GALVESTON — In the 1880 U.S. Census, Galveston had the largest population of any city in Texas. Today it is not even the largest city in Galveston County. League City is bigger. My wife and I came to the island to eat our way through most menus, and are not disappointed. Why here and why now? This is the time of year to visit Galveston: mid-week, after summer and school is in session, vacationers have gone back to League City. (Last year there were 5.7 million visitors who left $654.6 million behind). Hotel rates are lower and you can easily get a table at any restaurant.
This is Fisherman’s Wharf, with a covered dining room sticking out into the water. On one side is the Elissa, a former Greek smuggling ship, now the official tall ship of Texas. On the other side of the room floats the Boardwalk, a 147-foot-long yacht owned by Tilman Fertitta (I keep calling him Tilman Fajita), the super restaurateur. I am told his yacht cost $46 million. Five crewmen are always on board, 12 when underway. Fajita must have big tippers.
Driving on Seawall Blvd., the main drag along the beach, other motorists keep honking at me. That’s because there are no lane stripes and it’s impossible to tell which lane I’m in, so I just keep swerving.
Gaido’s: This restaurant has been around since 1911. In the back is the Pelican Club. Same kitchen, different bar. My father-in-law was a charter member, along with Jean Lafitte. Membership can be passed down. Today my son-in-law is the family member. I’ll see if I can put the bill on his tab. You know how waiters come to your table and say, “Good evening. My name is Lance and I’ll be taking care of you.” My waiter’ name is Armageddon. Is that like having a bartender named Borgia? “Let me just add this secret sauce.” After Ike swept through, knocking out the power to Gaido’s refrigerators, the staff set up tables on the parking lot and invited all the exhausted and hungry first responders for a meal. Long tables were set up and cooks, waiters and busboys in stiff whites, doled out what must have been a fantastic free meal. I hope insurance covered the cost.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a New Jersey TV reporter said, “This is the worst national disaster ever to hit America.” Silly provincial. Never mind Katrina, what about the Galveston Storm of 1900? Some say 5,000 people were killed. Others say 6,000. Galveston never fully recovered and Houston took over.
The weather is all-important when eating your way through this town. A slightly cool breeze, blue skies, outdoor cafes. So it is a perfect noon here on Postoffice Street (Postoffice is one word). A few years ago you wouldn’t come near this street after dark. Now, like Austin’s East Sixth Street, the place has been transformed, complete with shops, sidewalk cafes, bars and shops with sidewalk cafes and bars. It’s like New Orleans’ French Quarter without some drunk throwing up on your shoes. This is Gumbo’s, where I’ve been told to go for gumbo. We order a cup to split. The waitress brings out two large bowls, which is a cup to split at Gumbo’s. Quite good.
Galveston had Texas’ first structure to use electric lighting, the first telephone and the first baseball game. The Galveston Daily News, founded in 1842, is the state’s oldest continuing daily newspaper. People were sitting in these cafes reading the newspapers while sipping wine when, not too far west, other Texans were getting scalped.
On to our second lunch, at Benno’s on the seawall. Barbequed crabs (this is crab season). Two cabernets arrive in full beer steins. Galvestonians don’t chow down in a small way. The place to be on Sundays noonish is the Hotel Galvez’s brunch. One price, all you can eat plus free champagne, mimosas and wine. The spread is enormous. I have one of each. The bill arrives and we’re charged for the wine. Huh? Some staffer gave us bad info, so the wine is comped. What a great town.
Thanks mainly to George Mitchell, Galveston had a nice trolley system. Ike knocked it out and all that are left are steel tracks. Now that Mitchell is gone, if only some wealthy person with island connections would fix the trolleys and get them running again. Maybe someone with a 147-foot-long yacht. At this point you are wondering who was Galveston? Bernardo de Galvez was a Spanish general who helped the American Revolution, and fought against the Brits in Louisiana and Florida, but today we know only that his name sounds like a beach resort. Galveston is named for someone who never settled the place and may have never even set foot here. Like Dallas. But Jean Lafitte was here; for quite a while he made the island his HQ. Lafitte’s entire pirate crew supposedly held parties on Bolivar Peninsula, thus starting a tradition that drunken frat rats continue to this day. At least one former pirate, Lafitte’s cabin boy, Charles Cronea, stayed and is buried there.
This is the Bolivar Ferry, a fun trip, passing all the huge tankers, watching the porpoises diving and playing in the ferry’s wake. The peninsula was also thoroughly devastated by Hurricane Ike, aka the Bolivar Twist. Since then, hundreds of spiffy new beach houses have been built which will be swept away with the next storm. Do we have to pay every time? Couldn’t FEMA send them the bill? Our quest is a landmark here, the Stingaree restaurant, which is back in business. We called ahead to make sure they had barbequed crabs. Lots of them, except now they are out of them.
Finally, we’re heading home, full and fit. Sea food is not that fattening, except fried, with potatoes, rolls and dessert. In the back seat we have a visitor: a load of barbequed crabs.
Ashby is crabby at ashby2comcast.net