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
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.