Our Kind of Place

Cuban Fusion

Texas hotelier Liz Lambert reimagines one of San Antonio’s most beloved Riverwalk landmarks

Photo: Allison V. Smith

The hotel bar.

When you cross the blue tile porch and enter san Antonio’s newly reopened Hotel Havana, it looks like nothing has changed in the small, uncluttered lobby: Lights are dim, the original hardwood floor is still covered with red Persian rugs, the dark wood beams contrast with white walls. The overall effect conveys a certain old-world stateliness. And this is surprising given that the Havana was recently bought by Austin hotelier Liz Lambert, who won her rep by taking over run-down structures and playfully making them over into boutique hotels that are citadels of hip. Happily, it turns out that Lambert also has the good sense to heed the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” After acquiring the property late last year, she managed to work her mojo in about a hundred days.

Photo: Allison V. Smith

Hotel Havana’s entrance.

Lambert used the charm of the original 1914 Mediterranean Revival building to her advantage, streamlining and brightening the look of things with an interesting mix of old Havana meets old San Antonio flavor in each of its twenty-seven rooms. “After the revolution everything stopped in Cuba; places there had a beautiful patina, but they just got old without changing,” explains Lambert, a West Texas native who once served as a prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office. “You’d never confuse Cuba with Mexico, but the two go together well because there’s a cultural influence they share, the Latin influence of style, and the use of color.”

The motif continues in understated ways throughout the Havana. Each of its three floors boasts an outdoor terrace. The palm, cypress, and magnolia trees studding the lawn are as old as the building and reinforce the semitropical feel. Breakfast—Cuban coffee and warm milk, juices, sliced fruit, fresh-baked pan dulce, or pastry—is delivered to the room in straw baskets. The cozy candlelit basement bar, which has the feel of an underground speakeasy, remains the favored downtown hangout for local scenemakers despite some changes: While cigars are still sold there, smokers must now enjoy them outside. But mojitos remain a specialty, along with other rum drinks, and the three Oaxacan mescals are smoky and sublime, especially when consumed with a tray of dark chocolates.

Photo: Allison V. Smith

Hotelier Liz Lambert.

The final feature of the Havana is its location on the north end of San Antonio’s Riverwalk, a ten-minute stroll from the shops and restaurants. This gives lodgers the best of both worlds: the serenity of an old, uncongested neighborhood and quick access to where the action is. In the next three years, the adjacent Municipal Auditorium and Fire Department Headquarters building, both built in the 1920s, will be transformed into the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Lambert then hopes to add rooms and a small-plates restaurant. But the Havana should still fit seamlessly into the neighborhood. That’s another of her trademarks, what unites the Havana with her two contrasting hotels in Austin and a third out west in Marfa.

“We become part of the fabric of the place we’re in,” she says. “We fit into our neighborhoods in the best way, so it never looks like someplace we landed overnight.”