room on the fourth floor. Since I was on some bulk conference rate, my Gold Status didn’t get me any welcome amenity. I had to nearly beg for a couple bottles of water.

One of the elevators was out of service during our stay, which made the trek to and from your rooms very long. I asked about taking the stairs, but was told the doors were locked and I couldn’t enter the floors once I walked up. I try it – I’d have been very frustrated if I walked up four flights only to find a locked door.

My rooms was immediately across from the elevators. The glass doors to the rooms didn’t seal fully and the noise from the elevators and atrium really carried into my room.

Entering the room, you find the sitting and office area, with a TV.

The utilitarian couch in the front room served it’s purpose.

The work and dining table combo allowed me to be very productive when in the room.

The wet bar area was a surprisingly nice touch – no minibar though.

Continuing on, you pass the bathroom and the closet. The bathroom was large, but dated. I always forget how annoying the low bathroom vanities are. When brushing teeth or shaving, I end up with some back pain. The toilet had almost no power and when I attempted to flush a single Kleenex, it floated, swirled and barely went down the drain…and that was just a Kleenex- I was nervous about other things that needed flushing! Gross, I know.

The single vanity in the bathroom wasn’t an issue considering there were two other sinks in the rest of the suite.

I was surprised by the tile design in the shower – the water never got hotter than tepid though.

The sleeping area was at the very back of the room, with two full sized beds (Hilton calls these queen beds, but the measurements sure don’t add up). This area had another TV plus a chair in the corner. The corner windows provided a ton of natural light.

These sure aren’t queen sized beds, despite what the hotel says.

The small seating area in the bedroom was showered with natural light.

The bed was surprisingly comfortable, albeit very small – I was afraid I’d roll out. Luckily, I remained securely tucked in.

I wrote about my interactions with hotel maintenance immediately upon checking in, which still surprises and confuses me – no one else I spoke with had the “Clock and Peephole Check.”

The internet was fast and I didn’t find any Wi-Fi deadspots – which is surprising in hotel conference spaces. The water pressure was light and the water never got hotter than tepid, which starts to wear on you after a few days.

Despite the rooms being dated and a little loud (hallway and atrium noises) I’d likely stay again…assuming I needed a quick stay near ORD. I wouldn’t spend multiple days here though.

Have you stayed here before? Was your room loud and your water lukewarm? Where is your favorite hotel near O’Hare?

Interesting Hotel Service…

I’m spending a few days at an Embassy Suites for a work conference.  I’m not a Hilton guy (but thanks to my American Express Platinum, I do have Gold Status) – I much prefer Starwood Properties (Platinum).  I checked in and everything seemed normal, but I get to my room and before I can even start to unpack (can’t have a wrinkled suit), there is a knock at the door…I ignore it.  Then again…this time more forcefully…then continuous.

I reluctantly open the door, thinking it was a colleague.  Nope, it was an Embassy Suites Maintenance Guy.  He was here doing a “Peephole and Clock Check.”  I told him I was fine, but he wouldn’t listen.  He came in, I left the doors open, and followed him around.  He looked through the peephole (from the outside and in) – checking something off his list.  He then moved into the bedroom where he checked the clock – confirming the time (it was off by 3 minutes – he reset it) and confirmed the alarm was off.

I wrote about my hotel pet peeves a few years ago, and while the clock issue never made my list, it has more recently. I hate when the hotel clocks are wrong and I utterly loathe when the alarms are set.  I know I should always check the alarm before I go to bed, but I often forget (shame on me).

This seems so strange to me that this guy (in full Embassy Suites uniform) came in to check these two things. He wouldn’t explain why he did it either. He was gone as quick as he came.  I did pop by the front desk to ask about this and they said that they had some complaints about the clocks so they started checking them regularly.  Other than the service itself, nothing seemed off about this guy (he was properly uniformed and had a maintenance cart with him).

Am I nuts, or does this seems really strange to you guys too?

Hotel Bristol Vienna – A Luxury Collection Hotel

My flight on Austrian Airlines landed a little late, but since I couldn’t be guaranteed check-in at the hotel until 15h00, I didn’t mind.  I hopped on the City Airport Train (CAT) and made my way from the Airport through Wien Mitte to Oper/Karlsplatz U-Bahn Station.  Last time I visited, I left the underground from the wrong exit and wandered aimlessly trying to find the hotel. This time I followed the signs to the Opera House and emerged exactly where I needed to be.

I’ve stayed at the Hotel Bristol before and really enjoyed it. I knew I wanted to stay again and I found that the price was a bit more than I wanted to pay, so I used Starwood Preferred Guest Cash+Points for the two nights – which cost 110USD+6,000 points each night.  The value was there for me on this stay.  I also used two Platinum Suite Night Upgrades to move us from a standard room to an Opera Suite – the same room type I had last time.

I walk into the hotel lobby at around 10h15 and was greeted with a cheery “Good Morning.”  After my relative success on the Austrian Airlines flight, I attempted to continue my German language practice.  I was tired and it fell apart pretty quickly.  The folks working at reception did try to play along, but my mind just wasn’t in it.  We finished the check-in process in English.

I was surprised that my room was ready for me immediately. So often, when landing early in the morning in Europe your room isn’t ready for hours – which just makes that first day a struggle. I want a shower, I want to take a quick nap – I don’t want to sit in the lobby and wait and I don’t want to go exploring while feeling all dingy.  I was escorted to my room by the bellman and the receptionist.  I didn’t need two staffers helping me – I had just a briefcase and a roller bag, but the service was a nice touch.

Our Opera Suite was on the fourth floor of the hotel, looking directly out onto the beautiful Opera building.  The huge suite is perfectly appointed to entertain before the opera.  As you walk in, you encounter various hallways, leading to the bedroom or the salon.

Bristol Hotel Vienna – The main seating area was enormous and filled with classical music our entire stay.

Bristol Hotel Vienna – Main Seating Area in Suite

The salon is large with multiple seating areas, including a small dining area, perfect for a morning breakfast or an afternoon tea.  The fireplaces were all faux, but still gave the warmth (both because they hid a radiator and the style) of a bygone era.

When we entered the salon, a Mozart CD was playing.  A fitting accompaniment to the room, the view and the overall vibe of the hotel.

The salon has a small, but full bathroom attached (sans bathtub, but with a full shower).  This is excellent design when hosting a pre-Opera party, no need for your guests to traipse through your bedroom.  It is truly a luxury to have a hotel room with two bathrooms – I love it.

Bristol Hotel Vienna – The second smaller bathroom

Moving back through the salon to the bedroom, you immediately see how grand the sleeping quarters are. The king sized bed does not dwarf the room itself.  An additional sitting area, writing desk and huge closet system also fill this room – but with ample space to maneuver – and to try on various outfits before the opera.

Bristol Hotel Vienna – The Bedroom with King Bed and seating areas

Bristol Hotel Vienna – faux fireplace in the bedroom

Bristol Hotel Vienna – Bedroom Desk

The main bathroom, off the sleeping area, was quite large with double vanities, a walk-in shower, a large separate tub and the requisite toilet and bidet.

Bristol Hotel Vienna – The Main Bathroom with double vanity

Bristol Hotel Vienna – The Main Bathroom with separate shower

Bristol Hotel Vienna – The Main Bathroom, with toilet and bidet plus a huge bathtub

There was also another hallway and closet area – you can never have enough closet space when you are hosting a pre-opera party, I guess.

Bristol Hotel Vienna – The Hall Closet

The Hotel Bristol is truly a five-star luxury hotel and one of my favorite Starwood properties in the world.  I sure wouldn’t want my home decorated like these amazing Opera Suites, but I do love the opulence and splendor whilst on vacation.  The Hotel has quite the history too – as it was first constructed at the end of the 19th Century and hosted many of the world’s most famous people, including Teddy Roosevelt and George Gershwin – who was working on “An American in Paris” while staying here.  Most famously the Prince of Wales and Wallis Simpson stayed in 1936 during their affair.

It wasn’t always sunshine and luxury at the Bristol though.  In the early 20th century, Samuel Schallinger, a Jewish businessman, owned a stake in the hotel, but was forced to sell in 1938. He was then deported from Austria to Germany where he died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.  A horribly dark part of the rich history of this magnificent hotel.

Vienna is an incredibly easy city to get around – with so many things within walking distance, and a really great transit system – this hotel couldn’t be situated in a better spot.  Being just meters from the Vienna State Opera, the U-Bahn, Streetcars, the City Park and countless museums, you’d be hard pressed to find a better hotel.

Hotel Bristol – View from our Opera Suite

Hotel Bristol – View from the Opera Suite. The State Opera is a magnificent building.

When I return to Vienna – I don’t know when that will happen, but I know it will soon – I will definitely stay at the Hotel Bristol again.  The space is beautiful, the service team is truly stellar and it feels like my home in Vienna.

Where do you stay while visiting Vienna?  Which Starwood Property is your favorite in the world?

Help Me Plan: A Week in Belgium

We decided to take a few days and explore Belgium this spring.  We’ve been to Brussels for a layover on our way to Spain a few years ago.  We had about 8 hours on the ground and we got out of the airport and explored the City for a few hours – eating waffles, drinking beer, wandering the streets, checking out the pissing statues…you know, a normal day in Brussels.

This time, we are getting out of Brussels straight away, but we aren’t totally sold on where we are going.  We figure Bruges is high on the list – it’s one of the dozens of cities called the Venice of the North.  I’m also contemplating Ypres, which has some amazing WWI memorials.

Can you help me answer the following questions:

  • What cities would you visit?
  • Where should we dine / which restaurants?
  • Which hotels should make our list?
  • Do you have any recommendations on bike tours?
  • What areas should we skip entirely?

Looking forward to hearing about your trips and recommendations!