Posts Tagged ‘San Jacinto Inn’

The San Jacinto Inn

August 8, 2010

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, ┬áJack 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!