Gilhooleys doesn’t take credit cards or allow kids. It’s an hour away from anything. The rest rooms are dank. The tables are mildewed and the wine list is shit. The waitresses smoke and cuss and if you don’t pay attention on your way there you’ll drive right by it. So why is Gilhooley’s consistently named one of Texas’ best restaurants? Perhaps it’s the outside bar. Maybe it’s the chatty locals. It could be the pecan smoke that wafting through the patio or oysters plucked fresh out of the bay. I think it’s simpler than that. Gilhooley’s has soul.
You notice it when you pull up to the oyster shell parking lot. Pecan trees and creeping vines hide the old wooden house from view. A massive bay window evokes hobbits and elves while the “No Kids” sign hints at something less fluffy. Inside the ceiling is slung low like a ships galley. License plates hang from sturdy beams. Tribal masks line the room like trophies of ancient conquests. A portrait of John Wayne watches over all the vintage doo dads and history. Gilhooley’s is as salty as the town it lives in.
Built by pirates, slave traders and fishermen, San Leon isn’t impressed by olive oil spheres and kale gastriques. People here are crusty and unpretentious. San Leon has been leveled by enough hurricanes to scare away sensible people. What remains is “a small drinking community with a large fishing problem”, as the locals will tell you. Gilhooley’s is like that, the cultural center of a town with three main industries, oysters, rum and a sense of humor.
Let’s talk about those oysters. San Leon sits atop the most prolific oyster beds in Texas. At the end of 9th Street is Mischo’s Seafood Company, one of the biggest oystermen in the state. Mischo has been a staunch conservator of the reefs which require constant love. Oysters are an integral part of the ecosystem and their livelihood is everybody’s business. Gilhooley’s signature dish is oysters Gilhooley’s. They start with Mischo’s oysters tossed in garlic butter and parmesan. They smoke them open-shell on pecan and oak until the cheese forms a bubbly crust. They come to you hot with (unnecessary) crackers and cocktail sauce. Why mask the smoky-ness that separates these oysters from the rest?
Not a fan of oysters? Go for the chalk-board specials. Gilhooley’s cooks like your grandmother. You can taste the scratch. The pulled pork sandwich for $4.95 feeds two people. The Whole Fried Blue Crab threatens you with its golden brown claws. The Stuffed Pork Chop is meat and two veg simplicity with Betty Crocker flair. Single guys flock to this place for cheap home-cooked meals. City-folk sometimes come dressed up by mistake, but you should let your hair down. Gilhooley’s is the ultimate in cut-off, flip-flop chic.