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 this recording instead of the British version?” he asked an employee.
“We tried that, Tilman, but it sounded stupid,” the man shouted back.
“Oh,” Fertitta said, a little crestfallen. “Well, could you at least turn it up, then?”
Tilman Fertitta, 46, is the chairman, president, and CEO of Landry’s Restaurants Inc., which operates more than three hundred restaurants nationwide—including Joe’s Crab Shack, Landry’s Seafood House, and the Rainforest Cafe—out of its Houston headquarters. In that city, Fertitta is one of many big fish, but here in his native Galveston, he might as well carry a trident. He owns half a mile of the strip, from First to Sixty-first Street. He is also the owner of Fertitta Hospitality, which runs the city’s new $30 million convention center along with the upscale San Luis Resort, Spa, and Conference Center. In the past few years he has bought so much land on the Island that he makes headlines when he chooses not to buy a property. All told, he’s invested $150 million here, an influx of cash that some say is responsible for sparking the economic boom now taking place in Galveston, a city that as recently as six years ago had few development prospects and was nearly bankrupt.
But among other residents, who are used to seeing a slower pace to the city’s growth—or no growth at all—there is grumbling that Fertitta’s role in developing the Island has gotten too big. They worry aloud that his legion of properties is turning Galveston into “Fertittaville,” a fear that was only heightened two months ago, when Mayor Roger “Bo” Quiroga proposed changing the name of Fifty-seventh Street to Tilman Fertitta Boulevard. Of even larger concern is what they perceive to be Fertitta’s long-term vision. This spring, when Fertitta backed a proposal during the special legislative session to bring video gambling to Texas, there was speculation that he hoped to turn it into a Gulf Coast version of Atlantic City.
The debate over Fertitta’s influence was fresh in residents’ minds in May, when a record voter turnout was expected for the mayoral election. The race featured two former city council members: Native Lyda Ann Thomas, a member of the powerful Kempner family, represented the conservative-growth old guard; New Jerseyborn Johnny Smecca represented those in favor of aggressive, Fertitta-style development. On record, Fertitta never endorsed either candidate, but it wasn’t difficult to guess whose ticket he’d punch if he were eligible to vote. “I’ll tell you exactly how it is, okay?” he said in his Houston office shortly before our ride in the chopper. “If you want new businesses so you don’t have to drive to the mainland, you elect Johnny Smecca. If you like it the way it is—and decide you need no more building—you elect Lyda Ann Thomas. And that’s for the people of Galveston to choose.”
A FEW DAYS BEFORE FERTITTA’S helicopter drop-in, I joined a couple of locals seated at a small table at E Street Gallery and Coffee Haus, on Postoffice Street. One of them, Ladislav, was a Czech mason; the other, Nathan, was the owner of the Galveston Wedding Chapel. When I asked them to share their thoughts on Fertitta, it wasn’t long before the pair had addressed the three basic complaints I would hear repeatedly:
“Mr. Fertitta has come here and put up all these restaurant,” Ladislav said, “and suddenly his income go up, up, up. It crazy. How it get like that?” (Translation: We’ve seen fast growth before—with Enron.)
“He put Fuddruckers on the Strand,” Nathan said. “He’s making it look like the west side of Houston.” (Translation: He’s tacky, and he’s turning