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The Diner on Telephone Road:

You Never Forget Where You Come From

tel-wink grill houston

The Tel-Wink Grill is so old that no one is really sure when it opened anymore. Various personal anecdotes date it back to the ’50s, but that’s as exact an origin date as can be determined for this diner on Telephone Road.

People have been eating meatloaf, chicken noodle soup, and eggs here for over half a century at least, and Telephone Road itself is a storied place. Strike up a conversation with any rode-hard drinker in a bar, and he’ll tell you decades-old stories about Telephone Road. Both Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell have tribute songs named after it, honoring beer and sawdust-covered honky-tonks. While car washes and fast-food restaurants have popped up in their place over the years, Tel-Wink still stands, embodying old Houston as well as any place I can think of. 

There’s none of that shiny red vinyl or those made-to-look-vintage Coca-Cola signs that plague modern diners. Instead, there’s a line of people that wraps around the perimeter at peak hours and a neon orange bowl of Starlight mints that cost five cents a piece after the first free one. Some of the ceiling tiles are sagging and fluorescent light shines down on artificial houseplants, but no one here is suffering from lack of designer décor.

If you arrive at the right time—11:15 a.m. has proven itself reliable—then you can avoid a wait, but either way you can never be too late for breakfast. It’s served through all opening hours, which end at 2:30 p.m. 

The coffee is a little thin, but the bacon is thick and crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside. Most everything comes with massive, fluffy dinner rolls, even a hash-brown plate and hubcap-sized pancakes.

Tel-Wink came into my personal history while I was in school, our exact meeting date another mystery. From the time I was a senior in college until we became estranged years later, my father and I had lunch together every Thursday at 11:15 a.m. Even though it eventually came to be my job to know about restaurants in the city, I mostly let him choose where we would eat. Something about him being the father and I the daughter persuaded me to relinquish power and decision-making, I suppose.

The restaurants he loved most were fancy—the ones where he could pull up in his Mercedes and have a valet whisk it away. Spots like the restaurant inside Saks, or the gilded expense account meccas on Post Oak. He liked to be able to say he had the nicest car in the lot, though at places like RDG, Houston’s favorite totem of refinement, that often wasn’t true. 

That part of my father drove me to be the opposite: I dreamed of owning a Honda and am deeply uncomfortable in lavish settings. So when lunch was up to me, we went to Tel-Wink. Of course, if it weren’t for my father, born in 1952 in Midland, Texas, likely around the time the diner opened, I wouldn’t have even known it exists.

Dad always ordered the chicken fried chicken and doused it in Tabasco sauce, which he does to everything, calling into question his ability to even taste. For me, it’s usually pancakes and eggs over-easy. He always spared a few bites of his meal for me so I wouldn’t get food envy, and I would use the remains of my pancakes to sop up an oil spill’s worth of maple syrup. He even drained the last half inch of my coffee cup, never to waste a drop. He may have developed a taste for finer things, but he never forgot the West Texas deprivation he came from.

tel-wink grill houston

The day he and I broke the silence between us, all I did was show up to a family birthday party. Instead of avoiding his eyes, I looked directly at him while answering someone else’s polite question about my job, and the fighting was over. We never talk about those months apart or why they started. There are only so many times you can suffer through your father drinking until it hurts him, but there are also only so many times you can beg him to stop. 

Somehow, lunches at Tel-Wink now are remarkably unchanged from the way they were before the fight. It’s in my family’s nature to ignore what’s unpleasant until it’s too late. But our hereditary selective amnesia is awfully helpful when it comes to enjoying massive breakfasts with each other on muggy mornings. It’s either that or the power of good pancakes.

Someone at Tel-Wink must remember when and how the diner came to be. Because like I’m forever my father’s daughter and he is poverty’s son, no matter how much time has passed, or what has happened, you never forget where you come from.

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