Beneath a pressed-tin ceiling and between limestone walls dating back to the 1800s, guests can order the same juicy Reuben on pumpernickel, split pea soup, and root beer that San Antonio Germans ordered at Schilo’s Delicatessen 100 years ago.
“We think we're still using a number of those early recipes from Mrs. Schilo's when they opened," said owner Bill Lyons, who took the reins of the restaurant from his father in 1977. “We’ve got people coming that were here when they were kids, and now they’re 80 years old.”
UPDATED on Oct. 3, 2017: Schilo's owners and supporters will gather Tuesday to celebrate the restaurant's 100th anniversary. Accompanied by the musical stylings of the Beethoven Maennerchor, friends, family, local officials, and business leaders raised their glasses and proclaimed "Prost!" to health, prosperity, and the next 100 years.
To honor the milestone of becoming the oldest restaurant on the San Antonio River Walk, Schilo's will serve one complimentary root beer per customer every Tuesday throughout the month of October.
Grandson of Alfred Beyer, who founded Casa Rio next door in 1946, Lyons purchased Schilo’s from the original owners in 1980 in a cultural merger emblematic of the city’s rich ethnic heritage. Three-quarters German, inheriting an Irish last name, and running one of San Antonio’s oldest Tex-Mex restaurants, Lyons takes seriously his role in preserving the city’s eclectic culinary tradition.
“We’ve never hired a chef, either here [at Schilo’s] or at Casa Rio,” Lyons explained beneath a row of large-antlered deer mounted above wood-paneling. “A chef is a creator… we don’t want that. We want consistency, and if people like it, they can come back.”
Founded in 1917 on South Alamo Street when prohibition forced “Papa” Fritz Schilo to close his saloon, the deli quickly gained fame for its smooth, creamy root beer and authentic German ambiance.
Hearkening back taverns in the old country, “the root beer was how the Germans would sit and fraternize with a mug," Lyons said.
In 1942, Schilo's moved to its current Commerce Street location, an old mercantile exchange whose vault is now the restaurant's walk-in refrigerator. Hiring a handful of German World War II brides, many of whom cooked and waited on tables there for decades, Fritz’s son, Edgar, maintained the restaurant’s ethnic flavor.
Meanwhile, Lyons’ German grandfather, Albert Beyer, was looking for an alternative to his dying retail appliance business. Having survived a flood in 1921 when Thomas Edison personally resupplied his destroyed inventory, Beyer finally submitted to the industry’s corporatization during World War II. Nearly broke, in 1946 Beyer excavated the silted-in basement of a centuries-old hacienda and started Casa Rio.
In the thick stone walls and hand-cut lintels adorning the restaurant's doors and windows, more than 200 years of Texas history hides in plain sight.
"We've got all the deeds from back to the sovereign of Spain on that property," Lyons told the Rivard Report.
According to a historian who studied the deeds, the Mexican government confiscated the property from a Mexican family sympathetic to Texas during the Mexican-American War. With its independence, Texas returned the home to the original owners, who left it to their two slaves when they passed away.
Around a century later, Beyer started a new chapter in the city's history by using that same building to open the first restaurant on the San Antonio River. Seeing other restaurants' success in appropriating cantina cuisine for a broader Texas audience, Beyer began by serving the "regular" items: the same cheese enchilada, tamales, chili con carne, Mexican rice, and refried beans customers can find at the top of the menu today.
By no means a tourist attraction in its inception, Casa Rio struggled until the 1968 World's Fair at Hemisfair "when the country saw what a rare and unique thing this river landscape" was, Beyer’s great-granddaughter Elizabeth Lyons said.
“All these River places were just basements under buildings,” her father, Bill Lyons, added. “It started with minimal improvements … Way back [then], the River Walk was off limits to the military because it was so dangerous and there was no maintenance or security. My grandpa tried to make Casa Rio different. He landscaped both sides of the River between the two bridges.”
Hoping to attract more customers to the restaurant, Beyer also designed a handful of dinner boats, from floats flanked with swans that were quickly decapitated by bridges to paddleboats that sprayed customers with river water. Eventually, Beyer struck on a successful model, making the river boats a central part of the family business until it lost its operating contract in 1995.
Beyer could hardly have imagined that the collage of umbrellas and string lights that now decorate Casa Rio’s patio would someday be one of the city’s most iconic images, or that his river boats would become a multi-million-dollar tourist attraction.
Nor could he have foreseen his descendants serving as custodians of his ethnic heritage through one of the oldest continually operated restaurants in Texas. Adorned with post cards sent to the Beyers from friends enduring Germany’s early 20th-century tumult, Schilo’s is clearly now as much a part of the Lyons' heritage as Casa Rio.
A fourth generation now hopes to carry on the tradition. Elizabeth Lyons is helping open the businesses to a rising market of Millennials like herself, whose tastes often pivot between new health, social trends, and an appreciation for historic authenticity.
“We’re kind of tweaking things before our 100th [anniversary] to obviously stay consistent to the original vision, but to be a little bit more open to other opportunities relevant to this generation,” Elizabeth said.
She sees huge potential, for instance, in a “4-7 [p.m.] scene with German and Texas beers” and hopes to pair social media marketing with rebranding strategies that touch on the company’s roots, such as reviving the original logo hand-painted on the store window. Both restaurants have also pushed toward healthier options, such a vegetarian substitute for bacon drippings in Schilo’s split pea soup and Casa Rio’s new mahi mahi salad.
The key to the family’s success, however, hasn’t changed.
“The real secret is the staff. If your staff is happy, then your customers are going to be happy,” Bill explained, proudly showing framed photos of former servers. “Ms. Ruby was here 50 years. Ms. Garrison was here 50 years. Albert at Casa Rio was there 60 years. We had one family, I think they said we had 23 members of that family working for us.”
Bill told a story of one server, Ursula, rumored to be the daughter of an Austrian aristocrat who knew Adolf Hitler in his youth. Fleeing Germany after World War II through a marriage to an American soldier, Ursula was known for her tough German mettle.
“She’d tell customers, ‘No you don’t want the chicken salad sandwich, you want the Chicken Fritz,'” Bill said, laughing. “But she was greatly loved…It gave her great pleasure to serve food because she had been so deprived of food as a child during the war.”
When she passed away, her children requested to hold her funeral at Schilo’s.
Maintaining a family business, however, comes with its struggles, Bill explained. Tensions arise when too many people find themselves at the helm, and demands to adapt and expand challenge the original vision that breathes life into the business.
“We’ve had opportunities to sell to hotels,” Bill said. “We’ve had opportunities to go put Shilo’s in different strip centers.”
To Bill, however, taking care of his staff and investing in the original locations has always been his top priority.
“It’s really fun for me just to be a part of this,” he reflected. “There’s just a few left of those old old-timers who can really appreciate what got us to where we are.”
This story was originally published on Oct. 8, 2016.