Hoffman's Houston
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Ken Hoffman's mug makes its triumphant return to a Houston landmark

Hoffman's mug makes its triumphant return to a Houston landmark

Ken Hoffman portrait The Palm Palm restaurant Houston
Can you spot the CultureMap columnist?  Photo by Ken Hoffman

One night in the mid-90s, or thereabouts, I had dinner at The Palm restaurant on Westheimer near the Galleria. The general manager took a photo of me and said he was putting me on a wall. It’s a Palm tradition to line its walls with caricatures of local celebrities, political movers and shakers, media personalities, and sports stars. Plus, an occasional mistake.

The tradition started back during the Great Depression, when newspaper cartoonists in New York traded drawings of celebrities for a plate of spaghetti at the original Palm restaurant on Second Avenue. The Palm started as an Italian restaurant named La Parma and has evolved into a fine dining steakhouse. Now the walls of 30 Palm restaurants across the U.S., including one in San Antonio, are covered with clever portraits of local yokel big shots.

The GM asked where I wanted my picture to go. I said, “on the back wall, by the kitchen, with the rest of the Texas oil and gas multimillionaires.” And there I was, emblazoned on The Palm’s wall, surrounded by wealthy oil barons in suits and cowboy hats. It was one of the triumphs of my journalism career, this long hard climb to the middle.

Last month, I returned to The Palm for the first time since the unveiling of my portrait.

Hey, where am I? My picture was gone, wiped clean from the back wall. I was deleted and devastated.

You can’t do this to me! What’s next, taking the Hoffy Burger off the menu at Demeris BBQ?

Off the wall?
I fired off a pretend-angry complaint to The Palm’s corporate headquarters: What the heck happened? This is my legacy. As Cosmo Kramer would say, my twinkle.

I received an email from Leslie Barkley, general manager of The Palm in Houston. Well, it seems the restaurant had a total renovation in 2013, and all the walls were replaced. They’ve been slowly getting new portraits of new Houston people done.

Barkley wrote: “Please send me a photo for our artist to use for your portrait to be immortalized on our walls. That is, until we remodel again and tear you down.”

That’s Houston: no shortage of comedians around here. A month later, I was invited to The Palm to approve my new portrait, and pick where I wanted it to go.

Remember Maxine Mesinger, the former queen of Houston gossip in the Houston Chronicle? I had dinner with her, just once, and the maître D’ made a big fuss to sit us in a corner booth. I asked Maxine, is this a power table? And what exactly makes a table a power table?

She said, “It’s not where everybody can see you … it’s where you can see everybody.”Or it may be the other way around. I wasn’t paying too much attention. I was mostly worried that I was getting stuck with the bill. Maxine didn’t eat cheap.

Picture perfect
This time around, I asked for my portrait to be on The Palm wall in the main dining room, facing the entrance. You can’t miss me. It’s a power wall, in the upper left corner. The thing is, unless you know it’s me, you won’t know it’s me. I haven’t been back to sign my name under the picture yet. The Palm artist does that sneaky trick used by cartoonists on the boardwalk. They make you look a lot better than you really look. That way, nobody complains.

It’s a lesson I learned at my first newspaper job in Florida. A few of us reporters were going to the jai alai fronton in Melbourne during lunch. Jai alai is a gambling sport, like dog racing, except you bet on humans, which is never a good idea. I was making no money, and betting it all on jai alai. So dumb. Since I was a rookie, part of my deal was writing obituaries. One day, I held everybody up because I was talking to a widow on the phone, asking her about her late husband. A veteran who, looking back, may have had a gambling problem, kind of chewed me out later. “Why were you bothering that woman? Hasn’t she suffered enough?”

He lectured me, and I’ll never forget what he said. “Here’s how you write an obit. If the guy was a grease monkey at the corner gas station, you write that he invented the diesel engine. Make him look better than he really was. His wife isn’t going to complain.”

That’s what The Palm artist did, he had me invent the diesel engine. My made my picture on the wall look better than I really am.

I’m not going to complain.

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