At the Drive Inn Business: Investor works to renovate, reopen piece of Matamoros opulent history. - Brownsville Herald: Local News

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At the Drive Inn Business: Investor works to renovate, reopen piece of Matamoros opulent history.

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Posted: Monday, January 20, 2003 12:00 am | Updated: 2:07 pm, Fri Feb 8, 2013.

By Angeles Negrete Lares

The Brownsville Herald

MATAMOROS For more than 30 years Gilbert Vazquez raced back and forth

between the Drive Inns tables and the kitchen waiting on hungry customers.

He worked there so long that the restaurants dining room left an indelible

mark in his memory.

I remember it like it was yesterday, said Vazquez, who is now retired but

still lives in Matamoros. My brother Gudelio worked there during the 1960s.

There were 48 tables, four chairs each, and the finest of everything.

The main chandelier was three meters in circumference and the small

chandeliers in the bar were red with gold sprinkles that I think were from

Guadalajara. I remember the heavy red curtains, because we couldnt get them

clean.

The 65-year-old was the captain of a small army of tuxedo-clad waiters at the

Drive Inn when it closed five years ago.

A lot of people come down from all over the United States and they cant

believe it when they see that its closed. The place is a tradition, he said.

It would be good if they opened this place again.

Vazquez might want to have his tux cleaned.

Businessman Roberto Carlos Guerra Cantu purchased the restaurant at Sixth and

Hidalgo streets five years ago, ripped it down and for the last few years has

rebuilt it from scratch with hopes of recapturing some of the original magic

of the old place and resurrecting it once again. Guerras works show a new,

brightly painted building from the outside, but a bare one inside.

Guerra is still working to complete the building and wants to pay attention to

every detail with American and Mexican designers working on the project.

The idea has always been to get the project off and running but for economic

reasons and sometimes legal reasons, it was frequently stalled. But now its

on its way and the idea is still alive, Guerra said.

We can say that we bought the property because we saw a very good opportunity

to invest, first because the property has a good location near to an

international bridge, and second because we intended to rescue everything the

Drive Inn was, he said.

Its shine attracted famous patrons including Pedro Vargas, Lola Beltran, La

Sonora Santanera, Chucho Hernandez, Agustin Lara, Antonio Aguilar and more. It

also has served generations of Brownsville families and diners looking for

good food and great service.

But it wasnt always that way.

First opened in 1916, the Drive In (with one n) was a rough-and-tumble

cantina, according to Andres F. Cuellar, a Matamoros historian. Few food items

were offered and only for pick-up. The name, in English, was to attract U.S.

patrons and U.S. dollars.

Its first resurrection came in the 1920s when money poured in from Americans

grateful to pay just about anything for a cold cerveza. The second n was

added to the name when a new sign was installed.

You could say that the Drive Inn was the product of Prohibition laws in the

1920s that outlawed the sale of liquor in the United States, Cuellar added.

Naturally, the laws were very different in Mexico and businesses were built

around the sale of liquor and tobacco.

The funny thing is that the Drive Inn began as an institution with a bad

reputation, Cuellar said. As the years passed, it became the place to be for

the cream of Brownsville and Matamoros society.

The Depression and war years were hard, as money and men were scarce, forcing

the Drive Inn to close in 1939 and reopen in 1945 to better days. A booming

cotton industry forged a new economic era in Matamoros, yielding what was then

called white gold.

In the 1950s, the spot gained notoriety when Matamoros Mayor Ernesto Elizondo

was gunned down in the parking lot; he was shot 31 times.

A renovation and addition of a gift shop marked the 1960s for the

bar-turned-restaurant, Cuellar said.

In 1959, the Garza Ruiz family decided to add modern touches an atrium and

peacock, a dance floor and gift shop. But the business was plagued by bitter

family feuding and tragedy, according to Gabriela Garza, daughter of a former

owner Filemn Garza.

It was a place where everything happened tragedies, shootings, financial

problems, weddings, quinceaeras, political events and more tragedies,

Gabriela Garza said.

The restaurant fast became popular for visitors hungry for ambiance, elegance

and a break from less-than-fancy border life. But by the mid-1990s, even after

two major facelifts, the place had lost most of its luster. Original owner

Jesus Garza Ruiz died in 1991. The restaurant and gift shop were renovated a

few years later.

Guerra, a Matamoros native and entrepreneur, purchased the property from its

third owner for an undisclosed amount. His family also owns the El Contacto

newspaper in Matamoros and several other businesses. And while the 28-year-old

elaborated on details of the new building, he wouldnt say specifically how

much he planned to spend on his vision for a new Drive Inn.

You can say around a million dollars, mas o menos, Guerra said, waving his

hand to signify a rough estimation.

The new Drive Inn is a two-story, yellow stucco revival of the original with

arched floor-to-ceiling windows, wall-to-wall carpet and the crystal

chandeliers that became a trademark. The first floor will seat 120. The second

floor will be divided into two event halls and a bar. Total capacity is 640.

The goal is to reopen by years end, Guerra said.

He says he plans to respect the history of the original Drive Inn and has

consulted with area historians to meet what he calls his responsibility to

stay true to the restaurant so many knew so well.

The new owners have a great responsibility, Cuellar said. The Drive Inn is

an important part of Matamoros history. Its not about a new restaurant. Its

about something that exists in the hearts and minds of the Matamoros people.

And Sofia Astudillo, daughter of former owner Virgilio Garza Ruiz, agreed.

Regrettably, I have extraordinary memories of the restaurant, Astudillo

said. They are bittersweet because my father died of a heart attack there

while attending a social event 21 years ago.

I remember exactly the day of my wedding at the Drive Inn when I was 21 years

old, she continued. Those walls were the keepers of hundreds of stories for

hundreds of people in this city.

The same is true for Matamoros sister city.

Rachel and Bob Torres had their first date at the Drive Inn. After they

married, the Brownsville couple returned there regularly.

It was a quality place; everything was luxurious from the service to the

food. We used to love to have steak and frog legs and queso flameado. I think

it was our favorite place until the day it closed in 1997, Bob Torres said.

As a matter of fact, I think it was the favorite place of a lot of people in

Brownsville and Matamoros, he said. The day they open again, well probably

be the first ones in line.

Asked if he would also like to be one of the first in line when the new Drive

Inn opens, Vazquez smiled and shook his head.

If it were up to me, I wouldnt be in line waiting, he said. Id be one of

the waiters albeit old, very old waiters.

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