Fort Worth has a thriving, waistline-bulging restaurant scene these days. Hardly a week goes by that we don’t write a story about a new restaurant opening, expanding or, sometimes at least, closing. And you readers apparently love it. For all the stories about the new tax bill you don’t read, you read a thousand about food. Everybody eats. Everybody pays taxes, too, but who wants to read about it unless you have to?
Having grown up here, I do recall a day when great food wasn’t just a short drive (or smartphone app) away. When my parents felt flush enough, we would go out to eat and it would be a big deal. We had our regular stops that were family friendly: Jetton’s (a big mess of ribs), Colonial Cafeteria (where we kids would play with the Jell-O), the Lone Star (where they had tables for kids as I remember) and Zuider Zee (the giant fish tanks kept us entertained). In the teenage years, we hit the burger joints and fried-food outlets: Sandy’s on Seminary, Chuck Wagon on West Berry, Carlson’s Drive-Inn as well as Massey’s.
Chuck Wagon had a drive-up window and my buddy Jett and I once rode our bicycles to the drive-up window and they served us while the cars behind us honked their horns. Jett and I also used to gather up all the pennies we could find in the summer, ride our bikes to the El Chico’s at Seminary South and see how many tortillas we could eat for $1.75. The answer: A lot. I’m not sure the waitresses were thrilled at being paid in pennies, but hey, we were 10.
Hitting the dating years, the Italian Inn was a favorite, as was Mac’s House and the Old Swiss House. As a paper boy, I often hit the Paris Coffee Shop, Ol’ South and Fuqua’s Coffee Shop after delivering the Star-Telegram in the wee hours of the morning. Locals weren’t the only fans of Fort Worth foods. President Lyndon B. Johnson loved Cowtown for the barbecue (and the sauce) from famed chuck wagon cook Walter Jetton.
The chains started coming in around the 1970s, with McDonald’s leading the pack, eventually killing off favorites like the Chuck Wagon and Sandy’s. Steak and Ale, though out of Dallas and part of the Brinker empire, drove a stake through the heart of the some local mid-priced steakhouses. Before long, there was an onslaught: Chili’s, Cheddar’s and too many fern bars to count. Many of Fort Worth’s iconic restaurants were forced to turn off the burners. We lost some great recipes, such as that for the Richelieu Grill’s great chili. Located downtown, it closed in 1991, a little too soon to see the revival that was just beginning to percolate.
So when a book arrived on my desk a few weeks back, I could taste that peppery mix that made a Chuck Wagon hamburger so great again. The book is Lost Restaurants of Fort Worth. Even better, the book is by Celestina Blok, a terrific writer who has worked for the Fort Worth Business Press from time to time. She did one of our most perennially popular stories: Fort Worth’s Murder Castle: America’s first serial killer came within a hair’s breadth of building his house of horrors downtown.
Blok does a great job giving readers a tour of these restaurants that catered to the Fort Worth of my youth. Could I taste them? Not quite. Except for a few recipes that float round the internet and some spice mixes sold by Riscky’s barbecue that taste similar to those on a Chuck Wagon burger, many of those sensations are a culinary memory.
The good news is that some of these Fort Worth restaurants of yore are still around. The aforementioned Riscky’s, Paris Coffee Shop, Mexican Inn Café and Joe T. Garcia’s are still serving food that can open those olfactory memory banks.
The book has plenty of photos and reprints many old restaurant menus, so it’s a perfect gift for Fort Worth restaurant lovers of a certain age. Like me, they’ll probably give Celestina a big thank you for taking our taste buds on a journey through Fort Worth’s dining past.
Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.
Lost Restaurants of Fort Worth
By Celestina Blok
Arcadia Press, 2017 $21.99