Update: I spoke with Lawrence Pilkinton, part owner of Canino Produce Co., which owns the land on which Triple A sits, who says it was the Schmidts' decision to close the diner. "They wanted a five-year lease with a five-year option," says Pilkinton, while the Market (the nickname for the giant produce company) wanted them to make some updates to the restaurant. "They would not fix up their place, so they said 'to heck with it' and closed it up," said Pilkinton. "And that's the Real McCoy story."
"I remember in '58 when we came over here, they were already here," recalls Pilkinton, whose father-in-law, Joe Canino, opened the Market with his family; his children still operate Canino Produce Co. today. Likewise, recalls Pilkinton, "when I was a little kid, Harry Schmidt owned it, and sold it to his brother, then his brother give it to his son, and then his grandson had it for a while." Keeping Triple A in the family couldn't ultimately save the restaurant, however. Pilkinton is among those who mourns its loss, though he says the Schmidts now have other plans. "They were getting up in age and wanted to retire anyhow."
The last time I ate breakfast at Triple A Restaurant two weeks ago, I was still reeling from the news that Christian's Tailgate was closing after nearly 80 years in business. As I paid my bill, I nearly joked to owner Cecil Schmidt that Triple A had better not close either; my heart couldn't take it. I didn't make that joke, however, partly because the typically taciturn Schmidt didn't look like he'd appreciate it, but mostly because I didn't want to jinx my favorite diner in Houston, a place I've been eating chicken fried steak and biscuits and gravy my entire life.
It turns out that Triple A was jinxed anyway. Today, on the same day as Christian's Tailgate is closing for good, the little brick diner next door to Canino Produce Co. closed after 74 years. A handwritten sign on the door reads simply, "To our friends and loyal customers. We are sad to say we must close AAA. Due to lease negotiations. Thanks for your many years of loyalty."
When I went by Triple A today to find out what happened, I was greeted with a parking lot full of confused customers wondering the same thing. "This is the only good restaurant for miles," said one older gentleman, who got back into his pickup truck and simply sat there, perhaps figuring out what to do next. So did one long-time waitress, who was collecting her belongings from the employee lockers which always sat in full display of the customers in the diner portion of the restaurant, there behind the long, low counter next to tiny boxes of cereal and the pass into the kitchen, silent and dark.
"They called and told us after work on Saturday," said the waitress, who declined to give her name. "They said they couldn't work out the lease. I don't know where I'll go now. Get another job somewhere, I guess." Tears in her eyes and box of belongings in hand, she climbed into her little sedan and sat there for a while, a few other customers walking up greet her through her rolled-down window, each learning the bad news anew, each looking as stunned as the last.
I reached out to Cecil Schmidt and wife Janet for comment, but have yet to hear back from them. The Schmidts have owned Triple A since 2001, though the couple changed little about the establishment over the years, retaining everything from the curiously low diner counter and stools to the never-changing line-up of old-school diner waitresses to the hand-breaded chicken fried steak that was a hit at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
No word yet on the leaseholder's plans for the space, nor why the terms of the lease made it impossible for the Schmidts to continue operating one of the city's best-loved diners along one of its most notable strips of land: here on this short corridor of Airline Drive sit some of Houston's enduring, iconic institutions, including Canino next door, and El Bolillo Bakery, Flores Spice Market, Houston Dairymaids, Connie's and Tampico, all across the street. Though these spots remain, the loss of Triple A means Airline Drive will never quite be the same.
"I thought that place would be here after the apocalypse, after nothing was left but them and the roaches," said longtime customer (and frequent Houstonia contributor) Jeff Balke, one of many who can't quite imagine Houston, nor the fast-changing Heights, without Triple A. "I figured those waitresses would be smoking cigarettes outside the diner and just watching the bombs drop."