I don’t claim to have been Earl Abel’s most devoted customer. The waitresses did not know me by name. I do not cherish memories of spending my formative years there sneaking cigarettes at 2 in the morning. But that did not stop me from braving crowds of despondent senior citizens a couple of weeks ago to pay my respects before the classic coffee shop succumbs to the bulldozer.
Now I know that the Earl’s “brand” — as embodied by its recipes, glorious marquee, colonial furniture, and that creepy wax figure who, it turns out, is named Curley the Butler — is going to live on in a new form. A familiar form, it sounds like, if the new owners succeed in their grand expansion plan and “see Earl’s flavor spread across San Antonio and ultimately the region.” Oh, goodie — another chain restaurant dishing up artery-clogging fare. Just what the town needs, right?
As much as I loved Earl’s fried chicken, dinner rolls, and coconut cake, my sadness at its passing is not so much culinary as it is aesthetic. I’m disappointed to see another landmark crumble, particularly such a fabulous example of a mid-century diner (though I’ll be the first to admit the interior never quite lived up to the promise of the exterior). Like anyone with a healthy veneration for the past, I’m sorry to see San Antonio’s architectural landscape take another step toward indistinctness, to bear witness as the city’s sedimentary layers are slowly stripped away (or clear-cut, as the case may be). And I will miss having something to look at while idling at the eternal red light at Broadway and Hildebrand.
So I took my daughter Dale to what shall henceforth be known as the original Earl Abel’s for a last lunch. Being 2, she doesn’t feel terribly nostalgic about Earl’s — she doesn’t get nostalgic about much of anything, except perhaps for her second birthday or that time (yesterday) when we went to the playground and she fell off the slide and then ate a whole bag of breadsticks. I asked my husband if he wanted to meet us for lunch, but he wasn’t up for a wake. He’s still too broken about the demise of Hipp’s Bubble Room back in 1980, and Little Hipp’s in 2002.
But I wanted to soak up the ambience one last time. I wanted to snap a few photos and check out the souvenirs that were being hawked in the lobby. (I ended up passing on those, though I was tempted by the sheer randomness of the Earl Abel’s ice scraper. Actually, I’m kicking myself for not buying that one. I mean, I would have used it at least once a year.) I’d heard that the place would be packed, that alterkockers from miles around were making pilgrimages to San Antonio for that final drumstick. I thought that 11:30 a.m. on a Friday was a reasonably safe time to go, which wasn’t my brightest moment since old folks are the ones who invented the early-bird special.
We waited about a half hour for a table, and Dale was OK with that, probably because I had bribed her with the promise of her favorite food group, pancakes and bacon. Too bad I didn’t know that the restaurant had scaled back its hours and its menu, and was no longer serving breakfast. They didn’t even have actual menus — just Xeroxes — because customers were pilfering them as souvenirs. Luckily the waitress seated us right next to that wax butler, which distracted Dale from the blatant lack of pancakes on her plate and pretty much set the course of our mealtime conversation: “Mommy, who dat?” “He’s a wax figure of a butler.” “Oh. What’s he looking at?” Etc.
After paying our bill and heading to the lobby, I felt like I’d stumbled into a shindig at a nursing home. We jumped aside as a woman clutching an oxygen tank was wheeled through, followed by a man with a seeing-eye dog. A city bus was basically parked in front of the restaurant, its elevator going up and down as yet another wheelchair-bound or walker-wielding citizen disembarked. When the one-legged man hobbled into the building, I knew it was time for us, the youngest diners at Earl’s by far, to head into the sunny afternoon and leave the sentimental journeying to folks with much longer memories.
A few days after that lunch, I read a story in The New York Times about a group of women who have a regular girls’ night out, where they get duded up in vintage finery and dine at their favorite old-timey establishments in NYC. They do this because they’re afraid that these mostly forgotten, or at least underappreciated, restaurants and bars are going to die along with their aging clientele. I’m thinking about forming a similar club here. Members will hang out at The Barn Door, Olmos Pharmacy, and Hermann Sons Bowling Lanes. And at least once a week we’ll take our kids to the Kiddie Park on Broadway. Because who knows when the next old-school landmark will bite the dust? •