In 1928, Houston found itself in the national spotlight as never before, and as it has seldom been since. That was the year Jesse Jones brought the Democratic National Convention to the upstart Baghdad on the Bayou.
To welcome the hordes of visiting delegates, reporters and gawkers to town, the brand-new (and, alas, short for the world) city magazine the Houston Gargoyle published a visitors’ guide to the city’s admittedly then-mediocre dining and amusements.
“[Visitors] will find no infinite variety such as is available in the metropolises,” allowed the unnamed Gargoyle scribe, “but neither should they perish of hunger or ennui.”
Much of the dining scene was ensconced in the big hotels—at that time, the Bender, the Brazos, the Rice, the Lamar, the Warwick, and the Plaza. In each of those hotel restaurants, guests could be assured of (how’s this for a specific pointer?) “good food, well-cooked and politely served.”
The Rice Roof was designated as “the downtown rendezvous,” its atmosphere and bill of fare “swank” and its prices high. (Establishments were rated “swank,” “good but unpretentious,” or “fair.”) The Warwick (today’s Zaza) was for “the boulevardier” and featured dining “high in the air,” the better to “catch any vagrant breezes.”
It too was swank, as was the al fresco restaurant behind the Brazos Hotel (on the foot of Washington Avenue): “[The Brazos] receives its guests in a graveled, leaf-bordered court, reminiscent of Old Mexico, under the open sky. The hotel is noted for its beefsteaks.” (None of the other hotels were reported to have a specialty, so we can only wonder what was on their menus.)
‘Cue believers had exactly two options. Haines Stand (on Webster near what is now the Gulf Freeway in Third Ward) and Shane’s Stand on Polk near what is now Super Happy Fun Land in the East End. Seafood lovers could choose between the Lewis Oyster Parlor on Rusk or embark on the grueling 20-mile drive to the San Jacinto Inn, which continued dishing out its bounty of family-style fried shrimp and oyster feasts for another 60 or so years.
Houston was not yet the Creolized culinary gumbo pot it would one day become. Mexican could be had at Original Mexican at 1109 Main, where Felix Tijerina still worked, a year from opening what would one day become his Tex-Mex empire. And that’s it, save possibly for some tamale vendors in the streets.
An unspecified variety of “foreign dinner” was the bill of fare at a place at 1411 Main called Golden Pheasant. Along with Original Mexican, that was all the Gargoyle had to say about ethnic eating in the Houston of 1928.
But there was more of the exotic—as always—down on Telephone Road. There at an unspecified address stood Kuei Pei Fu Pagoda, a Chinese-themed restaurant/nightclub featuring Chinese food, orchestras, and a small dance-floor.
And aside from vaudeville and motion pictures at the city’s five “theatres,” and polite dances in hotel ballrooms, the Kuei Pei Fu Pagoda was exactly half of Prohibition Houston’s nightlife.
“Of nightclubs we have but two,” lamented the Gargoyle. “Neither one is exactly a hum-dinger, but they will serve very well as places to go when the city’s night life falls dead.”
The other was the Log Cabin Inn in what is now the Pecan Park area. “This rambling log structure, with its big open air veranda, has a really attractive setting among tall pines on the side of a deep ravine, wherein dwells a giant bull-frog who bellows hoarsely to entertain the guests.” (Like a Rainforest Café, but for real!) The orchestra at the Log Cabin was fronted by a “deep-voiced woman singer.”
By day, you could swim at any of Houston’s four public pools: the Heights Natatorium, Hot Wells on Washington Avenue, Albert Sidney Johnston High School, or head way over to Magnolia Gardens on the San Jacinto River. Golfers had six courses to choose from. You could ride a pony on Almeda or watch others do so at Rice’s apparently frequent on-campus rodeos. There was baseball at brand-new Buffalo Stadium in the East End, and at 2210 Houston Avenue, there stood the offices for the 36 acres of “Houston’s Coney Island”: Luna Amusement Park, somewhat dangerous and often controversial. (Two guests and a stuntwoman died in two separate incidents in a single day in 1924.)
And that was pretty much all 1928 Houston had to offer. “Houston: come for the foreign dinner, stay for the giant bull-frog at one of our two nightclubs.” We’re imagining that the national press corps greeted this assignment with as much anticipation as America’s sportswriters did that one time Detroit got the Super Bowl.