Earl Abel’s was never about the food. Some would argue that the San Antonio landmark’s take-out fried chicken was among the best in the solar system or that its diabetes-inducing pies, seductively displayed on mirrored shelves behind the counter, had no peers. But over time, in its long-standing niche on Broadway at a significant nexus between democratic San Antonio and the fancier adjoining communities of Terrell Hills, Alamo Heights, and Olmos Park, Earl Abel’s grew into a haven for anyone who walked into its dark, windowless, but strangely cozy interior. That rare brand of comfort is why the announcement of the 73-year-old enterprise’s mid-March closing—it is to be replaced by a luxury high-rise—is an occasion for significant grief among current and former locals.
If you grew up anywhere near Earl Abel’s, as I did, you marked the stages of your life there. You changed, but it didn’t: Whether it was 1965, 1985, or 2005, you dined alongside soldiers from Fort Sam, office workers on their way downtown, bejeweled North Side socialites, high school kids and Trinity University students just waking up or just considering the idea of going to bed, and a smattering of people—old, lonely, dispossessed, confused—who had nowhere else to go and were always welcomed, at first by Earl himself, later by his widow, Lorena, and finally, by a phalanx of waitresses (now waitpersons) who knew you, your fiancé, your kids, and eventually, your arthritis.
My grandparents took me for sundaes; I rode in my father’s convertible to pick up fried chicken for dinner; I dined there with teenage friends, some of whom might have been under the influence of illegal substances and thought the restaurant’s corny signs saying “Eat here and diet home” were riotous. My first job was waiting tables there; I learned patience, tolerance, and how to make a banana split in under a minute.
The Proustian draw of Earl Abel’s was always its peculiar brand of egalitarianism: The place maintained throughout the decades its somewhat heraldic interior, with mock shields and a sort of bas-relief coach on the wall that evoked Cinderella’s, but the staff treated everyone the same, which is to say they made every guest feel like royalty. You were fussed over, asked after, and so were your children and grandchildren. At all hours, you found yourself among friends, neighbors, and pols (e.g., former congressman Henry B. Gonzalez). Still, your bill never came anywhere close to a king’s ransom.
“Please don’t close!!!” beg the people desperately signing the guest book’s last pages. They know what’s coming, and what will never come again.