TBT: Texan reporter laments high turnover rate of restaurants on the Drag in 1985

Katie Walsh

Dating back to 1932, no restaurant has been able to survive on the corner of 20th Street and the Drag. Before it became a construction lot, a series of failed restaurants occupied the area.

In a 1985 Daily Texan article, reporter Kathy McTee discussed the Drag’s ever-changing landscape. She focused on Aleta’s Fajitas, a Tex-Mex hub housed in a building on the corner. She traced the history of the building back to its construction in 1932 and the five other restaurants that previously inhabited it.

“Why hasn’t a decent restaurant survived on the end of the Drag?” McTee said. “Is the south end of the Drag caught in a mysterious pocket of growth-lag? Has an ancient voodoo curse been suddenly awakened by the rumbling of many cranes?”

In 1932, before high turnover rates began affecting restaurants on the Drag, The Nighthawk occupied the “cursed” corner for 44 years. Lela Jane Akin Tinstman, widow of Nighthawk founder Harry Akin, said in the article that the restaurant maintained steady business until students began moving off campus in the ’60s.

Tinstman said the restaurant’s older customer base began declining as well, after a remodel left the coffee shop looking like a hangout straight out of the 1960s animated sitcom “The Jetsons.” The coffee house struggled through the next two decades and closed in 1981.

“Some people would come in for every meal,” Tinstman said. “Many would stop in after a picture show [at Dobie Theater] for a treat.”

The restaurant that followed, Flapjack City, didn’t last long before Mariachi’s replaced it. By 1983, Mariachi’s had turned into Polo’s.

“Even the smilin’, hotcake flippin’, mountaineer on the sign couldn’t save [Mariachi’s] coffeeshop hot spot concept from an early death,” McTee said.

Polo’s circular vinyl booths and “pseudo-preppy bar” vibe soon gave way to That’s Life, “a cushy ‘niteclub’ with an imitation-Threadgill’s menu and a nice helping of mediocre jazz.” Eventually, That’s Life closed too, paving the way for the opening of Aleta’s Fajitas, which, as its predecessors, also failed.

The curse that struck Guadalupe Street in the past seems to continue to affect the Drag’s restaurants. In May, Mellow Mushroom shut down after Urban Outfitters bought out its lease. Veggie Heaven closed its doors in December 2014 because its owners decided to retire. Even Jack In The Box closed in February because of financial troubles. Since the article was written, the building that once housed Aleta’s Fajitas has been demolished so construction for a new McCombs School of Business graduate building could begin.

Although the lot on 20th Street and Guadalupe may never see another failed eatery, other lots on the Drag continue to face the same problem. For those locations, McTee has some advice: “[Hang] a few strings of garlic about the kitchen to keep away any bad voodoo.”