by Robert Marlin
There is a lot of talk about the revitalization of Tyler’s downtown area these days. It began back in 1987, when a group of concerned citizens formed a nonprofit called Heart of Tyler, Inc. Its purpose was to plan, promote, and coordinate goals to improve what had been perceived as the decline of the downtown area. In 1990, the Texas Historical Commission offered a Main Street program for cities with populations over 50,000. Tyler became one of the first communities in Texas to receive the Urban Program designation. The Heart of Tyler Main Street Program officially began on Jan. 22, 1990. In 2008, downtown revitalization became one of the chief aspects of the community’s ambitious plan for the 21st Century: Tyler 21. With the adoption of the City of Tyler’s master plan, Heart of Tyler and the City entered into an informal partnership, whereby Heart of Tyler became an advisory group to the City. Out of that, the City created a Main Street Department to assume the responsibilities for maintaining the state and national requirements of the Main Street Program, with the mission: To create a vibrant downtown culture and economy through engaging volunteers, businesses, and the community to implement programs that promote Downtown Tyler, preserve historic architecture and advocate for Downtown reinvestment and renewal.
Today, many people who are now actively involved in the movement to revitalize Downtown Tyler look to Rick Eltife as their inspiration. Rick finds that somewhat amusing. “My Uncle Edmond owned the Fort Knox Cocktail Lounge in Shreveport and I would help him open when I was just a kid. After twenty years in the oil business, I wanted to semi-retire. All I wanted to do was open a classy bar serving a limited menu of high-quality food for my patrons. Something I felt was missing in Tyler,” he says. “I was not there to be part of a movement to change downtown.”
Flash back to 1990. That is the year that Rick bought the building at 104 West Erwin Street. “It took two years to get that property into shape,” Rick recalls. He looked into that location’s history and found out the structure at 100 W. Erwin was a single-story, white frame structure. From 1847-1854, the notorious ‘El Rancho’ saloon and brothel was located on the corner building (next door to the building Rick bought). The property was sold to Thomas Meador in September 1851. Meador built the original brick structure, which included a second story. That was probably in 1854. Records show the property had at least fourteen owners from 1851 until 1871. The building was purchased 1898 by F.M. Bell for a high bid of $170 after the county ordered its sale at auction for back taxes. In 1905, the building was home to the East Texas Conservatory of Music (an interesting coincidence since Rick’s On The Square in now one of the premier live music venues in Texas). In 1907, Bell sold the property to Isadore Liebreich. It remained in the Liebreich family for eighty-three years, until it was sold to Rick Eltife.
As Rick celebrates the 30th Anniversary of his downtown business, he reflects on what he did thirty years ago. “When I bought the building, my intention was to operate a classy bar with high-quality food. I was not planning to get into the restaurant business, but the food was so good, it became a restaurant as well serving simple, basic comfort food from scratch. At that time, I thought a nice neighborhood bar would do well in that location. After all, there had been many saloons at the location since 1847,” Rick says with a laugh. When he opened Rick’s On The Square on September 10, 1992, his clientele was primarily among the estimated 3,500 people who worked daily downtown. “That was a time when oil prices had dropped and people were leaving the downtown area.”
The next expansion to the business was an open-air dining area, located in the courtyard just off the bar. Rick had been working on it from the beginning, and in March 1993, he knocked a hole in the wall to open it up to the bar. He felt it would attract lunch patrons during good weather, and it was an ideal area to host live entertainment for the late evening crowds.
“Although, the first years in business were a little slow, the live blues music caught on quickly. When I opened, I lived upstairs and my note payment was $800 a month.” Times were rough due to the downturn in the economy, but Rick’s managed to survive. “That recession didn’t hit us nearly as bad as it did other parts of the country. Most of the decisions I made during that time were for the survival of my business. It wasn’t some altruistic vision of saving downtown.” Rick emphasizes his reasoning again, “I came downtown to refurbish a hundred-year-old building and start a bar. I know I get a lot of credit for helping revitalize downtown, but if you think about it, my bar was one of the few places to get lunch for a long time. The music took a bigger role, and the food and bar business were good and growing, but I needed more space for dining.”
As the economy improved, on August 25, 1994, Rick bought the corner building from the Swan Family. “Eventually, as I completed the main dining room, I moved toward a nicer dining experience, adding steaks and seafood. This decision was to go for quality regarding food in the evening. This worked, and I focused on restoring the main dining room to a much classier look.” Rick’s inspiration for what was developed came from the famous Delmonico’s Steakhouse in New York. “We put tablecloths on the tables and hung crystal chandeliers to replicate the elegant environment that Delmonico’s had since 1837 when it opened.”
Throughout the thirty years that Rick’s On The Square has been in business, it has been under almost constant renovation. “As soon as I started taking the plaster off the brick walls with a four-pound hammer and a chisel, I would notice other things that needed attention. In a way, the building itself told me what had to be done next,” Rick says. When first opened, the bar was located in the center part of the space, where it is now. There were a few tables scattered about the room, making the bar area very much as it was when it was used as a saloon in the late nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century.
“The more I worked on removing things, like that terrible aluminum siding that was covering the upstairs windows, the more I resurrected the architectural charm of the original building. That was when I realized that I was actually contributing to the revitalization of the downtown area. My goal was to refurbish my restaurant for the benefit of the patrons I wanted to attract. It was more about improving my business and my buildings than it was about making downtown better,” Rick laughs, adding, “I would have to admit, it slowly evolved that I was interested in preserving part of Tyler’s heritage. It was simply a happy coincidence that by making improvements to my business, I was also helping in the efforts to make Downtown Tyler a better place.”
The biggest improvement that Rick made for downtown was providing a restaurant with high quality food, served in an inviting atmosphere. Rick took great strides in hiring a staff that was friendly, courteous, and attentive to the needs of his patrons. “Our staff is trained to treat every guest as they would want their own mothers treated. They check back with their assigned tables frequently to ensure our guests have everything they need, and expect. At the same time, through their training, they know when not to intrude on a guest.”
As business continued to grow, Rick continued to make improvements to the building. In addition to the main floor dining room, he used the second story spaces to create two private party rooms. “We host maybe a hundred events a year, mainly rehearsal dinners, wedding receptions, graduation parties, pharmaceutical programs, and family celebrations,” Rick says.
Within a few years, in July 2012, Rick made the decision to create yet another restaurant adjacent to the courtyard. He opened it in 2014 and called it Black Pearl, a New York style oyster bar featuring oysters, crab, lobster, and shrimp dishes—prepared the way they are in New England. The old tattoo parlor was another great restoration project. It’s a long narrow room, with fifty stools lining the left-side wall and around the bar where the food is prepared. There are a few tables scattered around the front, for people who prefer to be seated.
The downtown area has come alive again. There is much more activity now, especially at night. Despite Rick Eltife’s protestations regarding how much influence he had, Rick’s On The Square and Black Pearl are part of what has made the dream of a revitalized Downtown Tyler a reality. “Things have changed a lot in the past thirty years. There are actually people living in downtown now! As the downtown area continues to evolve and develop, I’ll be here. It’s great to be a part of preserving Tyler’s past and helping create the Tyler of the future! Hell, I thought they were going to wait until I was dead to do something.”