In the middle of the "decade of downtown," I had to close lunch service and the reasons pain me almost as much as the decision I had to make.
You see, Restaurant Gwendolyn is a labor of love. Anyone who knows our business model – everything actually made by human hands, without electric machines, and every single perishable ingredient in the house 100 percent local and sustainable, with a menu that changes every single day – knows that Gwendolyn is the real thing. It always tickles me to see the intelligent, accomplished businessmen whistle and roll their eyes in astonishment that we exist at all.
We are a bunch of idealistic crazies on a crusade against big white trucks and mechanized life and industrial everything — shaking a rolling pin in the face of the conventional business model of restaurants.
I still have expenses and a business to run and for more than three years, against a whole heap of odds, I pay my bills.
I pay those bills with money from our dinner service – money that is not from downtown.
Gwendolyn’s fine dining dinner service (which the Express-News rated four stars for the quality of the dishes) was rated number one on Google in San Antonio. I was also nominated for the James Beard Foundation award last year, which is pretty solid evidence that we take our cooking seriously. I am proud to say that I have met guests who drive from Houston to eat at my restaurant, and then go home. But while my dinner menu brings people from far and wide – and for whom I am very grateful – I started the simple, cheap, lunch service to be a neighborhood institution.
Except that a neighborhood institution downtown is inherently a contradiction in terms.
Small, privately owned, “mom and pop” businesses exist for the nearby community whom they serve. I opened the lunch service of Gwendolyn for the hope of being that place that residents would roll out of bed and come get good sandwiches in their flip flops…only to find out much too late that, basically, people don’t really live downtown.
And why is that?
Our city has failed the downtown resident in several regards. People need a place to work, a place to live, somewhere to comfortably park their cars, somewhere to have fun, and somewhere to get hot dogs and toilet paper at 10 p.m.
Lots of my customers cite the parking as the reason they don’t venture into downtown very much—and they’re right. Parking is still a heavy obstacle that small businesses have to stubble against every day. I have enough tickets slapped on my truck for parking directly in front of my own restaurant to make a belt and hold my pants up. It has been seized by police, it has been ticketed on three consecutive days, it has been ticketed twice on the same day in two colors by two different police entities that apparently both enforce my block. If I totaled all the money together spent in towing charges from my staff’s collective vehicles, I could run the restaurant for a month. The message from the downtown police force is pretty clear: We want you gone.
Downtown (and the River Walk in particular) has been carefully built and wired to service the highly artificial exchange between tourists and business travelers and the multi-million-dollar corporate conglomerates that follow them. Out of the Hilton and into the Hard Rock Café. Come on, that’s not a town.
I know Mayor Julián Castro is trying to infuse downtown with a sense of excitement, to bring people in and keep them there, but the reality is that downtown is a pretty cold stretch of concrete.
A walk down North St. Mary’s Street after 5 p.m. is more than a little like a cemetery. I am surrounded—surrounded—by buildings that stand empty. Let me take you for a walk around my block, I will show you at least six concrete giants with boards across the windows.
Downtown is languishing in its deprivation of the warmth of humanity: real humans who live and breathe here. This place needs to get shook up good. Knock down those boards and give people rooms and workplaces, bodegas, child care centers, a hardware store that’s open on Saturday and carries electrical tape. Take the parking lots back from the private firms. Open this place up. Stop punishing humans for daring to come down here.
If you are looking to build a resurgence of residents downtown (such as Southtown and now the Pearl Brewery region are enjoying), you’ve got to imagine that the guy you are looking for is looking for a decent, affordable apartment that he can afford on his ten-dollar-an-hour job, a real grocery store he can hit with a five minute drive, a cozy, personal, neighborhood hangout with easy (and free) parking, a piece of grass to walk his dog on the weekend that’s not full of bums and a convenience store with a nice beer selection at 11:45 p.m. on a Saturday night.
San Francisco can do it. Queens can do it. Already, Southtown does a beautiful job of it. Why not us?
*Featured/top photo: Restaurant Gwendolyn's Facebook page.