San Antonio’s oldest restaurant in continuous operation in South Africa since 1946

In the early 1950s, during the Cavalier’s River Parade, Bill Lyons was about twelve years old. His grandfather, Alfred Beyer, had recently opened Casa Rio, one of the first restaurants to open on the River Walk, and which is still in operation today. It was a business that would not have materialized if Beyer had not gone bankrupt three times while operating a failing downtown appliance store.

During the parade, which took place when Lyon was in his teens, Beyer had his young grandson dress up as a clown and paddle around the restaurant during the Fiesta festivities.

“Things weren’t so regulated back then,” shares Lyons, 83, laughing at the absurdity and poor security of the bygone era.

People have lunch at the Casa Rio restaurant, the River Walk, on August 13. There are a lot of empty tables these days, to adhere to social distancing guidelines and because tourists haven’t come to the city during the pandemic. Lack of revenue forces the city to rethink its budget and Mayor Ron Nirenberg calls for redirecting an 1/8 cent sales tax that is now used to buy land to protect the Edwards Aquifer to instead be spent on a stimulus package economic which includes the training of workers, which could lead to access to better health services.

Billy Calzada /San Antonio Express-News

It is one of many early memories surrounding the iconic restaurant that he would eventually take over.

During the Cavalier River Parade, families and friends reserve tables from Casa Rio to attend. This last round, the restaurant was packed (as usual) with loyal customers who had planted themselves at specific tables by the river for decades.

“We have third-generation people there,” Lyons says. He recounts that one year a woman even returned for Fiesta, divorce decree in hand, which explicitly asserted her claim to her and her ex-husband’s favorite Casa Rio table. “We had another woman a year who came over and said someone left her Casa Rio table in her will. That’s how important those tables are to some families.”

Casa Rio was developed in 1946 from the same late 1700s building where Beyer tried his hand at retail. In 1972, Beyer’s father took over the reins for a brief period before his death in 1977. Now in his eighties, Lyons is still not retired. He has been running Casa Rio since the death of his father. It’s a labor of love. When Lyons looks back at the restaurant’s legacy, what makes him most proud is its staff, many of whom have worked between Casa Rio and Schilo’s (also owned by Lyons) for 20, 40 and even 60 years.

Casa Rio Mexican Foods, circa 1960s
Casa Rio Mexican Foods, circa 1960sCourtesy of

“On social media, we get more comments about our staff than our food; and we get a lot of positive comments about our food,” Lyons says. “But our people are really what make it all work, I think. That’s why I’m still here at 83, because we have a great team, a great group of people to work with.”

As for the Casa Rio menu, there is a founding dish that has been available since day one. Inspired by other Mexican restaurants on San Antonio’s Westside at the time, Lyons says, the plate includes rice, beans, chili, enchiladas and a tamal. Other popular offerings include chili con carne and enchilada verdes inspired by Chili Queens.

“We kind of kept that as our sort of foundation plaque, because we think it represents San Antonio Tex-Mex,” Lyons shares.

Casa Rio was not always as popular as it is today. It was still difficult to generate customers when the restaurants first started operating, Lyons says. Downtown looked different. Casa Rio only really sealed its success with the development of Hemisfair in the 1960s in combination with other World’s Fair-era businesses, such as the Hilton Palacio Del Rio hotel.

Even if you’ve never dined at the restaurant downtown, if you have any idea of ​​the San Antonio River Walk, you’re probably still imagining the cascarone-colored umbrellas that cover the patio at Casa Rio. In a way, the San Antonio River Walk and Casa Rio are indistinguishable from each other. It is visible in the B-Roll of the film shot in San Antonio Miss Conviviality.

Knowingly or not, this is the snapshot covering all postcards. Like old school friends, River Walk and Casa Rio grew up together and therefore influenced each other. More than a beloved restaurant, Casa Rio’s significance stems from its role in downtown development.

Bill Lyons is the owner of the Casa Rio Mexican restaurant on the River Walk and of Schilo's, considered the oldest operating restaurant in San Antonio.

Bill Lyons is the owner of the Casa Rio Mexican restaurant on the River Walk and of Schilo’s, considered the oldest operating restaurant in San Antonio.

Billy Calzada / Personal Photographer

Casa Rio's swan boat on the River Walk.
Casa Rio’s swan boat on the River Walk.Courtesy of Bill Lyons

Lyons credits his grandfather with the singular development of commercial riverboats. “He came up with different ideas to try to improve the restaurant, and one of them was to put a boat on the river that looked like a Venice gondola,” Lyons says.

These early boats were restaurant boats that could accommodate about eight people and looked wildly “unseaworthy”. After the initial boat, Beyer built all kinds of fancy craft. There was a boat with the head and neck of a swan before it was finally decapitated on the bridge of Rosita. Then there was a Mississippi-inspired steamboat with paddle wheels. Eventually, in the late 1960s, around the time of Hemisfair’s development, the city stepped in and helped create nicer, more structurally sound restaurant boats for tourists and locals.

When trying to understand the legend of San Antonio, it is crucial to consider Casa Rio. A Tex-Mex family business baptized by an enterprising German-Texan who, in many ways, is still at the center of a tourism industry she inadvertently started. It’s an illustrative landmark, with riverside Tex-Mex for downtown residents and visitors alike.

About James Almanza

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