Salty air, fresh seafood and a relaxed atmosphere
Hole in the wall. Hangout. Joint. Dive. These dubious labels call to mind weatherworn buildings housing not just rowdy bars and restaurants, but colorful patrons, straightforward, no-frills menus and lots of ice cold beer. These ramshackle establishments, once common along our coastline, are vanishing. That makes Gilhooley’s in San Leon all the more sacred.
After parking your vehicle in the oyster shell lot out front, snag a metal table on the patio to catch the evening breeze. At dusk, an ambient glow comes from the lights strung overhead and the neon beer signs hanging over the bar. It’s just enough light to look over the menu while you wait for your drink to arrive.
Gilhooley’s half-shell oysters are served by the dozen or half dozen in round trays, with thin ice shards scattered across the top. Paper trays brimming with condiments and saltine crackers are unceremoniously plunked down next to bottles of hot sauce. The message is simple: prepare them to your liking and dig in.
As the weather turns colder and water temperatures drop, local oysters begin storing glycogen, a carbohydrate compound that tastes like sugar to you and I. Accumulating glycogen gives the oysters a sweeter taste and a chubbier physique. You could say they put on some winter holiday weight. Many contend that Gilhooley’s oysters are always a bit sweeter and plumper. Who am I to argue?
Remember to save room for the house specialty — Oysters Gilhooley. Grilled on the half shell over an open wood fire of pecan and oak, the oysters arrive dripping in garlic butter under a cover of smoky Parmesan cheese. Deceptively simple and utterly delicious, this superb dish speaks to the tradition of coastal oyster roasts.
Besides oysters, hungry diners can order heaps of fried foods including shrimp, oysters, catfish, seafood cakes, hush puppies, onion rings and boudin balls. The kitchen also serves steaming bowls of gumbo and oyster stew. Burgers, pork loin and steaks sizzle on the grill. But no matter what you end up ordering, keep in mind Gilhooley’s is cash only and restricted to patrons 18 years and older.
Part of Gilhooley’s magic is its proximity to the source. Boats roll in with the tide just a few blocks away to unload their catch. Gilhooley’s buys its seafood daily, so what winds up on your plate was harvested from the briny bay waters only a short time before.
The salty air, fresh seafood and relaxed atmosphere at Gilhooley’s combine for an authentic taste of Gulf Coast living and reminds you that sometimes the best things in life are the simplest.
222 Ninth St., San Leon
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
18 years and older; no children