Delicious history: the stories behind Dallas-Fort Worth’s oldest restaurants

There’s one tricky thing about telling the stories of Dallas-Fort Worth’s oldest restaurants: Very few of the men and women who started them are still alive.

One of the region’s oldest restaurateurs is 91-year-old Gene Dunston, whose Dallas restaurants Dunston’s Steak House and Gene’s Wheel In date back 66 years. Dunston is a risk taker. He went broke three times in the first year he opened his first restaurant, he says. That was 70 years ago.

At his eatery on Harry Hines Boulevard — once a car hop spot, then a mesquite pit steakhouse — he turned dinner into a show, where flames licked the air in the middle of the room.

“If you give people their money’s worth, they’re happy,” he says. “If you give people a little more than their money’s worth, they can’t wait to tell everybody.”

Gene Dunston, 91, one of Dallas-Fort Worth's oldest restaurateurs, sits in his regular seat at the Back Door Bar in Dunston's Steak House on Lovers Lane in Dallas.

(Liesbeth Powers / Special Contributor)

Oh, the stories he could tell, about dropping out of school in the ninth grade and later serving Stanley Marcus, Don Meredith and Carroll Shelby in his restaurants. And even though Dunston is one of North Texas’ oldest living legends, his nearly seven-decade-old restaurant is not among D-FW’s very oldest.

And that should tell you something about the grit and grace of the restaurants that came before it.

In this Dallas Morning News research project, we tell the fascinating histories of restaurants that have been open for 75 years or more in North Texas. Most aren’t still owned by the original families — but some are. Many have moved, burned down or needed renovations. All deserve to be recognized for surviving for three-quarters of a century or more.

Editor’s note: We’ve combed through archives and worked with the Dallas Historical Society, but this list of oldest restaurants may not be complete. Do you know of a Dallas-area restaurant that is 75 years or older? Email sblaskovich@dallasnews.com.

El Fenix

103 years old

Open since September 1918

An old postcard shows El Fenix Cafe's main Dallas location in 1940, with the ballroom next...An old postcard shows El Fenix Cafe's main Dallas location in 1940, with the ballroom next door.Alfred Martinez is the last living son of original El Fenix owners Miguel and Faustina...Alfred Martinez is the last living son of original El Fenix owners Miguel and Faustina Martinez. He's pictured inside El Fenix on McKinney Avenue around its 100th birthday.

(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

When Miguel “Mike” Martinez opened his restaurant in Dallas more than a century ago, he did not serve Tex-Mex food. El Fenix was an American restaurant serving chicken-fried steak, spaghetti and meatballs, and Oysters Rockefeller made by Mexican immigrants. By the late 1930s, the smart Martinez patriarch added a 55-cent Mexican dinner to the menu that included an enchilada, tamale, fried beans and tortillas. Descendant Al Martinez Jr. described these Mexican dishes as “kitchen food” — the bites the cooks would eat at the beginning or end of a shift. Today, it makes up the entirety of El Fenix’s menu, which has survived more than 10 decades.

Of course, El Fenix has changed mightily. It’s no longer a live-music venue, where people went to dance after dinner. It’s no longer open 24 hours a day. It’s not operated by the Martinez family anymore. But those famous cheese enchiladas, they’re still a treasure.

  • The original El Fenix location in Dallas no longer exists, but the longest-running location, which has been open for decades, is at 1601 McKinney Ave., Dallas. Today, El Fenix has restaurants in 11 North Texas cities. elfenix.com.

Chaf-In Restaurant

About 101 years old

Open since 1920

Marty Martin and her granddaughter Victoria Martin talk while eating lunch on May 31, 2022...Marty Martin and her granddaughter Victoria Martin talk while eating lunch on May 31, 2022 at Chaf-In Restaurant in Cleburne. The restaurant dates back to 1920 — and 1946 at this specific location. It's known for the train that runs on tracks above the heads of guests.Perla Zamora gives a customer his check at Chaf-In Restaurant in Cleburne.Perla Zamora gives a customer his check at Chaf-In Restaurant in Cleburne.

The Chaf-In Restaurant in Cleburne still opens at 6 a.m. every day, even though most of the dairy farmers in neighboring towns have long since moved on. “They’d milk their cows, do their chores and come in at 6 or 7 o’clock and spend an hour talking to their compadres and having their coffee and breakfast,” says general manager Dan Roberts, who got involved with the restaurant in 2007. He’d been going to the restaurant since 1968. The name Chaf-In comes from the surname of founders Ralph and Bob Chafin. They originally called it Chaf-Inn, but they got too many phone calls from people asking if the restaurant was a motel. (It wasn’t.) Three popular items at the restaurant — then and now — are chicken-fried steak, hamburgers and a cold Dr Pepper. It’s still closed just one day a year, on Christmas.

  • Chaf-In Restaurant is at 209 W. Henderson St., Cleburne. The restaurant changed locations in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s — but it has been at the same address on West Henderson Street since 1946. chaf-in.com.

Paris Coffee Shop

About 96 years old

Open since 1926

Chris Reale is co-owner of Paris Coffee Shop, a nearly 100-year-old restaurant in Fort Worth.Chris Reale is co-owner of Paris Coffee Shop, a nearly 100-year-old restaurant in Fort Worth.

(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)

Paris Coffee Shop has navy swivel chairs that sit at a bright orange counter. The building...Paris Coffee Shop has navy swivel chairs that sit at a bright orange counter. The building was renovated in 2021 and 2022.

(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)

The man whose name is on the building, Vic Paris, owned Paris Coffee Shop in Fort Worth for less than a year. But for the following 95, Paris Coffee Shop has still sported his name — and the promise of house-made pies and blue-plate specials like chicken and dumplings and corned beef hash. It’s changed hands a few times; most recently, Fort Worth businessmen Lou Lambert, Mark Harris and Chris Reale scooped it up and reopened it in May 2022. (One of the hometown touches: Reale hired his mom to be the manager.) The new owners, who also brought back Fort Worth’s historic Roy Pope Grocery in 2021, wanted to “put a breath of fresh air into it,” Reale said during renovations in 2021 and 2022 when it was closed for nine months. “For me, it’s always been that greasy spoon diner, where you walk in and feel at home,” Reale says. But now, diners can get a serious cup of espresso with that slice of pie.

  • Paris Coffee Shop is at 704 W. Magnolia Ave., Fort Worth. It moved to that location in the ‘60s. The restaurant reopened on W. Magnolia Avenue on May 19, 2022, after months of renovations. Facebook.com: Paris Coffee Shop.

Paris Coffee Shop in Fort Worth will eventually open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In its...Paris Coffee Shop in Fort Worth will eventually open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In its previous life, it was best known as a breakfast diner.

(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)

Riscky’s

94 years old

Open since October 1927

Riscky's opened on Azle Avenue in Fort Worth in 1927, originally as a grocery store.Riscky's opened on Azle Avenue in Fort Worth in 1927, originally as a grocery store.Jim Riscky (right) of Riscky's BBQ is shown here in 1959. He was 18 years old. Riscky...Jim Riscky (right) of Riscky's BBQ is shown here in 1959. He was 18 years old. Riscky eventually built the pits that would make this historic Texas barbecue joint famous.

“We were craft before craft was even invented,” says Eddie Sullivan, co-owner of the 94-year-old Riscky’s in Fort Worth. It started as a grocery store on Azle Avenue in Fort Worth, founded by Polish immigrants Joe and Mary Riscky. During the Great Depression, they sold beef sandwiches at the slim price of 5 cents each. Some five decades later, Joe’s grandson Jim Riscky became the pitmaster, and Sullivan uses that word carefully. “Anybody can put seasoning on a brisket and call themselves a pitmaster,” he says. “I call him the pitmaster because he built the pit.” The Riscky’s brand has now grown to eight restaurants: six barbecue joints, a Trailboss Burgers, and a Riscky’s Steakhouse. But at the original Riscky’s, there are still vintage account tickets written by hand on display, to show how far it’s come.

  • The original Riscky’s building was demolished and rebuilt in the 1950s. A restaurant remains on the same plot of land today, at 2314 Azle Ave., Fort Worth. risckys.com.

Carshon’s Delicatessen

About 94 years old

Open since 1928

Two women enjoy lunch at Carshon's in 1987. Two women enjoy lunch at Carshon's in 1987.

(DMN file photo from 1987)

Fort Worth’s oldest deli is Carshon’s, a breakfast and lunch shop serving bagels and lox, piled-high corned beef sandwiches, and a famous pie of the day. Owner Mary Swift has been running the deli since 1982, and although she is not Jewish like the previous owners were, Carshon’s remains a “kosher-style” restaurant, meaning that customers keeping kosher can avoid pork and shellfish. She’s not looking to change much about a nearly 100-year-old restaurant, so she makes the pies herself every day.

  • This family-owned deli started in downtown Fort Worth. It moved to Berry Street in the 1950s and is now at 3133 Cleburne Road, Fort Worth. carshonsdeli.com.

The Original Mexican Eats Cafe

91 years old

Open since October 1930

The Original Mexican Eats Cafe in Fort Worth offers the Roosevelt Special entrée combining...The Original Mexican Eats Cafe in Fort Worth offers the Roosevelt Special entrée combining guacamole, an enchilada, one taco and a bean chalupa.

(MILTON HINNANT / 179603)

In the early days, the Pineda family offered free beer as an incentive to get customers in the door at their new restaurant, The Original Mexican Eats Cafe in Fort Worth. The Original, as many call it, is now a meandering set of rooms where customers tend to order a queso called Ana’s Dip followed by enchiladas, rice and beans. “That’s the soul,” says Robert Self, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Ann Self. While the sign says the restaurant opened in 1926, the current owners believe the building was built in 1930. As the story goes, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the restaurant when he came through town in 1936. What he ate that day is now called the Roosevelt Special: a cheese enchilada with chili, one beef taco and one bean chalupa. Given its popularity, it may never leave the menu.

  • The original Original Mexican Eats Cafe is at 4713 Camp Bowie Boulevard, Fort Worth. The owners have a second restaurant at 1400 N. Main St., Fort Worth. originalmexcafe.com.

Bailey’s Bar-B-Que

91 years old

Open since May 1931

Before Bailey’s Bar-B-Que opened in Fort Worth in 1931, the building was a shop where mechanics worked on Model Ts and Studebakers, says Calvin Robertson, pitmaster and head cook. Then J.T. Bailey, a cook in the Navy, opened the restaurant. Over the decades, Amon Carter, Jr. and Roger Staubach were regular customers, Robertson says. The key here is to get barbecue “the way you’re supposed to eat it,” the pitmaster says: slow-smoked brisket, sliced, sauced and placed on a “big ol’ sandwich with pickles, jalapeño and onions.”

  • Bailey’s Bar-B-Que is at 826 Taylor St., Fort Worth.

Joe T. Garcia’s

86 years old

Open since July 1935

Joe T. Garcia's restaurant was founded by the Lancarte siblings' grandparents. The siblings...Joe T. Garcia's restaurant was founded by the Lancarte siblings' grandparents. The siblings are Lanny (clockwise from top left), Joe, Jesse, Phillip, Zurella and Elizabeth.

(Robert W. Hart / Special Contributor)

On July 4, 1935, Mexican immigrants Joe and Jessie Garcia started serving barbecue and enchiladas from a shotgun house in Fort Worth, where customers paid on the honor system. “Growing up, it was just a family business,” says CEO and president Lanny Lancarte, whose restaurant now seats 700 and will feed a few thousand people on a busy Saturday. Mamasuez — that’s his grandmother, Jessie — was the heart of the business and the head of the family after her husband died in 1953. The Garcias lived on the same street as the restaurant, in a row of little homes, where Mamasuez cooked for customers and family members, night and day. The restaurant now has several more rooms and an expansive courtyard, but it maintains the same tiny menu, anchored by Mamasuez’s enchiladas. “I was only taught one way to run a restaurant: my grandmother’s way,” Lancarte says. “I was taught: Do one thing, do it well, and people will come.”

  • Joe T. Garcia’s is at 2201 N. Commerce St., Fort Worth. joetgarcias.com.

Old Mill Inn (temporarily closed)

86 years old

Open since May 1936

The interior of the Old Mill Inn has changed significantly — and many times — over the...The interior of the Old Mill Inn has changed significantly — and many times — over the years. But the exterior has stayed largely the same.

(File Photo / Staff )

The Old Mill Inn has been in operation on Fair Park grounds since 1936, but it was built as a replica of a mill from the 1800s, which means the style and spirit of the building make it feel like it’s over 150 years old. The building was initially used as a flour-mill attraction for Morton Milling Co. during the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936, and visitors could get an educational look at the way it worked — a modernistic marvel at the time. Ida Chitwood, a celebrity chef long before that term was used, did cooking demonstrations. The Old Mill Inn closed during World War II and became an ice cream parlor, according to Dallas Morning News archives. In 1965, it served some of the city’s best fried chicken and biscuits as a Youngblood’s restaurant. It later became an El Chico.

The Old Mill Inn had most recently been operated by Ed Campbell, whose team served Southern food for nearly 25 years while it moonlighted as a mystery dinner theater spot. Campbell’s lease was up at the end of 2021, and the Old Mill Inn is temporarily closed. The plan is to reopen it and serve grab-and-go items during the State Fair of Texas in September 2022, says a rep from OVG360, a venue management company that operates Fair Park.

  • The Old Mill Inn is at 3611 Grand Ave., Dallas. oldmillinn-fairparkdallastx.com.

Mexican Inn Cafe

86 years old

Open since February 1936

In this Dallas Morning News file photo from 1988, Frank Owen (left) and Pierre Littiere eat...In this Dallas Morning News file photo from 1988, Frank Owen (left) and Pierre Littiere eat at Mexican Inn Cafe.

(Randy Eli Grothe/DMN file photo)

Current owner Chris Carroll has heard stories about the mysterious founder of Mexican Inn Cafe in Fort Worth. “He was a notorious gambler and a little bit of a gangster,” Carroll says of Tiffin Hall. Way back when, Hall would turn a donkey loose in downtown Fort Worth, wearing a sign that said “follow me to Mexican Inn.” That’s one of many things the Carrolls don’t do today. For them, the restaurant’s longevity is attributed to the cooks, Carroll says. “So many people who have worked at Mexican Inn Cafe, with their families, have been here for 50 or 60 years,” he says. “The grandmother started, now the mother, now the kids are here. We have a lot of that history.” Cooks stone-grind corn every day to make fresh masa. Menu staples like cheese enchiladas, rice and beans remain on the menu, and Carroll added a “new” item — fajitas — within the past 40 years.

  • The original Mexican Inn Cafe, at Fifth and Commerce streets in downtown Fort Worth, is no longer there. The company has eight restaurants open today, all in Tarrant County. mexicaninncafe.com.

El Chico

81 years old

Open since October 1940

The five Cuellar brothers who opened El Chico are Willie J. (from left), Gilbert, Alfred,...The five Cuellar brothers who opened El Chico are Willie J. (from left), Gilbert, Alfred, Mack and Frank.

The family that started El Chico numbers its restaurants based on when they were founded — El Chico No. 1 on Oak Lawn Avenue, El Chico No. 2 on Abrams Road, etc. We have to wonder if they’ve lost count in the more than 80 years that this company has spread far outside of Texas, including to the United Arab Emirates. The owners declined to share their history for this story, but it’s one that’s been in The News for decades: The Cuellar family — that’s Adelaida Cuellar, her husband, Macario Cuellar, and their 12 kids — made $300 selling tamales and chili at the Kaufman County Fair in 1924. Five of the Cuellar boys were inspired by the business, and after a few start-stop restaurants, they opened El Chico in Dallas in 1940 and have created one of the most influential Tex-Mex companies in the state.

  • The original El Chico at 3514 Oak Lawn Avenue is no longer there. The company now has restaurants in six states, including Texas, and two restaurants in the United Arab Emirates. elchico.com.

Dickey’s Barbecue Pit

80 years old

Open since October 1941

In 2021, Dickeys Barbecue Pit celebrated 80 years in business. The original restaurant...In 2021, Dickeys Barbecue Pit celebrated 80 years in business. The original restaurant remains in the same place where it was built — a rarity.

(Shelby Tauber / Special Contributor)

Dickey's Barbecue Pit is run by Laura Rea Dickey (left), the chief executive of Dickey’s...Dickey's Barbecue Pit is run by Laura Rea Dickey (left), the chief executive of Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants Inc., and Roland Dickey Jr. (right), the chief executive of Dickey’s Capital Group. Roland Dickey (center) ran the family business from 1967 until 2006.

(Shelby Tauber / Special Contributor)

Dallas’ oldest barbecue joint — which, today, is its biggest — opened on Henderson Avenue in Dallas before Central Expressway was even built. Dickey’s has remained in the same family since the start, a rarity. Its massive growth, to 550 restaurants in the United States and others in Japan, Singapore, Canada, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, happened decades after original owner Travis Dickey started smoking pork and brisket in his humble little restaurant, a short walk from his home in the M Streets. We now associate fatty brisket, pork ribs, fries, and mac and cheese with cowboy hat-wearing Texans, in part because of the international success of Dickey’s.

  • The original Dickey’s Barbecue Pit remains on the same plot of land, at 4610 N. Central Expressway, Dallas. The company has about 150 restaurants in Texas and hundreds more in 42 other states and six countries. dickeys.com.

One of the oldest Dickey's photos, from 1946, shows founder Travis Dickey (center) in front...One of the oldest Dickey's photos, from 1946, shows founder Travis Dickey (center) in front of his restaurant with his kids Elizabeth Mills and Travis Dickey Jr. (Roland Dickey had not been born yet.)

Roy Pope Grocery

About 79 years old

Open since 1943

When Roy Pope Grocery reopened in Fort Worth in 2021, it had a new patio, coffee and wine bar.When Roy Pope Grocery reopened in Fort Worth in 2021, it had a new patio, coffee and wine bar.

(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

The new owners of Roy Pope Grocery in Fort Worth have a historic photo of original owners...The new owners of Roy Pope Grocery in Fort Worth have a historic photo of original owners Rose and Roy Pope (pictured) at the shop.

After Roy and Rose Pope opened their grocery store in West Fort Worth in the 1940s, it has changed hands just twice, first to the Le Mond family, and then to the Larances. (Bob Larance met his wife, Renee, inside the shop, sacking groceries.) Developers Lou Lambert, Mark Harris and Chris Reale — the same trio behind the renovation of the historic Paris Coffee Shop in Fort Worth — bought it in 2020, with the intention of reviving a dying family business. As Reale describes it, the new Roy Pope has “a little more science” now: a coffee bar, wine bar and new menu. Classic items like pea salad and pimento cheese remain, but Reale has tacked on daily specials like smoked barbecue, Szechuan pork, fried chicken and the like.

  • The original grocery store burned in 1970 and was rebuilt on the same plot of land, at 2300 Merrick St., Fort Worth. roypopegrocery.com.

Sammie’s Bar-B-Q

76 years old

Open since December 1945

Sammie Norwood isn’t alive to confirm it, but the current owner of Norwood’s 76-year-old Fort Worth barbecue joint says the origin story goes something like this: Norwood wrote his sweetheart a letter during World War II. “Honey, when I get home,” he might have said, “I have a recipe for barbecue sauce, and it’s going to make us millions.” Half of that plan came true. Norwood opened a carhop eatery on New Year’s Eve 1945 that served beer and pork ribs with that darn good barbecue sauce. The original Sammie’s has been demolished, rebuilt and remodeled, and today, it still serves that secret-recipe sauce and ribs alongside onion rings and coleslaw. Its latest owner is 25-year-old Sam Gibbons, who, for nostalgia’s sake, is happy for you to call him Sammie.

  • Sammie’s Bar-B-Q is at 3801 E. Belknap St., Fort Worth. sammiesbbq.com.

Circle Grill

About 75 years old

Open since 1946

Miss Dorothy. Gus. Nora. Wild Bill. They’re among the dozens of names etched on gold plates, attached to tables and counter seats at Circle Grill in Dallas. Here, the chicken-fried chicken comes out screaming hot, with a generous cup of white gravy on the side. Most of the customers have been coming here for decades, maybe more, and many remember the jukeboxes on each table and the wagon wheels hanging from the ceiling. Those are gone, but the menu of omelets, cheeseburgers and chicken livers remains. The restaurant has been passed on from the Evans and Wise families to the Vergoses and now to Rebar AlMissouri, an immigrant from Kurdistan who says he fell in love with this East Dallas diner while looking for a place to build a hotel.

  • Circle Grill’s original building has been demolished, but the current restaurant is close to the original. It’s at 3701 N. Buckner Blvd., Dallas. thecirclegrill.com.

Kincaid’s Hamburgers

75 years old

Open since September 1946

The original Kincaid's in Fort Worth maintains a lot of charm from its 75 years on the block. The original Kincaid's in Fort Worth maintains a lot of charm from its 75 years on the block.

(Michael Ainsworth / Special Contributor)

Brothers Christian (left) and Jonathan Gentry co-own Kincaid's Hamburgers with their mom.
Brothers Christian (left) and Jonathan Gentry co-own Kincaid's Hamburgers with their mom.

(Michael Ainsworth / Special Contributor)

O.R. Gentry returned home after World War II and got a job at Kincaid’s, a grocery store, on Fort Worth’s Camp Bowie Boulevard as the meat market manager. Eventually, he bought it in 1961 from original owner Charles Kincaid. At the time, Kincaid’s was a catchall kind of place: a meat market, a post office and a part-time barbecue joint and hamburger shop for those in-the-know. Gentry would take the butcher scraps, grind them up and make burgers on a tiny 1-by-1-foot grill. Word spread, and Gentry kept making burgers. But Kincaid’s was still a grocery store, so “you basically had to stand up and eat while you went around and shopped,” says Jonathan Gentry, O.R.’s grandson and one of the co-owners today. Eventually, Kincaid’s switched over to the restaurant we now know, famous for its cheeseburgers and onion rings, with five restaurants in Southlake, Arlington and Fort Worth. They’ve got tables now, too; the Gentry family built them by hand.

  • The original Kincaid’s is at 4901 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth. kincaidshamburgers.com.

Dallas Morning News researchers Spencer Bevis and Jennifer Brancato contributed greatly to this story.

We want to talk to you!

You’re welcome to ask questions or send us historical information about restaurants you don’t see on this list. Please email sblaskovich@dallasnews.com.

Do you know more about the origins of Record Grill in Dallas’ West End? A descendant of longtime owner Nick Dimoulakis called the history “a black hole.” Some people trace it back to the 1930s, but the Dallas City Directory first lists it in the 1960s. Please email us if you have historical information.

We are also seeking information about Wimpy’s Hamburgers in Dallas. Dallas records say it’s about 75 years old, but a photo of President Franklin D. Roosevelt visiting Dallas for the Texas Centennial shows his motorcade drove past a Wimpy’s more than 85 years ago, in 1936. Please email us if you know more.

This story is part of a series about North Texas’ oldest restaurants. Next, read these:

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For more food news, follow Sarah Blaskovich on Twitter at @sblaskovich.