Idle chatter blends with the clinking of dishes and the sizzle of pancakes on the grill. The smell of eggs freshly scrambled in oil wafts through the air. Cops hover over tables, chowing down bacon and toast, while men in work shirts and jeans belt out a belly laugh or two over a baseball joke. Waitresses Leticia Granado and Sylvia Flores shout wisecracks along with table orders from across the counter.
The Yale St. Grill may have what some say is the "best grease in town," but that's not the only draw for these regulars.
For them, the grill, with a history that goes back years before some of them were born, is a way of life. After providing that way of life for so many customers, it took a customer to save the place from almost certain death earlier this year.
The Yale St. Grill opened in 1923 as the mom-and-pop drugstore of Abel Dupuis and wife Mildred, one of the first female pharmacists in Texas. The two filled prescriptions and sold old-fashioned remedies they made themselves. Their fountain served Cokes and malts, while carhops bustled out with banana splits for curbside customers. Over the years, it changed locations three times and changed names once. In 1950 the Yale Pharmacy moved to its current address at 2100 Yale in the Heights.
Joe Dupuis took over the business from his parents and later handed it to stepdaughter Debbie Drouin in 1997. She replaced the pharmacy with a gift shop and postal station.
"When the drugstore went out, it was devastating," says Louise Fleming, a 23-year employee. "But Joe had to retire. A lot of people couldn't believe it was closed. To this day, people still call it the Yale Pharmacy."
After four years as owner of the grill, a tired Drouin wanted a change. She quietly negotiated with a buyer, but in late spring the deal fell through. Startled customers then saw her putting up signs that the establishment was going out of business.
Paul Gomberg had been coming to the Yale for 16 years. He was devastated to find out the colorful place he enjoyed so much -- "It had a small-town feeling in a big city" -- was nearing extinction.
He's president of Premier Victorian Homes, a company that touts building over 50 "period-style homes in the Heights that blend in with the neighborhood."
Not everyone considered his business all that neighborly. In 1998 Gomberg sparked protests when he sued seven property owners near one of his developments. Like many other Heights residents, they had gradually fenced in alley easements and used them for a variety of needs. Gomberg wanted that right-of-way for rear access to one of his developments. Neighbors refused his offer to build new fences for them and to pave portions of the alley. They countersued, but Gomberg won the case.
Gomberg sees himself as an old- fashioned guy who carries a feeling of nostalgia. He keeps his hair longer than most and wears Converse All-Star low-tops. He drives three Chevy Impalas from the '60s and one classic Corvette. He loves the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and he's the singer for Rose Drill, his classic rock band.
So the instant Drouin told Gomberg that the store was closing was the same instant that he agreed to buy it for $700,000.
He has plans eventually to open it on Sundays and holidays, to add a jukebox and '50s-style booths and to have waitress uniforms and healthier menu items. But for the most part, Gomberg is not about to change an institution and its veteran cast.
Fleming, in her white jacket and gold-rimmed bifocals, has made a maternal mark at the counter in her 23 years. In 1952, at the age of 21, she came in looking for a job, and worked for Joe Dupuis as a clerk for cosmetics, nylons and cigarettes. She left after a year, only to return for good in 1978.
Even on a recent day off, she's there selling her baked treats: chocolate-chunk-nut and peanut-butter fudge.
She should've retired years ago, Fleming sighs, but she can't give it up. She loves it here. This is where Barbara and Sylvia and Angel are; this is where Charles Straub and Jim Hinsley eat. This is where she belongs.
Sixty years ago, at age 15, Valeria Crowe met Tommy Parker at the Yale Pharmacy. The two would "have drinks, court and carry on," she remembers in her first return there in almost ten years.
In was 43 years after their first meeting when Parker called Crowe to reminisce about their times together at the counter. Her son, Logan, and grandchildren, Sara and Zachary, live several miles away in the Copperfield subdivision, but are frequent grill visitors.
"They make a good burger and Coke float," Sara says. "That's why I come here."
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Those kinds of lures are obvious for a preteen like Sara, but retired accountant Charles Straub is attracted by the Yale treatment -- not just the treats.
Straub reflects the routine of many customers. He comes in at 10 a.m. and places the same order: bacon and grits with a lot of butter, two fried eggs and raisin toast.
Even if he doesn't see old friends or talk to anyone, he just likes to be among people. "I hate fixing breakfast as much as I hate eating alone," he says. "And Sylvia gives me a hard time." He loves it so much that a few years ago he decided to make eating here an everyday habit.
And now that's a habit that he won't have to worry about breaking anytime soon.