The death toll is mounting: Simos Diner in Weslayan Plaza is long gone to North Shepherd, the Shipley's on West Gray at Dunlavy is but a fond memory, the venerable Albritton's on Waugh was shuttered last week and is slated to fall to the wrecking ball later this year.
And now, it is our sorrow to report, it appears that another hallowed no-frills dining locale will give way to Inner Loop gentrification when the lease for the One's a Meal at 2019 West Gray expires on January 1. Weingarten Realty Management, the owner of the River Oaks Shopping Center, already is talking with potential new tenants for the space One's a Meal has occupied for 65 years.
One's a Meal owner Haritos Bibas says he's seen the end coming for a while, and he plans to keep the One's a Meal tradition alive farther east on West Gray. But that doesn't make the prospect of departing any easier to bear.
"It's an institution," sighs Bibas, whose hearty Greek accent is thickest when he is excited -- which is usually. "One's a Meal is something that is very important to a lot of families. People who went there with their grandparents now take their grandchildren there. To me, it's like the Alamo, or the Acropolis in Athens, something you don't want to change unless you absolutely have to, and then as little as possible. But Weingarten's doesn't want us there anymore. They want us out at the end of the year, no matter what. All they said was that they had some other use in mind."
Patty Bender, Weingarten's director of leasing, paints a slightly different picture of an amicable decision, necessitated by the realities of the shopping center business, that was mutually agreed upon last year.
"We met with Mr. Bibas over a year ago to talk about Weingarten's plans for the future and his plans for the future," Bender explains. "He agreed to relocate and seemed content at the time -- we were giving him lots of notice. Mr. Bibas is a wonderful man. He just didn't want to invest a great deal of money in a lease space, which I can understand."
Regular patrons of family-owned diners, though, tend to be less understanding.
"It's a tragedy," fumes John Bridgewater, a carpenter who's still doing a slow burn over the demolition of the nearby Shipley's a few years back. "What are they going to put there, some damn yuppie fern bar?"
Whatever arises in the space, it's doubtful the new tenant will exude the special charm exemplified by longtime One's a Meal waitress Leslie Alexander, who greets a regular patron of 40 years with a caustic "You want a waffle, I suppose?"
The customer, air conditioning repairman Pat Shannon, does indeed want a waffle. Most every morning. While awaiting his order one recent day, Shannon pondered the losses.
"It's an injustice," he said, "especially to the retired people who live near these places and eat there once or twice a day. People who make these decisions don't think about anything but profit, and if your only value system is the coin of the realm, that's not much of a value system. At some point people have to come first. If that makes me a socialist, then I'm a socialist."
Bender indicates that there were, indeed, some hard capitalist calculations that led to Weingarten's making Bibas an offer he was almost certain to refuse.
"When you have a shopping center with 65 stores," she explains, "your purpose is to create traffic for shopping, so that all the stores benefit." As it happens, a diner like One's a Meal -- "our only 24-hour tenant," as Bender notes -- draws a clientele which has only one destination when it visits the River Oaks Shopping Center.
"We're looking for a medium-sized anchor for the center, a retail use, not a restaurant," Bender says. "Restaurants are very parking-intensive, and we already have Starbucks, Bruegger's Bagels and the Marble Slab nearby. At River Oaks, our peak shopping traffic is from 6 to 10 [p.m.], so we are looking for someone who will attract shoppers who will then visit other stores during that time."
Weingarten's effort to replace One's a Meal has been enhanced by, of all things, the federal Clean Air Act. The restaurant sits next door to Esquire Cleaners, and, as Bender explains, "Our company is not, as a rule, renewing the leases on dry cleaners because of very serious environmental concerns. Esquire will be reducing drastically in size, which will give us a much bigger space than One's a Meal" for a new tenant.
While the customers fume and the Realtors negotiate and the employees ponder the past and the future, there appears to be little chance that 2019 West Gray's long stand as a green-and-white-tiled home for eggs with chili and unexcelled eavesdropping opportunities will soon be anything but a memory. Make that a lot of memories: veteran waitress Lorraine Martin has more than her share from 40 years behind the counter of the various One's a Meals that were once scattered across Houston.
Martin laughs when asked how many cups of coffee she's served since 1956. "Who knows? But I can close my eyes and fill your cup without spilling a drop. This place is like home to me, after all these years. The waitresses, the cooks, the customers get to be like family after a while. The customers have helped me out so much. When my son was injured in a motorcycle accident in Florida, I was broke and a customer gave me his airline charge card so my other son and I could go be with him. When I got back to work, a lot of the regulars gave me $50 tips, $100 tips."
In a last-stab effort to keep One's a Meal anchored in the shopping center, longtime customer Toni Attwell has deluged the media and the offices of various influential types with copies of a passionate letter extolling the restaurant's "history, tradition and mystique." In the letter, which Attwell addressed to Weingarten president Drew Alexander, the veteran St. John's teacher entreated Alexander to let One's a Meal "become the star in your crown, instead of the thorn in your side."
Martin appreciates the sentiment, but doubts it will change anybody's mind.
"Mr. Bibas has been talking about moving every time the rent went up. If they wanted One's a Meal to stay here they'd almost have to come down on the rent. You'd have a better chance of commanding a dead fish to rise up."
The waitress pauses for a moment, then turns uncharacteristically sentimental.
"I'm not sure what I'll do after the first of the year," she says. "I'd better get back to work -- if I start thinking about it, I might start crying."
Although they are profoundly attached to the location, the loosely knit family of regulars and employees understand that the as-yet-unspecified transformation of the West Gray location is far from the end of the One's a Meal tradition begun by William Gibson at 907 Rusk back in 1920. There is, after all, what is universally referred to as "the new place" just east of Memorial Park, and Bibas' investments in property closer to downtown on West Gray, near his Bibas Family Greek Restaurant, also will figure in the future of One's a Meal.
"I've seen this coming for a while," says Bibas, who purchased the One's a Meal name in 1976. "I had planned to create a little Greek village of shops and cafes on the properties I own around Bibas Family. If we have to leave River Oaks, One's a Meal will be part of that village."
In the interim, Bibas says he may keep Bibas Family open around the clock -- "so my customers will have a place to go at night" -- and add some of the favorites from One's a Meal to the menu.
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"It's a shame that we have to leave where we have been at for so long, but I promise you: One's a Meal will rise again like a glorious Greek phoenix."
Oilman Roy Cullen, who can be said to have a pretty good understanding of how things work in Houston, is more philosophical than most regulars about the closing of the restaurant he has patronized since 1939, when he was nine years old.
"I heard he was moving to his property down the street," Cullen says. "So I'll go down the street. They've got the best coffee and eggs in town."
Weingarten's Bender is very aware that other One's a Meal customers haven't greeted the news with such equanimity. After explaining the company's position and before saying good-bye, there's almost a plaintive note detectable in Bender's voice as she says, "I hope you keep shopping at River Oaks.