Jose R. Gonzalez
A "ghost sign" marks the entrance to Gil's Broiler in downtown San Marcos.
When Gil's Broiler owner Ruben Becerra removed his restaurant's adobe-style façade in January, he uncovered a piece of San Marcos history underneath it.
The adobe facade had adorned the restaurant's entrance for the past 40 years, concealing the long-forgotten original facade, a faded sign reading "Charcoal-broiled hamburgers." Becerra had been planning to stucco the sign until he noticed that people were taking pictures of it and calling it a “ghost sign.”
“It’s very cool,” Becerra said. “You don’t know what you have till it’s gone, but then when it was gone, we ended up with something better.”
Last year, city engineers told Becerra to remove Gil’s adobe-style facade to comply with height clearance requirements for new sidewalks, part of the city’s $10 million capital improvement project to revamp the aging downtown area. Located a block north of the courthouse square at 328 N. LBJ Drive, Gil’s Broiler is known as the city’s oldest restaurant and is famous for its hamburgers and cinnamon bun–style Manske rolls.
Becerra, who has owned and operated Gil’s since 2000, said what attracted him to the restaurant was its history and legacy. According to Becerra, the restaurant has been in operation since the mid-1940s, when it was named Mankse’s Grill.
True to tradition
San Marcos City Councilwoman Kim Porterfield has been dining at Gil’s Broiler since 1979, when she was a freshman at Southwest Texas State University. She said she is excited about the discovery of the original façade and added that she remembers how the restaurant in the 1980s had a rock-music look including posters of the Ramones.
As the first customer to eat them when they were added to the Gil’s Broiler menu in September, Porterfield said sweet potato tater tots are becoming one of her favorite options.
“I like how Ruben has kind of kept it traditional,” Porterfield said. “But he’s combined it with some menu items and upgrades that have just made the restaurant a jewel in our downtown.”
Becerra said people have requested franchising the restaurant for many years but that only recently has he dedicated time to it. He envisions franchisees that would serve Manske rolls and be called Manske Café, with a location as close as Kyle.
In keeping with tradition, Becerra is retaining the electric sign that read “Gil’s Broiler,” which hung for more than four decades on the now-removed signage. He said he will be hanging it inside the restaurant with other memorabilia.
Construction hurts business
A patron for the past 21 years, area resident Luanne Cullen said the previous façade blended in with the other businesses and made it easy to miss the restaurant. Because of construction, Cullen said at one point she parked on the other side of the street and walked to be able to dine at Gil’s Broiler.
Porterfield said she and her student employees at Texas State University try to eat as much as they can in the downtown area to support the businesses during the construction.
“There’s no doubt that construction has put a hardship on business downtown,” Porterfield said.
Porterfield said City Council hopes the San Marcos Chamber of Commerce or a similar group does a “buy local” or “frequent downtown” campaign during construction. As a $10 million investment, she said there will likely be a huge celebration when the project is complete.
Becerra said there has been an 80 percent drop in sales because of the ongoing road construction, but he said the construction will be good for San Marcos.
“This is part of a facelift for the city, for our historic downtown, and I find that it will be a mass benefit,” Becerra said.