Siete Banderas: The Crux of Old & New
On a Thursday morning, less than a week before the restaurant’s official opening, a curious passersby walk onto Siete Banderas’ spacious patio and wandered around a little. They’re aimless — they don’t know which door will get them inside or if they should even be here. But they press their faces into the restaurant’s wall of glass and then they stand back to get a peek of the rooftop bar.
This becomes a pattern. In groups of two, five, one, people stumble in and just gaze.
Because it is a marvel.
Downtown Laredo is historic and beautiful, but its age shows. Many buildings look as if they have given up; they literally crumble. Siete Banderas sticks out like a radiant thumb. From its clean, bright blue stucco exterior to its elegant indoor seating, this spot has been injected with energy and verve. It has already given new life to downtown.
The restaurant/bar/concert venue was built to do this. It is huge, with a capacity of 1,000 — a gesture meant to entice not only its own patrons downtown, but also more restaurants, more bars, a whole new arts and entertainment district.
This is the grand vision Siete Banderas’ owners Hank and Elizabeth Sames are hoping to catalyze. The Sames are first-time restaurateurs, but practiced Laredoans. Hank is the president of Sames Motor Company, which began here with his great-grandfather in 1910, and Elizabeth is the director and president of the board of the Laredo Area Community Foundation. They want the best for
“I feel like this is a way for us to give back to our community and make it a better place to live,” Hank said.
Laredo has had to step up its game in the past few years since fewer people want to cross to Nuevo Laredo to eat and go out.
“All the entertainment and food in Laredo was down in Nuevo Laredo — as long as I can remember,” Hank said. “That was what Laredo was all about. Well, that’s gone. And it’s been gone now for six or seven years. So we can’t just sit around waiting for that to come back.
We have an opportunity to do it over here. And if it comes back, all the better.”
The venue itself is an homage to the city, of course, with its name referring to a point of pride no other part of the state can claim: its seven flags. But it’s more than skin-deep. The space is a combination of an old home, built in 1871, and the neighboring Jitney Jungle,
a grocery store chain that was popular in Laredo in the 1960s and ‘70s. As a 10-year-old, Hank would go with his friends after a trip to the movies and “eww” at the snails in the gourmet section. It closed well over 20 years ago.
What was the Jitney Jungle has been torn down and is now Siete Banderas’ stage, sprawling patio and part of the restaurant. This part of the venue is glossy and brand new, framed by an entire wall of glass so that people seated inside will have a clear view of the stage.
On the other hand, the 144-year-old house, which forms an “L” around the old grocery store, has been entirely preserved. Elizabeth, with the help of local architect and decorator Bill Luft, saw beauty in the “disaster” of a building.
“It was more falling down than it was actually standing. … There was literally sand pouring out of the walls,” she said, referring to the damaged sandstone that made up the structure.
But they kept as much as they could, including the hardwood floors, the original fireplaces and even the old wavy glass in the floor-to-ceiling windows. This space now makes up a section of the restaurant, a couple of bathrooms, the greenroom and private dining rooms for parties.
So Siete Banderas effortlessly rests on the crux of old and new. The Sames value heritage but understand the allure of innovation. They blend.
“We wanted to make it unique to Laredo. We wanted to make it unique unto itself, different from any other restaurant down here,” Elizabeth said.
“That was our biggest thing — to make it fun and vibrant and not the same old taco, hamburger, sushi place. Not that there’s anything wrong with those.”
“It also mixes the old with the contemporary look. Because all the young kids told us: ‘Do not make it old-fashioned Mexico (style),’” Hank added.
The end result is indeed something Laredo’s younger crowd will appreciate. The rooftop bar especially, Laredo’s first, feels cosmopolitan and fresh.
But then considering the live music component and the restaurant’s extensive menu, people of all ages will be coming for something different.
“We’ve got fried frog legs, we have ceviches and we have beautiful steaks, we have beautiful seafood, we have rack of lamb. It’s a great variety,”
Elizabeth said. “Everybody’s going to find something on that menu that they want.”
Juan Gomez, Siete Banderas’ general manager, took inspiration from Laredo’s seven flags when curating the menu. Each of the countries that had sovereignty over Laredo (France, Spain, Mexico, Texas, the Confederacy, the United States and the Republic of the Rio Grande) shows up in the food. But it is the regional influence that interests Gomez most.
“I wanted to provide Texas with another culinary perspective,” Gomez said. “This beautiful land provides us with everything.”
Gomez, who has worked with luxury hotels all over Europe and beyond, aims to change people’s ideas of comfort food.
“Guacamole is comfort food,” he said. “We add spirit and essence to the guacamole.”
When pushed to explain, he shrugged and said you simply have to try it to understand.
Hank and Elizabeth want to make downtown Laredo a destination, and from Siete Banderas’ rooftop, you can see it. With San Agustin Cathedral’s steeple prominent in the periphery and centuries-old buildings spread across the horizon, you
can’t help but love the city from up here.
“We’re hoping we’re not going to be alone. We’re hoping other people wake up to the possibilities down here, for entertainment, for food. It’s a great area,” Hank said.
From Dvino Magazine