As we pull up to the Hotel Havana at dusk, the beautifully imposing building looks eerily quiet and stone-cold cool. I have a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach that is very familiar—it’s hipster anxiety. I worry I’m not chic enough to chat with the fashionable staff, lie on the minimalist bedding, or dock my iPhone into the retro alarm clock.
This happens each time I wander into one of Liz Lambert’s hotels. Lambert, as you probably well know by now, is the renowned urban tastemaker of Austin who has defined the aspirational aesthetic for casually flush natives and newcomers alike. She has designed the ins and outs of hotels and restaurants and probably even had a hand in the paint job of the Hotel San Jose’s vintage delivery truck. It’s so cool.
Lambert is the chief creative officer of Bunkhouse Group, with properties that dot the parts of Texas that out-of-state people would call destinations. From the bohemian luxury trailer park El Cosmico in Marfa to the chichi St. Cecilia in the heart of South Austin, Lambert’s hotel empire is paving the path to Texan nirvana. To some it may appear that Lambert set out to turn the hotel industry on its head, but Bunkhouse’s communications director Isadora McKeon said that’s not the case. “I don’t think Liz ever intended to shake up anything. At least that wasn’t an actual goal or plan. If that happened, it was more a by-product of doing what she loves and what comes intuitively to her.”
In April of 2010 San Antonio welcomed the Hotel Havana, the latest addition to the Bunkhouse fleet. The building has been around since 1914 and was the previous home of the Havana Riverwalk Inn until 2009. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places and has been thoughtfully brought back to life.
I’ve come to the Havana for one night with my dear friend KP. We want to find out just how far away one can feel after a seventy-nine-minute drive from Austin. We also have our heart set on a few high-end margaritas and a fabulous meal at Ocho, the hotel’s Cuban-themed restaurant. I haven’t been to San Antonio for a weekend escape since the appeal of Sea World wore off around the time of my animal-rights awakening in the spring semester of eighth grade. When I was a child, the River Walk was complete heaven. My adolescent self saw only the wonderful side of boat-tour tourism, freestanding Häagen Dazs stores and crowded family fun.
This is not my childhood River Walk. There are no vendors, loud restaurants or mariachi bands. The Havana’s quiet end of the river is sleepy, romantic, and much more appealing for couples who have come to keep to themselves. Bunkhouse is betting on the fact that San Antonio is undergoing a kind of renaissance downtown. “There’s some really interesting culture evolving on that part of the River Walk,” McKeon said. “That is going to bring an entirely new type of traveler there, and that is very interesting to us.”
If you’ve ever stayed at one of Lambert’s hotels, you will instantly recognize the pared-down unassuming style that fills them all. It’s a lot like walking into a stylish friend’s perfectly eclectic house and thinking to yourself, “Ugh, I hate her.” No matter how hard I try, I will never be as deliberate about color, accessories and whimsy as Lambert. And I try so very hard.
Case in point: At Havana, Lambert forgoes the little brown box minibar and makes a statement with a ‘50s-style full-sized fridge in every room. In number 20, our charming king room overlooking Navarro Street, the fridge is the color of a juicy tangerine. I want one! Bunkhouse has completely elevated the minibar. Gone are those dwarfy screw-top sodas. They have been replaced by large bottles of Topo Chico and cans of Thai young coconut water.
In short, the layout of the Havana— like all Bunkhouse properties—is logical. It even feels personal. It makes you question the unchangeable aspects of four-star hotels that you never even thought to question before. Throw your blotters out the window! Abolish those minibottles of subpar shampoo! There’s a big bottle of Red Flower lotion with a pump in here.
Ocho, located on the ground level right on the water, is an absolute stunner. The restaurant is housed in a glass-and-steel conservatory with oversized chandeliers and unusual vintage furnishings. The effect is something straight out of a glittery Baz Lurhmann movie. The pan-Latin menu is offered for breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night snacking. You can dine in your room, but it would be a shame to miss the ambiance here. KP and I had a fresh and sweet shrimp and crab campachena, a buttery hanger steak and pan-roasted red snapper with mango and black bean slaw. Each dish was better than the last, but the decor is truly the main event. I can’t think of a better-looking place in Texas to enjoy a cocktail and some fine guacamole.
Back in the room, I’m struck by how familiar things feel at Havana. That’s because it doesn’t feel like a hotel. It feels—for all its hipness—like a home. The team at Bunkhouse is working hard for that homey vibe. McKeon put it this way: “The same rules apply to hotel experiences that apply to music, art, books, or anything, really. You want something authentic, something that has a unique voice, something that inspires you. Hotels are a place of fantasy, where you get to live a different life for a few days. We like the ones that make us feel like that alternate life is exciting.”
She’s right. In my alternate life— my daydream life—I’m Liz Lambert. I know what kind of Turkish rug I’m looking for and I know it will create a playful dialogue with that obscure movie poster I’ve been saving. I can make San Antonio feel like Havana, Cuba, in its heyday. Easy.
Don’t be intimidated by Lambert hipness. Just check right in.