November 15, 2005
RIP, Earl Abel's

First, they came for Little Hipps. Now, they're coming for Earl Abel's.


Earl Abel's, the 72-year-old San Antonio restaurant known equally for retro decor and retro cuisine, likely will close its doors early next year to make way for a decidedly modern high-rise condo development.

Development group Koontz McCombs quietly put the Alamo City institution, located just north of downtown, under contract late this summer and could raze it as early as January to make way for a proposed 25-story, 80-unit condo tower, owner Jerry Abel said.

The developer wants to start construction on the 2.4-acre property, at the busy intersection of Broadway and Hildebrand Avenue, early next year and finish by 2008.

"Everything just came together perfectly," Abel said of his decision to end his restaurant's successful run.

"This building is old. I'm old. So, with that in mind, the proposal from Koontz McCombs made so much sense."

[...]

The sixty-something Abel wouldn't discuss financial terms of the deal but said he's "tired" of operating the restaurant his father started in 1933. Abel grew up working in the family business and has served as its president for 20 years.

Theater organist Earl Abel opened his first namesake eatery on North Main Avenue after the Great Depression put him out of work. He later opened a handful of other locations, including the Broadway restaurant the chain's sole survivor.

Earl Abel's fried chicken, mashed potatoes and homemade pies have sustained generations of customers from thrifty downtown workers to Alamo Heights bluebloods.

Seemingly trapped in a time warp, the wood-paneled and red-wallpapered dining room has been the site of countless business lunches and family breakfasts. It gained further notoriety in 1986 as the place where U.S. Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez slugged a fellow diner for calling him a communist.

Koontz McCombs principal Bart Koontz said he talked with Abel for at least a year about the property before settling on a deal.

He wouldn't say how much his group plans to spend developing the high-end condos, which would overlook nearby Brackenridge Park and downtown San Antonio.

[...]

Councilman Kevin Wolff, whose district includes Earl Abel's, said he has known of plans for the condos for several weeks.

"It's kind of a neat layout," Wolff said. "The bad part is are we going to lose an icon? Yeah."

Wolff, who last week attended a Mahncke Park Neighborhood Association meeting, said leaders there seemed to accept the redevelopment plans. Koontz McCombs officials have been talking to neighbors about the tower's design.

Before it can begin construction, the developer must ask the city to rezone the property so it can accommodate multifamily dwellings. Wolff said doesn't foresee significant resistance to the rezoning plan.

Joyce Felter, vice president of the Mahncke Park association, said the group doesn't know enough about the project to take an official stand.

However, she added, "if it's a high rise, there are individual members who are opposed to having a high rise in the neighborhood."

Another residential high-rise building is already located nearby at Hildebrand and North New Braunfels Avenue.

Real estate officials say Broadway south of Hildebrand long a string of vacant car dealerships and storefronts is poised to take off as the city's economy grows and its downtown business climate improves.

The planned condos likely would appeal to professionals looking to cut their downtown commute time, said Stephen Poteet of Broadway Developers, which is building an office complex a few blocks south of Earl Abel's. They also could be attractive to empty nesters looking to downsize their living space.

"I think it would be an especially good site because it's well-positioned between the downtown business sector and the northeast suburbs," Poteet said.


Broadway south of Hildebrand (and especially south of Mulberry) in San Antonio is kind of like Washington west of downtown in Houston, in that it's a long stretch of underdeveloped real estate that's in such an attractive location for those who want to be near the urban core it's a little hard to understand why it hasn't already become the hottest property in town. About the only time I ever travelled along that part of Broadway when I was at Trinity was when I walked back to campus from the Greyhound station after visiting a buddy in Austin for a weekend. The description of it in this story is pretty much as I remember it from that long walk that day.

Oh, and one other thing that Broadway and Washington have in common: They both feature Pig Stand restaurants. How about that?

Anyway, if the demise of Earl Abel's leads to a renaissance along Broadway, it will (just barely) be a net positive for the city of San Antonio. As The Jeffersonian well knows, it'll take a lot to make up for losing Earl Abel's chocolate cake. The AusChron has a nice review and mini-history of the place, as does Texas Monthly. Earl Abel himself is a member of the Texas Restaurant Association Hall of Fame. They don't make 'em like that any more.

Farewell, Earl Abel's. You will be missed.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 15, 2005 to The great state of Texas | TrackBack
Comments

Ah, well I remember sitting up at Earl Abel's with Trinity music majors as they crammed for the Music History exam ("Was that Schubert or Schobert?"). Being a CS major myself, I could enjoy my chocolate cake with a side of schadenfreude.

Anyone know the current status of Hung Fong? Their won ton soup was my personal comfort food - on one occasion, I went through the cushions in the Isabel common room couch (ew!) to scrounge up enough change for a bowl.

Posted by: CrispyShot on November 15, 2005 2:50 PM

Closing, huh? It was only a matter of time but I don't know if I have the heart to tell Trish. When it came to late night dining, Earl Abel's for coffee and pie was second only to a TC run at 3am for a bean and cheese. Farewell, my good and faithful pie source!

Crispy, Hung Fong's is still there and I know what you mean about the wonton soup. We didn't have lots of Chinese restaraunts in central Louisiana growing up and wonton soup was my entry food into Chinese cuisine. As a result it is the one constant yardstick in judging Chinese places. So simple and standard, yet I'm hard pressed to think of any better than Hung Fong's. It was comfort in a bowl.

Posted by: Patrick on November 15, 2005 5:44 PM

Sad, sad day. Hung Fong's is still around, although I haven't been there in a while for some reason.

Ah well, on the bright side, not having a place in SA where I can gorge myself on double chocolate cake, chicken fried steak and other fattening, delicious treats in the same meal will probably add a few years to my life.

Posted by: Cincinnatus on November 16, 2005 12:54 AM

I ate at Earl's a few times when I lived there, in a previous life, and always thought it was overrated in terms of both atmosphere & food. When I wanted diner food, Jim's was always a better bet. Late nights at Jim's with coffee, apple pie topped with cinnamon ice cream . . . sigh.

Posted by: Dwight Silverman on November 16, 2005 9:53 AM

There was definitely a Jim's contingent at Trinity while I was there (and undoubtedly there still is). They did a good breakfast.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on November 16, 2005 10:32 AM