I eyed my boyfriend as he scrutinized the menu. Not the pesto, I chanted silently to myself, not the pesto. He looked up and said, “I think I’ll try the pesto!”
I kept my face neutral. I wasn’t going to influence him on this. Aldo, a man who is fastidious about food and who has particularly high standards when it comes to Italian, the cuisine of his mother country, would have to experience Doyle’s, a Houston institution since 1954, for himself and draw his own conclusions.
Except he’s doing it wrong, I thought, trying to telegraph this message to my dad across the table. How was he ever going to love Doyle’s if he made a rookie mistake and failed to order one of the sandwiches that have helped keep the modest, Garden Oaks/Oak Forest-adjacent restaurant on 34th Street packed with customers for more than 60 years?
As it was, I’d put this moment off for far too long. In the three years Aldo and I had been together, he’d learned most everything he needs to know about me: that I will always be moved to tears when talking about Seabiscuit, that I am 15 minutes late for every occasion, that I treat my dogs like celestial deities, that I have a lifelong passion for Disney World. He’d met all of my relatives, seen my most embarrassing school pictures.
But I’d avoided introducing him to Doyle’s, nixing it whenever my dad called up and wanted to get dinner—right up until the news broke back in February that owner Peter Doyle was selling the property to make way for affordable housing, and that the restaurant would close in late 2019 or early 2020.
My first response to the news was confusion: It simply didn’t compute. Houston is so changeable—always being torn down and rebuilt without a thought to history—it’s rare for a restaurant to last more than a handful of years here. That has the interesting effect of lending the few stalwarts that have managed to survive, even thrive, for decades an eternal quality. Yes, I’d seen many of my family’s beloved spots—Felix’s, Ducho’s, Mexicatessen, to name a few—depart over the years, but it truly never occurred to me that Doyle’s might someday join their ranks, done in by issues as mundane as rising property taxes and an increase in operating costs.
My next reaction was resignation: The time had come to bring Aldo. It would be bad if he hated it, but it would be so much worse if he never experienced it at all.
So one spring evening we headed over, pulling up to the squat, white-brick building, where cooks have been serving up a circa-1950s interpretation of Italian-American cuisine for as long as I can remember. “You’ve got to understand, I’ve been coming here literally my whole life,” I told him, pointing out the Marvin Zindler Blue Ribbon Awards that lined the walls as we strolled in and slid past the hostess to my favorite table, the four-top next to one of only two windows in the entire dining room, where my dad was already waiting. “This is my history.”
“Uh, sure,” my dad said. “Get ready to order. I’m hungry.”
I asked for my usual—the Old World po-boy and a cup of tomato basil soup. My dad went for the Hero. Then it was Aldo’s turn.
“I’ll take…” He hesitated, glancing at me before seeming to get the message. “I’ll take the club sandwich on wheat. With Swiss cheese.”
I breathed a sigh of relief, then pulled a wedge of butter-soaked garlic bread from its wicker basket, gesturing to Aldo to do the same. “I swear, this bread is like Proust’s madeleine to me,” I announced.
“Dianna, I think you’re being a little melodramatic,” my dad said, as the waitress brought out our drinks. I clutched my glass of chianti and tried to relax.
When Leo Doyle and his sister Cloe opened their delicatessen at its first location, on 43rd Street and Ella Boulevard, back in 1954, my grandpa, Joe Wray, had a glass shop just down the block and a house in nearby Oak Forest. He and Mr. Doyle, as my family still refers to him, became friends, and soon my grandparents and their kids—among them my dad—were regulars, always stopping in to pick up a pizza or grab a sandwich. They weren’t the only ones who made a habit of the place. Despite its having only a tiny dining area, the delicatessen got so popular that just three years after opening, Mr. Doyle snapped up a property on 34th Street, whose previous lives included bar and revival church, and turned it into the restaurant that we know today.
Yes, from my earliest memories, Doyle’s was my family’s go-to. Mr. Doyle, a master at working the room, would come around to each table, asking newcomers how the food was and greeting regulars by name, with questions about their families, their health, their lives. He called me “the bambina,” at first because I was literally a baby, placed on the table in my carrier. Each year when my birthday rolled around, it was Mr. Doyle who would bring out my little birthday cake and light the candles. Time passed. I graduated to a high-chair, where I gummed pieces of garlic bread, then a booster seat and my own plate of spaghetti.
Both sides of my family loved the place. I never knew my grandmother on my dad’s side, who died before I was born, but I used to picture her sitting at one of the same tables we’d sit at years later, having the same food, staring at the same print of The Peasant Wedding, a copy of the Dutch Renaissance painting that had been hanging near my preferred table for … as far as I was concerned, forever. I did know my other granny, on my mom’s side. The two of us loved to ponder whether we could get away with swiping the print, stuffing it inside her famously enormous purse.
One week Grandpa Joe, who’d retired to New Braunfels, would be in town, and he’d want to stop and show me off to his friend Mr. Doyle before heading back home. The next I’d join my mom’s side of the family for dinner at Doyle’s, spending the evening snuggled up to my granny, swiping chunks of deli meat off her chef’s salad. The week after that we’d be back again to celebrate a family birthday, or, simply, to avoid eating another of my mom’s black-olive-laced casseroles (sorry, Mom).
Years passed. Grandpa Joe died, and my parents got divorced. I became a teenager. Everything was terrible and wonderful and different—everything except for Doyle’s. I craved the stability of the place, the solidness of it.
Sure, after Mr. Doyle retired in the early 2000s, his sons tinkered with things a bit, but the old-timers like us tried to ignore the plates of raw veggies and ranch dip that started appearing alongside the bread basket at the start of every meal, as well as the expanded hamburger section that, one day, appeared on the menu. It seemed like the polite thing to do.
I’ll never forget the time, about 15 years ago, when Doyle’s reopened after a summer break with newly installed brown-linoleum floors, replacing the off-white that had been there for decades. My dad and I took it in while having lunch before I headed back to college. I scuffed my own shoe against the floor, lost in thought. “The old one was better.”
My dad laughed. “You don’t like anything to change, do you?”
“Not here. That’s not what they’re supposed to be about.”
Still, I got used to that floor. Eventually. It was forgotten after an even greater affront, when Doyle’s started charging for the garlic bread. As I remember it, there was a customer uprising. Dad and I watched as Peter Doyle went from table to table listening as regulars complained about the very idea of having to pay $1.50 for bread when his father had always brought it out free of charge.
Mom and I came back a few weeks later. Outraged, she wrote on the back of the bill, “Your father would never make us do this! Bring back the bread!”
The next time we came in, it was there on the table, free once again.
My granny died in December. When I finally got to Doyle’s a few weeks later, I sat there studying The Peasant Wedding, swiping away tears so the waitress wouldn’t see. Yet in that familiar place on that winter day, waiting for my order, I felt some of my grief lifting. I imagined, any second now, Granny might walk in the door, followed by Aunt Marnella, Uncle Tommy, Uncle Chris, both of my grandfathers, and the rest of the giants of my childhood—aunts, uncles, cousins, Mr. Doyle himself—all of them now gone.
Before Aldo and I finally made our pilgrimage, I wondered how I would explain all of this to him. How could I make him understand what the place means to me? How intertwined, with family, love, history, identity, sense of place? What if he hated it, if he dismissed this tradition so dear to me? Would it mean, in some sense, that he didn’t love me? I didn’t say any of that beforehand, though.
“We have to go,” I’d said instead. “I can’t believe I haven’t already taken you!”
“Okay, we’ll go. What’s the food like? Is it good?”
I’d sat there for a moment, stunned by the question. It was something I’d never considered. The food is nourishing, it is always the same, it reminds me of meals with people who are no longer here.
“It’s … Doyle’s. Let’s just go, and you can see for yourself.”
There is no way to classify the food as “good” or “bad,” and so what? I’m going to visit Doyle’s as often as I can before it finally closes. Once that happens—there’s no firm date, owing to community pushback over the planned affordable-housing project set to take its place—the current general manager will take over, according to Peter Doyle, and relocate the restaurant to somewhere outside of Houston proper, under a new name. Maybe it will have the same bread, but it won’t be the same. It won’t be Doyle’s.
So there we were by the window—Dad, Aldo, me. The waitress brought Aldo’s club sandwich out last. The deli meats, bacon, cheese, and three slices of bread towered in front of him. He held the creation aloft and tried it. He chewed thoughtfully, smiled at me, and took another bite.
“Well?” I studied his face, trying to look casual. Even my dad got quiet, listening.
“It’s good!” he announced. Relieved, Dad and I dug in, too.
Admittedly, what else could he say?
As I sank my teeth into my Old World, I wondered if he was humoring me. A few minutes later, though, I looked over and saw his empty plate. Even the potato chips were gone. Aldo grabbed the last piece of garlic bread and looked around the room. “That’s a cool painting,” he said, snapping a picture. “I learned about it in school.”
“It really is, isn’t it?” I said, leaning forward. “You know, my granny and I always talked about swiping it…”