For its customers, walking into the 410 Diner might bring back memories of a simpler time – a diner where the waiters and waitresses really do know your name. For Dean Bardi, it’s been his base of operations since 1986, when he purchased the off-white gas station-turned-diner near the airport from Pat Molak, San Antonio and Hill Country restaurateur and owner of Gruene Hall.
When Bardi took over the restaurant, the walls were blank and the menu featured just 10 entrees. Now, the restaurant is covered in ’50s memorabilia and offers 75 entrees – everything from a 12-ounce New York Strip to a basket of fried okra. This doesn’t include the daily specials, including ratatouille, not a typical entree you would expect from a traditional diner.
If you ask Bardi why he and the diner have stuck around for the last 33 years, he’ll tell you it’s due to his staff and his customers, the regulars. Bardi attributes 80 percent of his business to regulars, some that come five days a week and even twice a day. His staff is possibly some of the most loyal in San Antonio, with multiple staff members having worked at 410 Diner for 30-plus years.
Among them is lead waitress Maria De Los Santos, who has worked at the diner for 15 years and started when she was 20 years old. When she had a child, Bardi paid three months of her normal weekly salary, including what she would make in tips, while she spent time with her newborn.
“When he did it I was in shock,” De Los Santos said.
Bardi, now 64 years old, is in a long-term commitment with the diner. He has dissolved or sold all of his other businesses and can be found at the restaurant seven days a week, even late into the night.
He jokingly pointed to a gold ring on his right hand and claimed the diner is actually his first wife.
After all, his business venture led him to love when he met his wife, Kris, just two months after purchasing the diner.
“She was here to eat with three other girls. She was eating and asked one of the waitresses, ‘What’s his name?’ She called me the next day and said, ‘I love your shoes. I want to buy some for my dad.’ She asked if I was dating somebody and I said yes and no, then she asked if I wanted to have lunch.”
The two went to Fuddruckers, which still exists just across Loop 410, and the two were married shortly after at the Petroleum Club, also just across Loop 410 from 410 Diner. A photograph from the wedding, including staff members, still adorns the white walls near the kitchen. Bardi and his wife now have two daughters, ages 21 and 25.
Since 1982, when the restaurant originally opened, the diner has had a $2 off entree special. Back then the regular $4.95 chicken fried steak came in at a bargain $2.95, with lines that wrapped around the building. Today the same deal is still going but with prices adjusted over time.
“Where else can you get an 8-ounce salmon with cucumber sauce and two vegetables for $10.95?” asked Bardi.
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Kay Poletta, a regular customer who has been eating at the diner since 1986, attended Dean’s and Kris’ wedding in 1986. She’s family friends with Kris’ mother.
“I live on the Northwest Side, and anytime I come by and feel an annoying hunger I stop here,” she said.
As for the future of the diner, Bardi intends to stay and keep working as he has since 1986.
“The only way I’d leave the diner is if I won the lottery,” Bardi said, “but I don’t buy the ticket because I don’t want to lose the diner.”