The owner of Downtown El Paso’s Historic Hotel – Gardner Hotel, Joe Nebhan, plans to restore the building’s ground-floor facade to its original, 90-year-old appearance, now that the space the Big Bun restaurant had occupied since 1995 is empty.
“I have had many inquiries, but I don’t want to do anything until I see where I am with the timeline for renovations,” Nebhan said. “This corner’s alive. Downtown is alive.
“It’s definitely changing, hopefully for the better.”
The corner space at North Stanton and East Franklin streets is perfect for a restaurant, and that is probably what it will become, said Nebhan, whose historic hotel building is also home to Pot au Feu International Restaurant on Franklin.
An El Paso institution, Big Bun had been making hamburgers there for 60 years before the restaurant’s owner, Joseph Odeh, closed it at the end of June.
With 18 kinds of hamburgers and 68 other menu items, Big Bun was one of the oldest eateries Downtown, if not the oldest.
Big Bun shows up in the El Paso City Directory for the first time in 1952 at 500 N. Stanton, said Claudia Ramirez, who works on the research desk of the main El Paso Public Library, and was owned by a succession of Gill family members: Edson, Edwin and David.
Odeh’s name first appears as Big Bun’s owner in 1991 in the original location according to county records, Ramirez said. That building was demolished in 1995 to make way for a parking lot that served Maury Kemp’s First Financial Savings Association.
Big Bun then moved right across the street to the historic hotel - Gardner Hotel.
For the past three weeks, loyal Big Bun customers have been wondering what happened to the burger shop, Odeh and his great smile. He didn’t let on that he intended to close.
In mid June, Odeh told El Paso Inc. that he planned to visit his Palestinian family in Israel this month, but Sami Gonzalez and other employees would run Big Bun until his return in a month or so.
He confirmed that his lease would be up July 1.
“That doesn’t mean I’m closing down,” he said at the time, adding that he intended to negotiate a new lease with Nebhan and any talk of closing was only rumor.
“I’ve been here for so long, what else am I going to do?” Odeh said.
Nebhan said, “In his last month, he never came to me. When his lease expired, he could have gone month-to-month, but on his last rent check he wrote ‘last month.’ ”
He added, “There were some hard feelings, but not on my side.”
Nebhan said he heard Odeh had been looking for another location, so Big Bun could make a return to Downtown after he returns.
Now, Nebhan said, he plans to ask the city’s Facade Grant Program for money to defray part of the expense of bringing back the building’s original appearance.
That will include glazed black and white tiles along its base, glass tiles above the windows and canopies.
Then he will look for the right tenant.
“I’ve had many requests for a bar, but there’s a plethora of bars in the area and only so much of a market,” Nebhan said. “A bar will only detract from the other bars that are there, and I’m not going to put in anything that will be in direct competition with my current leaseholders.”
He also plans to improve the building’s 3,000-square-foot basement, build a separate entrance and lease it.
Opened in 1922, the historic hotel – Gardner Hotel has 50 small rooms, four of which serve as a youth hostel.
Nebhan said the Gardner, which has been in his family for three generations, originally served as a railroad hotel for the El Paso and Southwest Railroad’s headquarters and terminal right across the street, in a landmark building that dates to 1906.
The Gardner’s best-known guest was the infamous bank robber and gangster John Dillinger, who registered for one night in 1934 as John D. Ball, while on his way by train to Tucson. That’s where he would be captured by police.
But, Nebhan said, the Gardner had a far more distinguished if not famous guest, novelist Cormac McCarthy, who lived there during his early and poorer days as a writer.
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