The struggle for iconic San Antonio restaurants to stay afloat in a market where landlords, tax collectors and customers all want something more has hit a bittersweet crossroads.
The 84-year-old landmark Earl Abel’s Restaurant is moving from the Austin Highway location it’s occupied since 2006. That’s half the story. The other half is that Earl Abel’s is moving into the The Pearl-area location of Timbo’s, which is closing Saturday after 10 years of burgers and Shypoke Eggs at 1639 Broadway.
The tentative opening date is Oct. 1, said Earl Abel’s owner Roger Arias, with a soft opening around Sept. 15. Arias said he plans to keep the Austin Highway location open until Sept. 30.
For Arias, the move comes as the restaurant is looking to downsize and streamline from its current 10,000-square-foot space and sprawling diner menu. The new location covers just 2,800 square feet, and Arias said the new menu will focus more narrowly on the most popular dishes, things like fried chicken, pies, burgers, chicken-fried steak, breakfast and a few comfort food staples.
Earl Abel’s began as a diner on North Main Avenue in 1933, then branched into several locations and ultimately consolidated into one location in a circular building at Broadway and Hildebrand where it operated for 66 years until the Abel family sold the property to a developer who would later demolish the building to make way for The Broadway highrise condos.
Determined to see the Earl Abel’s legacy live on, Arias bought the rights to the restaurant in 2006. He opened the Austin Highway location in June of that year — just one month after the old location closed.
Business ticked up steadily after opening Arias said, until 2011 when the shopping center that includes Earl Abel’s underwent a 20-month renovation that choked off traffic to the restaurant. Arias said business hasn’t returned as strongly as he’d hoped, and mounting property taxes on the restaurant and its adjacent special events room led to the decision to find a smaller space.
But Arias sees the move not as a re-entrenchment but rather a reinvigoration of the concept. He plans to give the new space a contemporary look that moves away from diner hallmarks, and the restaurant will shift to the fast-casual model of ordering at the counter rather than traditional table service. The restaurant also will add organic greens and artisan bread to its sandwich lineup along with a full bar with Texas beers and cocktails inspired by classic Earl Abel’s recipes, Arias said.
But as Earl Abel’s seeks to reinvent itself in Timbo’s spot on Broadway, Timbo’s owner Tim Lang is writing the last lines of another restaurant chapter. He worked for 27 years at Little Hipps on McCullough Avenue before it closed in 2002 after 40 years in business. Lang carried the Little Hipps torch to Spring Branch in 2003 when he opened Timbo’s. In 2007, he closed that site and moved to its current location on Broadway near The Pearl.
Timbo’s was notified by landlord Harper Huddleston Inc. on March 31 that the restaurant’s lease was being terminated in 90 days. Saturday is the restaurant’s final day. Lang said he tried to work out a deal to stay, but in the end, it was time to go. He said he doesn’t plan to relocate.
“I’ve been working 80 hours a week for 10 years. I’m tired,” he said Wednesday. “I just want to thank the people of San Antonio. They’ve been great customers.”
Right across the street from Timbo’s, the popular bar Stay Golden also is closing, with a final bash Friday. The location will be cleared for an office and retail tower from Pearl developer Silver Ventures.