Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Battalion, the highly anticipated restaurant in the historic 1920s Fire Station No. 7 in Southtown, will celebrate its grand opening Tuesday and pay homage to rustic Italian cuisine in a modern atmosphere.
It's been a long time coming for local restaurateur Andrew Goodman and Chef Stefan Bowers, who also spearhead joint ventures at Southtown's Feast and the St. Anthony Hotel's Rebelle. Battalion, located at 604 S. Alamo St. just south of César E. Chávez Boulevard, will offer dinner service Monday through Saturday from 5-11 p.m.
Bowers said the 35-item menu, which will focus on northern and southern Italian dishes, is "ambitious...maybe too ambitious" but he's confident that the real "crown jewel" of the experience will be the building itself, which was restored to maintain historic elements but includes modern modifications and replacements.
"It will be a delicious menu, and we're trying to serve unpretentious food, but the building itself is very unique and special," Bowers told the Rivard Report on Friday as he chopped garlic for a hearty tomato sauce. "It's a big feather in the cap for the city, especially since it's at the gateway of Southtown in terms of what it once looked like and what it looks like now."
The 5,200 sq. ft. firehouse will accommodate around 140 guests, Bowers said. More than 500 window panes on both floors were taken out, restored, and replaced prior to the restaurant opening. The fire poles were preserved and integrated into the design with surrounding glass-like floors, giving diners a glimpse of the elaborate chandeliers above or servers and guests moving about below.
The property was nicknamed "The Rock" back in the 1930s due to its location on its own little island in the Lavaca neighborhood. The fire station ceased operations in 2005.
"My dad's father actually had a business three blocks away from here," Goodman said. "My dad talks about knowing this firehouse from the 1940s. [When] he was a boy he used to come over here and talk with the firemen."
Goodman purchased the historic station from the City in 2014 in a sealed bid of $850,007. The building was appraised at $797,000 and was open to a public bidding process. Much speculation from the community followed due to the building's historic value and location.
"It's pretty iconic, everybody knows the building – obviously we have views of the Tower of the Americas, the Grand Hyatt, etc," Goodman said. "I know some people looked at the building for their home, of course, and I considered it for my home, but it's so great as a business.
"It was a great opportunity and I think the City was happy... that I was interested in this because it's going to get the most people in and out – around 150 people a night will be able to come in here and see this."
The tables and chairs at Battalion sit under archways where fire trucks once parked, Goodman said, and the red accents in the restaurant's furniture serve the dual purpose of highlighting the color of fire trucks and one of the three colors in the Italian flag. Goodman's avant-garde design approach includes marble bar tops, stormy epoxy floors, chrome and crystal chandeliers, and a red elevator.
Executive Chef Ezekiel "Zeke" Cavazos, who has worked with Bowers for 11 years, will be at the culinary helm of the kitchen. Pastaiola Elena D'Agostino – who is originally from Torino, Italy – will be hand-making fresh pasta for patrons.
As for the bar program, Goodman said there will be seven signature drinks, a nod to Fire Station No. 7. The number is an ongoing theme, with Rebelle's cocktail menu highlighting the seven deadly sins, and Feast and Haunt – Goodman's bar at the St. Anthony – featuring seven core cocktails.
Bowers believes in simple food "that just needs to taste good. If it doesn't there's not much for it to hide behind." While some Italian restaurants can get away with just serving pastas in red or white sauce, Bowers will emphasize Italy's coastal regions by adding fresh seafood items to his menu.
"It's going to be a very unique menu that is mega fresh, so antipasti, good seafood dishes, ravioli, eggplant parmesan, and other traditional northern-style and southern-style dishes," Bowers said. "We'll have really good proteins like veal saltimbocca and a pork chop grilled with Pizzaiola sauce – but Andrew won't let me share the menu with anybody, he wants them to be surprised."
Traditional Italian cuisine is at the heart of Bowers' culinary background: Following a 5-year career as a U.S. Navy helicopter rescue swimmer, Bowers spent 10 months "going broke working for free" for two women from Positano, Italy. It was in that kitchen in San Diego that Bowers learned invaluable lessons and foundational principles that shaped the rest of his career. In 2003, he moved to Houston to attend the Culinary Institute Lenôtre, where he expanded his knowledge on classic French cuisine.
Bowers met Goodman in 2011, and that same year they opened Feast in the heart of the King William District. The success of that first partnership – rooted in teamwork where Goodman manages the front of the house and Bowers takes care of the back – later led them to open Rebelle, which received rave revues and accolades, including a "Best New Restaurant" award by Texas Monthly.
Goodman is known for his constant presence at his restaurants, a trait he attributes to his parents' solid work ethic.
"My parents were in business," Goodman said. "People don't believe it when they see me down on my knees scrubbing things ... but I've worked hard and chosen some great people and staff. Obviously Stefan is a great partner in all of this. He's amazing."
When asked what the secret to his partnership with Goodman is, Bowers said they are both strong-minded people who accommodate each other and have a distinct sense of what they like.
"We have differences but we have the same goal, which is to create a generous, friendly, and delicious experience," Bowers said. "Andrew covers the basis of making a cutting-edge, fun atmosphere, so I don’t have to worry about that. Some chefs try to do the front and back [of the house] thing. That’s very complicated and usually ends up in failure."
Bowers is all too familiar with the restaurant industry's often unforgiving nature. Last week, the San Antonio Current reported that Lüke, a popular restaurant on the River Walk which has been in business for six years, will close on Feb. 28. The news shocked many as Lüke was considered a launch pad for local chefs and alumni who have gone on to become James Beard Award semi-finalists or open their own successful eateries.
"There's just a lot of attrition in the business, there's not really any one thing that you can pinpoint in [Lüke's demise]," Bowers told the Rivard Report. "There are so many moving parts in a restaurant, every day it has to keep bringing people in and have successful moments. It's an incredibly challenging business but the reward is there every night. You gotta do it because you love throwing parties, basically."
Goodman and Bowers have a simple philosophy: They try to accommodate even "the most ridiculous request." Bowers offered his own metaphor.
"If you ask someone to dance and they say 'no,' how do you feel? The night begins to suck for the guest, so we try to be very accommodating," he explained. "We also like to reward our employees' hard work. There's a famous chef, Daniel Boulud, who said, 'If I don't say [anything] to you that means you’re not doing anything wrong.' I thought that was such bulls--t. We like to reward and coach and positively critique when things are going well and vice versa, when things are not going well."
Battalion will stand as a halfway point between Feast and Rebelle, Goodman said, adding that the three restaurants are all within .7 miles of each other. That proximity will allow the two partners to stay present in their establishments and forge an upward trajectory.
Goodman has worked out an agreement with the San Antonio Independent School District, which will allow Battalion's patrons to park in the adjacent lot on Lavaca Street.
"It's been nice to be starting in a business that everybody warns you not to start in ... so to be successful...has been quite nice," Goodman said.