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A goodbye to Gus Vayas and the GM Steakhouse occasions an explanation as to why we can't save the world

By Virginia B. Wood, Fri., Dec. 30, 2005

Throughout the year, we get all manner of correspondence from our readers – calls, e-mails, and regular mail – with tips about restaurants they like; thank-yous for pointing them in the direction of a good restaurant, market, or product; criticisms for our mistakes; requests for immediate reviews of beloved restaurants they perceive to be in trouble; and, in some cases, demands that we do whatever we can to rally the public to save a seriously endangered eatery. While we truly appreciate the interaction with our readers, it's sometimes difficult to convey the limited impact of this or any other newspaper column on the overall economic life of a restaurant. We can and do put the spotlight on places the public has yet to discover. We do what we can to draw attention to restaurants, markets, or products that impress us and perhaps even shape public opinion to some degree. As much as we might like to, we can't dictate customer preferences, or do anything about national diet trends (the no-carb fad's damage to the bakery and dessert business, for instance) except ignore them and hope they pass quickly. What we certainly can't do is forestall progress, overturn the smoking ban, or roll back increased property values.

Here is a prime example of what I'm talking about: Earlier this month, I got a sorrowful phone call from a longtime Austin restaurateur and an impassioned message from one of his young customers. Gus Vayas has been doing business as GM Steakhouse in Austin since 1962 and was closing up shop. "I can't really afford to retire yet, I've still got a family to support," the distressed man told me. Vayas operated a popular location on the lower Drag from 1962 to 1978, sold out and moved to a smaller place at 626 N. Lamar, where he served up breakfast and lunch from 1981 until just a couple of weeks ago. The GM Steakhouse on Lamar had an flat grill with seated counter service and a few tables. The menu was simple and affordable: breakfast steaks and eggs cooked on the flat grill, toast, and coffee, the walls faded from years of grilling and cigarette smoke. The surrounding neighborhood was automobile dealerships and parking lots; rents were low and property was cheap. During its heyday, the GM was the favored early morning hangout of powerful comptroller and then lieutenant governor Bob Bullock and his cronies. Vayas even has a plaque declaring his restaurant an official favorite of the Texas Legislature.

By the mid-Nineties, things had begun to change dramatically around the GM. The car lots and empty spaces were gobbled up and redeveloped. The corner of Sixth and Lamar became the hub of a new retail universe. Whole Foods Market and BookPeople built attractive flagship stores across the street; Waterloo Ice House moved in next door and began serving breakfast; and neighborhood property values began a steady and inexorable climb. By the turn of the new century, Mr. Bullock and his generation of lawmakers had retired or passed away, and their replacements somehow didn't adopt the GM as their spot. This year, Whole Foods opened yet a newer, more fantastic flagship store. The actual property where the little GM has stood for 25 years is now worth much more than the restaurant itself. Gus tried renting space to other food businesses in the evening hours and even extending his own hours to cover rent increases, but nothing really worked.

A young customer who spoke with a tearful Vayas on one of the GM's last days called to lecture me about the Chronicle's responsibility to do a cover story alerting the public to the potential loss of yet another local landmark and rallying support to save it, "like the Hole in the Wall." I don't have the space to go into the diverse economic forces that precipitated changes in that business, but suffice it to say, a greedy landlord wasn't the only problem by a long shot. And a greedy landlord bent on destroying what is truly weird and wonderful about Austin isn't what happened to the GM Steakhouse, either. The neighborhood changed, tastes changed, smoking in restaurants was banned, and much of Vayas' core clientele is just gone. As much as we hate to see anyone lose their restaurant, the life of the GM has come to an end. We wish Vayas and his family well.

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