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Brightly lit with bold art, fast counter service, and a full-service bar, this is not your mother’s Earl Abel’s anymore. Or is it?
Recently relocated from its former digs on Austin Highway back to a Broadway address after a 12-year absence from the street – this time near the Pearl – the restaurant brought with it much of what made the San Antonio institution a favorite since its start in 1933.
That includes some of the same cooks and servers who have worked at the restaurant for five decades, the famous fried chicken and baked-from-scratch pies, and of course, those Abel-isms: “Eating good food keeps you able. Eating here keeps Earl Abel.”
Those who may doubt the restaurant’s authenticity need only look to the back corner of the small diner where every single one of the restaurant’s thousands of original, top-secret recipes are stored in an antique iron safe.
Only owner Roger Arias knows the combination. “There’s no money in this safe, but what we have in here is priceless,” he said.
Many thought Earl Abel’s had seen its last days when Jerry Abel, son of the original owner Earl, decided to sell the original property at Broadway and Hildebrand in 2005. A developer purchased the lot and erected a high-rise, luxury condominium tower now known as The Broadway.
Arias, a loyal Earl Abel’s customer, wouldn’t have it. A former controller for Church’s Chicken, he purchased the business with Gene Larsen in 2006. They moved the concept to a former Hometown Buffet space on Austin Highway and worked with architect Joe Stubblefield to recreate the mid-century diner, right down to the counters, sconces, and private dining rooms, the “Petite” and “Venetian.”
The restaurant’s regulars came back and business was good, Arias said. Then, in 2011, demolition and construction began all around them. His property taxes were increasing 30-45 percent every year.
“I was killing myself,” he said. “I thought there’s got to be a better place for us that’s more manageable, where San Antonio can enjoy the food Earl Abel’s is known for. We had to move for the survival of the concept.”
A citywide search commenced, and Arias discovered you can perhaps go “home” again. In December, Earl Abel’s quietly opened in its new location, a few miles further south on Broadway than its first home, occupying a space vacated last summer by another old favorite, Timbo’s.
“I thought this is just the place to reintroduce Earl Abel’s to the city,” Arias said. “Because this is where everybody comes … and not just millennials or young people, but also older folks and our loyal customers. I spend many a day just talking to them.”
On Thursday, Jan. 25, the restaurant experienced its busiest day yet, he said. Starting with a crowd that had just come from a funeral for lunch and continuing into the afternoon when an older couple came from their residence at the Pearl, the restaurant was being discovered by both locals and tourists hungry for the comforts of home.
The new Earl Abel’s can seat 75 inside, at both tables and booths, but when the weather gets warmer, a patio with seating for another 50 will open. The familiar bakery is back by the bar, and you can watch pies, cakes, and pastries being made and chicken being fried through a window into the kitchen.
In vivid orange and teal blue, floor-to-ceiling roosters designed by artist Tina Blumenthal adorn the walls – a nod to an old Earl Abel’s breakfast menu.
“A restaurant needs to reinvent itself,” Arias said. “The restaurant industry is changing significantly, and you have to change with it. We felt it was time for a change.”
The wall-mounted menu offers the home-style cooking Earl Abel’s customers expect, with chef’s specials on Friday and Saturday. Diners order at the counter and the food is delivered to the table. To-go orders can also be placed at the counter, and Arias said the restaurant will soon offer online ordering and delivery via UberEats. Arias also has plans for additional San Antonio locations.
Arias, 64, runs the restaurant, having bought out Larsen four years ago. A son, Jordan, 25, works as a food research scientist for nearby C.H. Guenther & Son, and Roger’s wife, Diana, operates the catering business for Don Strange of Texas.
Twelve of the 35 Earl Abel’s employees who worked at the Austin Highway restaurant now work in the new, smaller location. And though Arias tried to persuade longtime server Josie Garcia to stay on, she recently retired after almost 50 years with the restaurant.
A grand opening of the new Earl Abel’s at 1639 Broadway St. is planned for later next month, and Arias said he will break out of the safe some of those classic recipes. “They are just as good today as they were back then.”