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From epic eatery to epic eyesore

Things started off so well.

In the fall of 1995, we watched it rise from the southeast embankment off Interstate 25 and Jefferson, a gleaming restaurant of whitewashed brick and wooden deck and a large pond from which fountains sprinkled and the reflection of red neon lights from its marquee sparkled in the water like rubies.

It all looked so grand, so Gulf Coast, so seafood, a welcome and rare sight in this landlocked city of ours. Food gurus talk about how the success of a restaurant depends on location, location, location. Landry’s Seafood House had that, or nearly so, situated on the opposite side of the freeway from what is now restaurant chain row.

That’s how it began lo those 23 years ago. Today, at the site of such grandeur is an abandoned, smelly wreck awaiting demolition.

It has been deteriorating like that since the last restaurant to occupy the site shut its doors in July 2017.

Perched as it is above I-25, the place has become one of the most prominent eyesores in the city.

But let’s travel back in time to the way it was.

Let’s remember how Landry’s Seafood House drew huge crowds on its opening day Jan. 29, 1996, without any advertising. We were just so giddy to try out this famous chain’s fare of fish and bayou fantasy.

“That’s the way we like to do it,” company president Tilman Fertitta told the Journal then about the brisk business at the 46th opening in his ever-expanding chain of restaurants. “They just turned on the lights.”

A Journal article described the interior of the 5001 Jefferson NE location as having “big, open rooms and vintage signs designed to recreate the airy, energetic atmosphere of 1940s Gulf seafood houses.”

Back then, Tillman had promised to open another Landry’s restaurant if the Jefferson location did well. A Joe’s Crab Shack was also on its way, he vowed.

Classified ads in the Journal offered the “opportunity of a lifetime” to employees looking to join its “high volume seafood restaurant chain with unique waterfront locations” – ranked No. 5 in Forbes’ Best 200 Small Companies in America and No. 1 in Nation’s Restaurant News’ Hot Concepts of the Nineties.

What could possibly go wrong?

For one thing, Landry’s Seafood House faced competition with the arrival in 2001 of Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, an even grander version of a Gulf seafood house right across the freeway, minus the pond.

And for another, the food was, well, not so grand. In 2002, the Journal restaurant critic found the “fish-camp-cum-theater-lobby” atmosphere of Landry’s Seafood House charming but the cuisine charmless, describing the fish as excruciatingly salty, the sauces elephantine, the crab dangerous because of the shards of shells buried within the meat like land mines.

And still we kept eating. Maybe we didn’t mind elephantine sauces, or maybe we just liked looking out at that pond and imaging we were having big fun on the bayou rather than off the interstate.

The Seafood House kept dishing out its Pontchartrain Tilapia and its Snapper Amore until 2013, when it was replaced by the beefier Claim Jumper Restaurant and Saloon, also a part of the Fertitta chain.

And, then it happened. Claim Jumper employees said they showed up for work as usual July 24, 2017, and were told their services were no longer required.

Just like that, Fertitta and the huge Landry’s chain took its frying pans and left New Mexico.

We never got that additional restaurant or that Joe’s Crab Shack, which still disappoints.

Landry’s, it seems, had been good at selling the sizzle, but not the steak. Or the seafood.

And so the grand whitewashed brick facade on the freeway faded into history, leaving behind a carcass of stucco and splinters and stink. The large pond is a crater of stones, trash and ribs of rubber lining, redolent with the briny smell of mildew. The wooden awning that once provided shade on the deck has collapsed. Bricks are chipped away from their mortar moorings, windows boarded up. Yellow notices posted around the property warn “substandard building, do not enter.” Empty beer bottles, granola bar wrappers and a mottled gray sweatshirt are signs that transients favor the spot.

Even the light poles in the parking lot have been removed, sold at auction in July along with 1,996 other items.

So, what now?

Don’t ask the Landry’s folks. The company never owned the property, a spokeswoman said in an email. They were, in essence, renters.

The most recent owner listed on a May 15, 2018, city building permit is hotelier Sam Patel, and he has plans. According to the permit, he’s looking to build, no surprise, a four-story, 82-suite hotel. The redevelopment plan is under review, said Carmelina Hart, public information coordinator with the city’s Planning Department.

A demolition permit was applied for Nov. 7 and granted, she said. The demolition is expected to commence as early as the second week in December.

Soon, the hull of what had been the grand Gulf Coast gastronomical getaway of the ’90s will be gone.

And so it goes. Things change. Restaurants come and go. And we’re still waiting for that Joe’s Crab Shack.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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