The San Jacinto Inn

The San Jacinto Inn, 1918-1987.

For seventy years, the San Jacinto Inn reigned as the place to eat at the battlegrounds twenty miles east of downtown Houston where Texas won (or, at least, thought it had won) its independence from the Republic of Mexico. In an eighteen minute crushing battle on April 21, 1836, General Sam Houston and his Army of Texas volunteers totally overwhelmed General Santa Anna and his Mexican Army, forcing their surrender and their withdrawal from Texas. Back then, and even in 1936, when the San Jacinto Monument was started, no one had counted on the Mexican “army” pouring back into Texas one-by-one and in twos and threes from the latter 20th century forward, but that’s a whole other story altogether.

Today I’m writing about a Houston dining institution that was very special – even in an era when dining out was special. For my own mom ad dad, it was a place they liked to go, once in a very blue moon, when they really wanted to get away from us kids. I don’t recall going with them very often on any of those SJI trips. We were much more likely to get in on trips to Prince’s Drive Inn or Weldon’s Cafeteria on South Main, or to Felix’s Mexican Restaurant on Westheimer.

The San Jacinto Inn was just a place that Mom and Dad made into their own getaway destination. I was there just often enough to discover the culinary reasons that influenced their choice of it. The Inn offered all-you-can-eat shrimp, crab, or whatever other seafood was in season and on-board, plus delicious fried chicken and the most deliciously sweet and moist biscuits that ever melted in your mouth. Located on the monument grounds road that feeds directly into the Lynchburg Ferry, the San Jacinto Inn thrived as an ongoing celebration of the Texas Spirit. People just loved it – and they loved the tight connection to Texas history that came with the restaurant’s proximity to both the San Jacinto Monument and the Battleship Texas.

The all-you-can-eat feature was an almost trademark presentation of the Inn’s operations from the start, but the place’s beginnings were even simpler. Started on the north side of the Houston Ship Channel in 1918,  Jack and Bertha Sanders teamed up as a married couple by opening the place with room for only five tables. Jack supplied the fish and cooking wood from his own fishing and foraging – and Bertha did the cooking. It was said to be so good even then that people just couldn’t get enough of it.

Fire wiped out the first little place, but the Sanders couple just moved and built a bigger place, and on a site that would one day put it next door to the retired Battleship Texas. The deal grew in sweetness during the 1920s, when the all-you-can-eat price steadied at one dollar a person. The price doubled to two bucks a head (or mouth) in the 1930s, but that 100% price jump during the Great Depression didn’t stop people from swarming the place on weekends.

A major restaurant review of the Inn in 1925 elevated the local eatery into one that then and thereafter thrived upon rave national approval, transforming the audience somewhat to the regular inclusion of out-of-state diners during the vacation travel seasons. The service was southern and loyal. Many of the wait staff worked at the Inn for thirty to forty years.

A fire took the place down again in 1927, but the rebuilding resulted in the iconic two-story building you see featured as a picture with this story. Things continued beautifully until they finally came to an end in 1987.

The San Jacinto Inn remains a prime example of a larger truth: You, or Father Time, may kill something beautiful in it’s physical form, eventually, but the memory of anything lovely or happy or delicious lives on forever in those who lived it – whatever it may have been.

Long live the memory of the San Jacinto Inn!

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22 Responses to “The San Jacinto Inn”

  1. Jerry Langford Says:

    Why can’t someone start a new San Jacinto Inn ? If the seafood is really good, I would gladly pay $20-$25 a person for the all-you-can-eat menu ! Even more if that’s what it required to keep it going. I’m sure a lot of people in this state would do the same ! I still travel to Houston several times a year and would make it every trip. I’m sure the battlegrounds have enough visitors and tourists that would keep the place going, especially during summer vacation. It’s a real shame for this great place to just die out, like so many places in Houston have done.Whatever happened to Brittan’s Broiler Burger on Telephone Rd. and Dumble ? Best burger I ever had !!!

  2. Mark Wernick Says:

    I remember a fraternity rush dinner at the San Jacinto Inn as I was preparing to go off to college for my freshman year. It was 1966.

    Brittain’s had very good burgers. They had a location near my parents’ home in Memorial for many years, on Kimberly near Gessner across the way from Sears.

  3. Hazel Loving Camara Says:

    Again, a great memory of San Jacinto Inn; my first eating experience there was in the mid-1950’s and what an experience! I am a shrimp lover in any form so I truly got my fill at San Jacinto Inn. My last time at the Inn was in 1974( before teaching full time) when I was the receptionist at Stauffer Chemical Company on Manchester; the company had a safety dinner at the Inn, and I was thrilled to see that nothing had really changed since the 1950’s. I too feel the same as Jerry; someone please open up another San Jacinto Inn.
    We dine at Monument Inn often and the food is good; and man oh man the cinnamon rolls are delicious; however, like everything else if you ask for additional cinnamon rolls then there is a charge. Also, there is now a charge to visit the San Jacinto Monument and also a charge to go into the park across the road from the Monument as well as a charge to tour the battleship. All of these charges sometime discourage people from visiting these historical sites.

    As far as Brittain Broiler Burgers……my brother Jerry Loving is an authority on this once popular eatery in the east eand. I believe the original one is located at the intersection of Bellair Blvd. and Bissonnet. Yes, they were delicious…….after Brigade practice during the summer, when I first joined Austin’s Scottish Brigade, but never made it to the regulars; some of the girls would stop for a burger or go to Retting’s Ice Cream Parlor for a “banana sckyscraper”. Wow! What delicious memories. Thanks for the walk down memory lane.

  4. Hazel Loving Camara Says:

    I have to apologize for some of my typing errors as I was in a hurry to respond to the information on the Inn. I promise to use the spell check next time.

  5. Patrick Callahan Says:

    Bill: ___

    Undoubtedly, one of the greatest “places to eat”(restaurants?)in Harris County’s history of “great places. I remember accompanying my parents there many times – and my Dad would often take out-of-town guests “visiting firemen” (other fellow sales reps) there occasionally. What a feast – especially the peeled and boiled shrimp, and fried fish. As you noted the fried chicken was first class and the biscuits and strawberry jam were tops too.

    As you entered there wass a large ledger type book on the greeting counter, where the guests could register their names and addresses, looking through the open pages for the day was like a geography lesson of the USA – people came there form all over. That would be a piece of Houston area memorabilia that would be worth finding; and I believe that many important public figures of the day also “signed in” at the Inn to partake of the seafood repast.

    The waiters all wore white linen jackets and as recalled were in the majority males. They just kept bring the food, and when everyone on the dinning party was sufficiently stuffed with that course, the next venue would be served.

    Most likely, the SJ Inn will never be replicated – although if it was, I would make the 195 mile drive to eat there, regardless of the price. AGAIN – truly one of the “world famous” eating establishments of the bygone days in Houston……….
    PAC

    • Griff Says:

      Bill, I just found your story here…and guess what? I have the Books. Along with blue prints,menus,payroll receipts, etc. Lol! Would love to share them with somone who would appreciate them. Please contact me. Would love to find a way to get them displayed. 832-577-4380

      • Greg Coulter Says:

        I would love to see these items. I would like to explore the idea of replicating this place. I remember it from my childhood.
        Greg Coulter
        greg.coulter@gmail.com

      • Julie Says:

        If you have anything left, menu, payroll… My dad and his twin brother worked there. Would love any keepsake……. contact me at the email noted below. Would mean a lot!!

      • Trevia Wooster Beverly Says:

        Griff, please get in touch with me re: the items you have about the old San Jacinto Inn.
        Secretary, Harris County Historical Commission.
        Advisory Chairman, Baytown Historical Preservation Assoc.

      • Kathleen Says:

        I would very much appreciate the opportunity to speak with you about these items. I am a local writer, working with a local archive to preserve this type of information! Thank you!

  6. Shirley Virdon Says:

    San Jacinto Inn was one of our favorite places to go, especially after a Sunday game! We had a similar restaurant that was a “family owned” place for several generations——their specialty was fried chicken—–and it hosted many large group parties as well as regular diners——But as always, all good things seem to end much to the chagrin of many longtime diners. The Riverside Inn fell victim to the river that flowed alongside—–The river flooded just too many times and the place closed this last January.
    Last week the bulldozer destroyed the building and so all of us are left with our memories of wonderful evenings spent enjoying the food and ambiance of Riverside Inn——Just as we remember the fun times at San Jacinto Inn and the tasty seafood they always served!

  7. Rose Ann Leonetti Says:

    I remember the days. I am almost 66 and remember going there with my parents and brother and sometimes my grandparents, especially for special occations. Oh, that fried chicken was the best-and oh the biscuits with that special jelly and I think you could get honey. It was a real treat for us to go there on Sunday. My mom was an excellent cook, but we did not have much seafood at home-so it was a treat.

  8. Don Kain Says:

    In 1984 I came to Houston for the NAHB show (National Association of Home Builders) as a young know-it-all working with my parents in a new company displaying at this show. We asked the local electrician helping us with our booth setup, where we could get the best meal in town and he sent us on our way to the San Jacinto Inn. The meal, people and location were so memorable we ate there twice, that evening and the day we left and I remember my mom packing the chicken into her purse for the plane ride home (probably why they had to close their doors). I told my 92 year old mom that we taking an east coast rv trip from calif and going through Texas and the first thing she blurted out was make sure you bring me some of that chicken from the battleship. By the way I think she still has that purse that smells like fried chicken! Anyway I am here with my lovely wife, at the La Porte Wal Mart parking lot in our RV, ready to go get some chicken and my heart sank when I read they closed just 3 years later after our show. I am afraid to send her some KFC because she remembered it so well she certainly will call me out on it! No pulling the wool over mamas eyes! I love “American Icons”.

  9. SANDRA Says:

    I FOUND A MATCHBOOK FROM THE SAN JACINTO INN AT A YARD SALE.

  10. Griff Says:

    I just found your story here…and guess what? I have the Books. Along with blue prints,menus,payroll receipts, etc. Lol! Would love to share them with somone who would appreciate them. Please contact me. Would love to find a way to get them displayed. 832-577-4380 these are not for sale.

  11. vs Says:

    I have a postcard from this place, found behind a mirror inside a small suitcase. It must have been memorable for the person who saved it. (found in Portland, Oregon)

  12. nelspeterson1 Says:

    Being a North Dakota kid, we never saw seafood. In 1968 we went to the San Jacinto Inn with my aunt and uncle from Houston. My mother had been there before when she grew up in Alvin. I still remember the seafood, my-oh-my! It spoiled me such that I cannot eat seafood that isn’t fresh caught that day. Sure wish the place was still going.

  13. Bobby Says:

    All,
    I had to leave a note. My stepdad worked at “The Inn” for 30 years. His name was Elray Nordstrand.(1940-1980) He married my mother, Shirley Nordstrand in 1978. I was a water boy there in 1978. All the stories about the chicken, and biscuits are true. Many days I took that fried chicken for lunch at Deer Park High School. Every piece was fried in an iron skillet. “Pearl The Biscuit Lady” and I were buddies. She would always have a pan ready for us when we got to work. We would eat them while we peeled shrimp downstairs. The people made the difference at the San Jacinto Inn. Frank, and Jodi Bobo, Sanford Wilson, D.C. Poe, Elray, and his brother Vic, Snuffy, Art Bond, and on and on. One more tidbit. The guy behind the cash register, Julius Caballa. Sheer genius. Great to remember all of those days. Glad to have been a small part of it.

  14. Trevia Wooster Beverly Says:

    To all who remember the wonderful times at the old San Jacinto Inn, the Baytown Historical Preservation Association chose this as the subject for the 2015 Christmas tree ornament, now on sale. Go to
    http://www.baytownhistory.org/ for details.

  15. Sonny Ray Stolz Says:

    What became of those many historic guest logs? We signed many times as did thousands of famous people over the years. Those books belomg somewhere special.

  16. LINDA CINNAMON Says:

    I ate here in 1967!!!!!! It was fabulous!!!

  17. Ann Porter Says:

    We went there on vacation from Oklahoma. I was 5 or 6 but can still remember what it looked like and all the great food. So sorry it’s gone

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