ON A CLEAR AND SUNNY AFTERNOON this past April, restaurant tycoon Tilman Fertitta was peering out the window of his helicopter, holding a toothpick between his teeth that pointed toward Galveston like a divining rod. Far below, the 32-mile-long, 2-mile-wide island stretched out before him, and he had an unobstructed view of the architectural legacies of some of the town’s most powerful benefactors. To the west sat the Moody Gardens entertainment complex, which includes three giant, mirrored pyramids that dominate the landscape like an Egyptian monument. Directly beneath him was the late-1800’s-era Strand district, meticulously restored in the seventies and eighties through millions of dollars of investment by George Mitchell. And on the south side of the strip, just before the Gulf, sat Fertitta’s own contribution: a forty-foot-high rock volcano that erupts nightly on the half hour.
The chopper descended onto the lush green yard of the San Luis hotel, part of Fertitta’s luxury resort. As the boss exited, a black Lincoln pulled up to meet him, but Fertitta dismissed the driver with a wave. “That’s all right!” he shouted above the rotors’ clamor. “I’m going to walk!” Dressed in a red polo shirt and faded jeans, his appearance was casual, but nearby employees snapped to attention nonetheless. They are used to these visits; Fertitta surprises them every few weeks, hoping to get an unvarnished look at his operations. His critiques can be so precise that some longtime workers say he can detect a burned-out lightbulb before his helicopter touches down.
His inspection began at the Amazon-themed Rainforest Cafe, and Fertitta hadn’t even reached the front door before he identified a problem. “What’s with this color?” he asked, pointing to a sign on the outdoor gazebo. “Blue? This should be green; the blue looks like dog crap.” Then he wound his way through the jam-packed retail store at the restaurant’s entrance, stopping at a stack of T-shirts. “Why are these T-shirts so expensive?” he asked. “Would you pay for that? Where is the medium-sized T-shirt? All the extra-larges are on top.” Finally, Fertitta climbed aboard the cafe’s water ride, which takes passengers down a misty, dark tunnel where fake boa constrictors, monkeys, and other rain forest critters lurk and jerk mechanically from the cavern walls. As the ride took off, Fertitta became bothered by its instructional voice-over, and he shouted his displeasure above the sounds of chattering chimpanzees. “Can’t we get an American accent for