After the hurricane of 1900 annihilated what was then the bustling market center of Galveston, residents vowed to rebuild and never allow another such catastrophe. To prevent another flood like the hurricane surge that covered the entire island during the storm, engineers were hired and plans were drawn up to raise the elevation of Galveston by much as 17 feet.
The effort called for sand and sludge from the ship channel -- enough to fill a million dump trucks -- to be pumped into the city. Interestingly, though, they elevated the island at a slope, which allowed the water to run off and the dirt to stay. While the seawall, another part of the reconstruction, raised the front of the island 17 feet, from there the pitch of the land sloped down to the bay on the other side.
So, imagine Galveston as a giant skateboard ramp. The highpoint is the beach and the low point is the bay. On any one of the several numbered streets that run across the island, you could coast the entire way.
This created a somewhat interesting phenomenon for Hurricane Ike in 2008.
"When Ike came on shore, the tidal surge pushed all the water around to the back of the island," Nick Gaido, chef at the historic Gaido's restaurant explained to me. "And the bay side got flooded, while where we sit [we could see waves breaking from our table], is the highest point of the island. So, we didn't get any water in the restaurant. We were extremely lucky."
However, places like Fisherman's Wharf on Pier 21, on the bay side, were under eight feet of water. The Original Mexican Restaurant, another Galveston staple near the bay, got three feet.
"The kitchen was in the dining room," explained my waiter, "and the bar was in the kitchen. It all switched. But, we cleaned up and were back in business in six weeks. We were the first ones to reopen."
Now there is little evidence of Ike, except for the occasional hand-painted sign on buildings faded by the sun that reads "Ike water line." It's a bit chilling when that line is two feet above your head, but it serves as a mark to the island's resilience. It always comes back. For better or worse.
A few restaurants of note. We'll start at the seawall and roll downhill:
Gaido's is the big daddy of seafood restaurants on the island, and this year they are celebrating 100 years of service. Nick Gaido, 25-year-old great-grandson of the founder, is now the chef. Easy gig for him, huh?
Actually, he's passionate about his family's namesake restaurant and more so about providing a quality dining experience. His father tried to sway him into other fields, but while studying at Baylor, Nick knew he had to be in that restaurant. After Baylor, he graduated from The Culinary Institute of America, worked at Stella! in New Orleans and is now back home to carry on the family business.
Nick's first job at Gaido's was washing dishes when he was 12. He's come along way. He's left the menu the same, including the famous pecan pie. But, has added a couple of new dishes like crawfish chili. Overall, it's still a nice dining experience and a sure spot for a variety of great seafood dishes.
Cutting northeast is Float, a restaurant and (mostly) bar with a nice ocean view on Seawall Boulevard. If the gulf isn't entertainment enough, families trying to pedal along the seawall in those huge carriage-bicycles should be (don't ever do that -- unless you're with Lance Armstrong). The coolest feature about Float is the large outdoor deck with a swimming pool in the middle of it. Accompanied, of course, with poolside bar service. I don't think it's supposed to be for kids, even though I spotted a few (no, not mine). They specialize in daiquiris and have an outdoor shower by the front door to rinse off in for any number of reasons (the pool, the beach, the sand). Just imagine all the possibilities.
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Shrimp and Stuff has been around about 30 years and is popular with locals. It's a few blocks from the beach and the outdoor seating area shaded by large palm trees offers a welcome reprieve from the sun, seagulls and thick salty air. The Ukrainian girl that calls out order numbers makes for good entertainment, and the Key lime pie has chutzpah.
Queen's Barbeque is another locals spot. The most popular dish seemed to be the baked potato loaded with chopped beef -- 10 of those must have been ordered when I was there. A chalkboard near the cash register offers a few different daily items, such as creamy jalapeño corn and Texas confetti salad. We tried a variety of meaty barbecue dishes, and all were good. If you get tired of seafood, this is a solid option.
Aside from the aforementioned places, we went to a few spots near the bay, but all the waiters seemed tired of tourists, which is shocking when your job depends on them. But I guess that's why so many of us try to find places where the locals eat.