The Cowboy Rides Away

Two decades after leaving Fort Worth to live in Dallas, a self-confessed “Southern hipster” discovers there’s a lot more to his former hometown than Western wear shops and choreographed cattle drives.  

WORDS Eric Celeste
May 2017
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THE T-SHIRT IS WHAT SOLD ME ON FORT WORTH.

Well, sold me again. I’d loved her once before. I worked in downtown Cowtown, as it’s often called, in the mid- to late-’90s, and I came to adore the city. Fort Worth was an early adopter of an urban design aesthetic that has spread across the country: Make your downtown a place where people could live and work. The idea being that if you have a vibrant core, everything else will hum outward; the city’s heartbeat must be strong. And Fort Worth’s urban core was just that. Its streets bustled during the day with workers eating lunch, and its streets filled during the evenings with fine-art seekers going to see shows at its performance hall. 

The city had tremendous spirit and character, as I’d been promised. The famous story speaking to the pride of its residents — that Fort Worth Star-Telegram founder and publisher Amon Carter Sr. would bring a sack lunch when he had business in Dallas, so as not to spend a penny there — echoed in the residents’ everyday self-confidence. Fort Worth was not — is not — a place for the shy. But its amenities were still too sparse to convince me to stay. I felt like a lot of folks who moved to Fort Worth’s suburbs back then: that the city was modern but that it was still best to lay your head on a pillow outside its center. (During that time, so many West Coast transplants seeking big affordable houses moved to the Fort Worth suburb of Keller that it was nicknamed “Kellerfornia.”) I felt Fort Worth’s core was better than most in the Southwest, but it still needed to mature.

Living in Dallas for the next 20 years — ironic, I know, since its downtown was a wasteland for about another decade — I kept tabs on our sister city to the west. I heard tales of a city that was becoming more cosmopolitan by the day but still stayed true to its down-home western spirit. I decided I needed to spend a weekend there downtown, sans car, to see what had changed. To see if Cowtown was right for someone like myself, a pretentious bearded sort who likes to wear custom cowboy boots and sip perfect Manhattans. Was it cosmopolitan enough to satisfy the clichéd Southern hipster Dallas had made me?

Five minutes after I arrived in downtown Fort Worth, I took a Lyft to my first destination and found the T-shirt that suggested the answer was yes. Across its chest was a pale-orange image, the silhouette of a cowboy, clutching his Stetson with his left hand, thrown up high to balance himself as he held onto his wild steed with his right. Except it wasn’t a bucking horse the cowboy was riding. It was a bicycle. Fort Worth and I were off to a great start.

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I ordered a cold local beer, Rahr & Sons’ Texas Red, and two thick English muffins with homemade jam. I was at the crowded brunch bar or in hipster heaven; I couldn’t be sure. It was Saturday morning, and my first stop was just a few miles southwest of downtown, at Press Cafe, the new (opened in January) hot spot among those young of age, mind and/or spirit. It was packed inside with folks who knew from previous restaurants that owner Felipe Armenta could mix simple sophistication with dang good grub and drinks, and in this location, he adds a killer rooftop bar. But it was also filled with outdoorsy types stopping in as one element of their excursion to the Trinity River Trailhead at Clearfork, of which Press Cafe is a part.

The Trailhead is pitched by its developers as “a premier destination for health and fitness enthusiasts of all ages and fitness levels,” and it delivers well on that promise. Located on the bank of the Trinity River — a body of water that will inspire no jealousy from those in, say, the Pacific Northwest, but it’s all we have in Texas — the Trailhead serves as the entrance to more than 40 miles of hike-and-bike trails. Adjacent to Press Cafe is Mellow Johnny’s bike shop, where you can rent your cycle and buy the aforementioned cowboy-on-a-bike shirt. According to the locals, the grounds are filled at all hours of the day and evening with yoga practitioners, walkers with their dogs, and cyclists, both serious and not. Throw that in with the shopping and luxury apartments going in next door, and this really did look like a work, live, play area, connected to the core by a system of trails that could take those of us eschewing our own car right back downtown when needed.

And I needed to right then, as I was set to take a tour at Martin House Brewing Company, one of several local brewers bringing strong craft beer to Cowtown. I was going to test the “all ages or fitness levels” portion of that tout, though. I’m nearing 50, and my fitness level can best be described as “once fit.” Plus, on this day, it was — not a typo — 103 degrees for a high. To meet autumn magazine deadlines, one must excurse during the hellish Texas summer.

I rented a city bike — aka, a “Fort Worth B-Cycle” — to ride past downtown and get to its west side, where the Trinity River meets again before it turns east toward - Dallas. (Reminding me of Carter’s other great line: “Fort Worth is where the west begins, and Dallas is where the east peters out.”) I girded myself for the trip in the early--afternoon sun. Biking cowboys don’t let a little heat stop them, I told myself.

About two miles in, a thought occurred:

OH GOD IT’S SO HOT! I’M DYING. NO I CAN’T DO IT. I MUST STOP HERE. THERE IS A SHADE TREE. MOMMY!

I tried to take stock of my surroundings. I knew I was near the (world-class) Fort Worth Zoo. Perhaps I could make it there and throw myself in the tiger cage to end the pain. In a fever state, I tried to achieve equilibrium with my environment by checking Twitter. Perhaps there I could find an answer. 

In fact, I did. I found that several foodies I follow — yes, I feel embarrassed just typing that — were talking about the grand opening of Heim Barbecue, the former food truck that gained a cult following with its succulent brisket and bacon burnt ends. The lines were out the door, according to social media. 

I didn’t care about that. I cared that it was less than two miles away, while the brewery was still five miles or so. Barbecue it would be. I love brewery tours, but I can’t say I regret my decision. (For a great brewery itinerary, see “Spotlight On: Cowtown Beer!” on page 60.) First of all, bacon burnt ends are the most sinfully delicious foodstuff you will ever put in your mouth. Second, I got to see what real cowboys look like, as there were at least two in line in full fairgrounds regalia — each wearing cowboy hats, belts, buckles and attire, and one having spurs on his boots. Three, devouring scrumptious barbecue at a bar that carries not only many local beers on tap but also has an outstanding array of rare whiskeys is right in my wheelhouse.

“I love this city,” said Joel, the gentleman next to me when he saw me taking notes. We struck up a conversation, even though he was wearing a Duke T-shirt (something I would normally avoid — I’m not a monster). His family is from the Northeast, he played football at Duke, and then he took a high-finance job in New York when he graduated. He moved to Fort Worth for work two years ago, and now he’s convinced his parents to follow him. 

“I don’t know what it was like when you were here,” Joel begins, quickly reminding me how old I am, “but it’s such a great place for young people now. It’s a business center, it has all these new developments near the city that bring folks together, great restaurants and bars, and of course you can get so much more for your money.”

Joel mentioning great restaurants reminds me: I have dinner reservations in three hours. Barely time to get back to my downtown hotel and nap. I park my bike and Uber to Sundance Square’s historic Ashton Hotel, not far from the Worthington Renaissance. (FWIW: I’ve stayed at the Worthington many times, but its fun bar scene overlooking the lobby is too distracting during work. The Ashton is a cozier throwback to the city’s history and offers plenty of luxury if thread count is your thing.)

Dinner is appropriate and divine. I ride-shared to another trendy area just west of downtown, the West 7th District, and ate steak and drank fine wine at Clay Pigeon. The restaurant is new, of course, (opened in December 2013) and was created by Marcus Paslay, a disciple of one of Dallas’ most-acclaimed chefs, Nick Badovinus. Critics can compare the cuisines — both “super tasty,” in technical terms — but what stands out to me is that Paslay has absorbed his mentor’s skill at marrying decor with a strong sense of place. The airy dining room is at once modern and homey, with high ceilings, cedar tables and branding irons decorating the wall. That said, the roasted bone marrow on sourdough is ridiculously good — super-DUPER tasty.

I Lyft back to downtown and wander the streets of Sundance Square at night, trying to feel slightly less full. I’m shocked at how full of life the streets are at night now. Sure, there are touristy types like me going to a show at Bass Hall’s performance space or trying out chain-based Tex-Mex. But there are also locals clearly here because they enjoy the shoulder-to--shoulder feel of a big city, which Fort Worth very much feels like.

I text a friend, a longtime Fort Worth police officer. “Downtown. Late. Where do I go?”

“Speakeasy.”

He gives me instructions to 900 Houston Street, not far from the Convention Center. There I find Thompson’s, a bar built in a historic building that, from about 1910 on, housed everything from a pharmacy to a clothing company to a coffee roaster to a bookstore. It was now a bar — with a twist. 

Using that day’s password provided me by my officer friend (which you can get on Facebook) — “William Wallace” — a bouncer opened a back-wall bookcase and showed me to the steps that led downstairs. There, within walking distance of my hotel, I was able to watch my hipster cowboy soul mates partake in the pleasure of fine overpriced spirits, delicately mixed and prepared for imbibing with the gentlest care. 

That is until a bunch of TCU frat boys showed up. Time to call it a night.

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“There are a lot of young people who come to this city with great ideas,” says my breakfast partner, Bud Kennedy, the longtime Star-Telegram city columnist, part-time dining critic and unofficial mayor of Cowtown. “Fort Worth has always been a place where eccentricity is celebrated, so what people found is that with our eccentricities people have clever ideas, and whether it’s in art, music, advertising … they come in here and they fit right in and people love it.”

We’re having black coffee and cheese quesadillas at Benito’s, a small Mexican eatery that stands out amid the stylish new eateries and bars that line West Magnolia, just south of downtown. Just west of us is The Usual, perhaps the finest craft-cocktail joint in Fort Worth. Across from that is Avoca, named after the acclaimed -coffee-roasting company here. Farther down is the new Heim, and a wine bar, and a tequila bar and grill, and a fancy pizza pie house imported from Dallas. There are also shops and quaint homes of beautiful turn-of-the-last-century architecture. It’s exactly the mix of tradition and class for which Fort Worth has become known.

“It’s total work-live-play,” Kennedy says. “You have downtown and everything that the Bass family [local rich folks who have sunk money into downtown] have done to make downtown and the plaza downtown a complete destination. Then you have what creative young people have done here on Magnolia, taking an 80-year-old commercial district and totally revitalizing it with young energy and spirit and ideas. Then you have the developments along the river like the Trailhead at Clearfork and Edwards Ranch. They’ve developed it so that the river has become a part of that vibrant network. It’s like we had cowboy culture and creativity, and now we have this whole entrepreneurial and outdoor-lifestyle culture to go with it. It’s made for a really fascinating town.”

Kennedy has to run. He’s late for church, which is a place you still go in Fort Worth, even if you’re part of the media elite. 

I head next door to The Bearded Lady for lunch. (In case you couldn’t tell, I’m getting decidedly more unfit on this trip.) It’s Sunday, so they can’t serve me their L.U.S.T. burger, which was recently named third-best in the state by Texas Monthly magazine. It’s just as well. I am in great need of a salad and a water. I order chicken and biscuits and a Martin House Day Break beer. It’s light. A breakfast brew, so it’s okay. 



I decide to finish the rest of the day strong. Kick it old-school. By which I mean, I Uber over to the Cultural District to explore the world-class museums that have long made this area the artistic center of North Texas. I am even less of an art critic than I am a food critic, but I can say without hesitation that there are worse ways to spend your Sunday afternoon. The Kimbell Art Museum’s permanent collection is small (fewer than 350 pieces) but stunning, consisting of antiquities and paintings and sculpture from Europe, Asia and Africa. (As you read this, it will have opened the groundbreaking exhibition devoted to the early years of Claude Monet.) The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth was showing “Frank Stella: A Retrospective,” dedicated to one of our most important living American artists. I finished, of course, with that most Fort Worth of double features: the renowned Western paintings and sculptures by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, as well as the Wild West memorabilia at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.

It seemed an appropriate way to end my trip: a -reminder that Fort Worth had always been a town of great things. It’s just that now it seemed denser, more bustling, more a city on the move. Even if that city has a gait that suggests it can still ride a horse as well as it can a bicycle. Which, by the way, I decided to rent once again at the Art Museum’s bike-share station. It was late; dusk. There were probably shadows. One may have been of me, cowboy hat in hand, headed toward the city. Hard to say. 
 

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