Driving along Broadway on your way into the heart of Galveston, it would appear that the island has finally sprung back to life five months after Hurricane Ike passed directly over it. Stores and restaurants are open, medians are planted with fat clumps of flowers, traffic -- even on a Thursday -- is robust. But leaving Broadway in either direction -- towards the Seawall or towards the Strand -- quickly reminds you that the old girl isn't back quite yet.
The Strand sustained heavy damage during Ike, with flood waters from Galveston Bay reaching to twelve feet in places. Because the Strand so rarely floods -- and certainly never to that extent -- many businesses didn't have flood insurance. As a result, most businesses and restaurants still haven't come close to reopening, even almost half a year later. The Seawall, on the other hand, took a blunter hit from the crashing waves but didn't sustain heavy flood damage. Most restuarants along the Seawall have reopened, although many remain eerily quiet and in desperate need of customers.
So, what exactly is the status of the restaurant business in Galveston?
Restaurants that are open along the Seawall include Miller's Cafe, Dutch Kettle, and island stalwarts Casey's and Gaido's. As of the second week in February, Casey's was finally serving their full menu once again. It had been difficult for them to obtain such cost-prohibitive items as Gulf oysters; they couldn't afford the expense if they didn't have the daily customer base to pay for and eat them. But now that the customers are back, so is the food. Good thing, too, since the Gulf oysters I ate there last Thursday were some of the best I've ever had: fat, rich, buttery and clean-tasting with only the faintest trace of salt.
As I drove past the regal Hotel Galvez, whose Spanish-tiled roof is finally being repaired, I noted that the Landry's restaurants -- Joe's Crab Shack (although not owned by Landry's anymore, it retains the stink of mediocrity), Rainforest Cafe, Saltgrass Steakhouse -- looked as operational as ever, as though nothing had ever happened here. Willie G's and the Fisherman's Wharf off the Strand remained similarly nonplussed.
Many residents of the island fear that with money being lost each day from restaurant closures (in addition to the closures of certain businesses and the University of Texas Medical Branch), the Landry's Corporation could easily take over even more of the island with their sensory-numbing restaurants and finally push through the legalized gambling they've wanted since the Maceo Brothers ran a small empire from the comforts of a 1930s-era Balinese Room (which was destroyed by Hurricane Ike). But those residents seem to be outnumbered by the more capitalistic business owners on the island, 81% of whom believe that casinos are the key to saving and revitalizing the island.
With this in mind, it's comforting to see that non-Landry's restaurants are making a comeback, too. Next door to Willie G's, the Kriticos family is expanding their empire from the popular Olympia Grill -- located on the Seawall and now reopened -- to a second, high-traffic location by the Elissa and the cruise ships that dock just down the street. The new Olympia Grill is expected to open this summer, serving up more of the homegrown family's outstanding Greek cuisine.
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Unfortunately, not everything along the Strand is doing as well. Although the Starbucks reopened ages ago (big surprise), most other establishments aren't anywhere close to doing so. A peek inside of beloved sweet shop La King's Confectionery revealed a building stripped to the studs and a simple sign that promised they'd reopen this spring. Most restaurants, in fact, shared similar signs thanking people for their support and giving a tentative Spring 2009 as a reopening date. Yaga's Cafe looked to be progressing more quickly than other restaurants, while work at places like D'Vine Wine and Bistro Le Croy seemed to moving a bit more slowly.
The interior of the island seems to have fared better, as popular local joints like the Mosquito Cafe, the Original Mexican Cafe and Shrimp 'n Stuff have been open and doing a brisk business for a few months now. Longtime Italian mainstay Di Bella's -- which had just reopened -- was recently gutted by a late-night fire, but in typical Galveston style isn't yet defeated: owner Charles Di Bella says the restaurant will be open again as soon as possible. I stopped at Sunflower Bakery & Cafe to grab some bread pudding to take home and was met with the same sunny restaurant that I remember from pre-Ike days. The folks at Sunflower have been open since December and -- in here, at least -- Ike seems to be a distant memory already.
Upscale restaurants suffered just as much as the seafood shacks on the island. Places such as Shearn's at Moody Gardens have finally reopened but are in need of their previous customer base to recoup losses and become profitable once again. Bernardo's in the Hotel Galvez is taking advantage of Mardi Gras crowds and offering a special brunch buffet on Sundays throughout February, while the Palms M&M is anxiously trying to reopen by Spring.
With Mardi Gras season in full swing this month, the influx of revelers and their money is more than welcome on the struggling island. And although there's still a long road ahead, one thing is certain when looking across the island: with the ever-decreasing amount of blue tarps decorating roof tops, gigantic cruise ships docking off the Bay and tourists returning to the streets, Galveston is slowly but surely returning to normal.