Oh, Galveston

by Lora-Marie Bernard

Opened in 1911 in Galveston, Texas, by San Giacinto Gaido, Gaido’s Restaurant was already famous for its impeccably fresh seafood and sophisticated Old World service when Charlton Heston strolled in late one evening in the ’70s looking for a table. Benno Dietz, the dining room manager, told the actor that, unfortunately, the kitchen had already closed, and a hungry Heston walked away. (A few days later, Dietz would send his best waiter, Clary Milburn, to serve Heston in his hotel room as a mea culpa.)

Yes, 40 years ago, things were decidedly different on the island. It was a time when families, customs and traditions ran Galveston’s best-known restaurants—there was no late dinner service or 24-hour fast food. Corporate and chain restaurants wouldn’t arrive for another 25 years to pivot this once-quirky island into a bustling resort destination, but today, even amid the glitzy neon signs dotting the seawall, a visitor can still find legendary, old-Galveston restaurant style—and from the same two men that Heston encountered.

During the ’70s, Dietz and Milburn were just two islanders trying to make a living at arguably the only “fancier” dining spot available. “Anytime you came to Galveston, you had to go to Gaido’s,” Dietz says. “That’s just the way it was. You go to New York, you see the Statue of Liberty; you go to Galveston, you eat at Gaido’s.” It was at this restaurant, and its private Pelican Club, that the men honed their service acumen in an era when people dressed for dinner and servers referred to patrons by surnames and memorized orders.

Before landing at Gaido’s, Dietz had been in the Navy and had hoped to become a diesel mechanic. Instead, he got married when he was 24, had three children and decided to follow his father’s footsteps working in Galveston’s now-abandoned Falstaff Brewery. Life on the bottling line turned out to be less than fulfilling, though. “I kept looking at my watch every five minutes,” he says.

Meanwhile, across the island, Dietz’ high school buddy, Wayne Gaido, had opened Wayne’s Drive-In Theater next to his father’s restaurant. The theater had carhops in crisp white jackets and bow ties, and juicy charbroiled burgers for 45 cents—the most expensive on the island. What Gaido didn’t have, however, was a partner. Dietz was approached and accepted the offer. “He gave me half ownership and we went broke a year later,” says Dietz. “You know, we were kids. We didn’t know what we were doing.” But Gaido’s continued to prosper, and by 1965, Dietz was made the cashier. “I enjoyed that more than any other job,” he says. “I realized that working at something you liked to do for twelve hours was more fun than watching the clock for eight.”

Dietz became hooked on the restaurant business. “I started bugging them about the dining room,” he says. Eventually, he was made dining room manager and began new waitstaff programs. He’d heard about a revolutionary idea from Steak and Ale restaurants—the group was training waiters, which was a novel concept. Since Gaido’s employed only experienced waiters, Dietz began his own training classes with local high school students to diversify the candidate pool. When a Houston Chronicle reporter visited the restaurant and saw students following around experienced waiters, the newspaper devoted a quarter-page feature to the story. No one had ever seen waiter trainees before. “To have fun with the kids, I had them pronouncing Liebfraumilch Glockenspiel and all these wines,” he says. “Kids thought that was hot stuff to go up and suggest to someone a wine.” After that, Dietz got a raise and the family gave him carte blanche to change anything he wanted to in the dining room.

galveston2When Dietz was promoted to general manager, he made salad dressings along with the pantry staff and prepared service trays to learn more about operations. He even hauled in the daily catch from Port Arthur—getting a nickel a pound for every haul—and hurried the fish back to Galveston before the dining room opened each morning.

Milburn was one of the most experienced waiters at the restaurant during that time. Looking for work, he’d arrived in Galveston via Louisiana when he was 19. Unlike Dietz, he says he always wanted to have a career in restaurants. His first island job was making fountain drinks and sandwiches at the John Sealy Hospitality Shop in the hospital district. “It was wonderful,” he says. “I had a chance to meet all the doctors and the med students. In fact, a lot of the doctors [at University of Texas Medical Branch] that you hear are retiring, were med students when I was working there.”

In the late ’50s, Milburn was working at the Jack Tar Hotel—a large beach-view hotel and resort complex with an elaborate pool and luxury rooms on the island’s east end. The modern complex had a coffee shop called Coffee Cove, and a restaurant called Sugar ’n Spice. The club, Choco Galley, was part of an entertainment hub flanked by the famous Balinese Room and the long-forgotten Ricochet Club. But in 1961, Milburn was hired at Gaido’s, and soon became a star waiter at the Pelican Club. “I made good friends with the cooks in Galveston,” he says. “We spent a lot of time talking about what we were doing and what food everyone was making. I never intended to open a restaurant…I was just talking to friends.”

Between shifts, he’d help at Squeeze-In Café on 39th Street in the alley. It was so popular at the time that, even in segregated Galveston, white and African-American patrons would line their cars on both sides and wait to get in, he says. Annie Mae Charles, Galveston’s first African-American female police officer, used to frequent the restaurant. She even helped prepare food after she’d finish her patrol shift, Milburn recalls. “She’d help strip the collard greens for the next day’s plates,” he says. “I’d wait till the end of lunch to eat, and [café owner] Mary Ellen would save something for me and she’d bring her rag and sit down with me—wiping her sweat. It was just so great to have those connections.” Milburn was also running his own janitorial business at the time, and later a floor-stripping company. But when he started a lunch catering business in 1974, big changes were set into motion. He opened Clary’s Seafood Restaurant three years later.

Dietz also ran an assortment of businesses while he was working at Gaido’s. He had prosperous rental properties and ran a booming go-cart business on the beach—the Gaido family even helped him get the lease. In 1981, though, Dietz left Gaido’s, eventually sold his go-cart track and in 1983, opened Benno’s on the Beach—a hole-in-the-wall, flip-flop-friendly, Cajun-style diner. Then, he opened Benno’s Catering.

Like old-guard Gaido’s, Benno’s Catering and Clary’s Seafood Restaurant strive to uphold the old Southern charm and service that now seems lost among the carnival-themed eateries currently dotting the Galveston seawall. Their menus were, and always will be, tailored around what’s fresh and caught just off the island’s beaches, oyster reefs and bayous. Both Deitz and Milburn require that servers don tuxedos, and both have signature recipes and comforting traditions that loyal fans have come to cherish and expect. For example, Clary’s has long served a complimentary, hot-boiled gulf shrimp appetizer—an original recipe from the mother of a friend whose family was in the shrimping business. And Clary’s whole fried gulf flounder has been a stalwart favorite for years—it’s always cooked in a single, decades-old pan.

Until Hurricane Ike hit in 2008, locals and tourists frequented these establishments with joy and loyalty. Afterward, a new Galveston emerged with a diminished population and more chain restaurants. Benno’s beachside diner recovered, and today looks like a storm surge never touched a single red-and-white-checkered tablecloth. But construction problems, and then a subsequent fire, wrangled Milburn’s ability to reopen Clary’s for almost four years. “I went to have my pacemaker checked after we finally opened for the last time,” he says. “The doctor said it went off sixteen times during those four years. If I didn’t have it, I would be dead now.”

Regardless of the struggle, Milburn welcomes the new Galveston and, like his friend Dietz, says he’ll remain deeply committed to excellent service, fresh food and local flavor. Dietz says that if he had to do it all again, he would. “If I was twenty-three, I’d still be here,” he says. “My family is here. I was born here. I’d like to see what it will look like thirty years from now. It’s just going to be beautiful.”