During the 1950s through early 2000s, Austin’s Barbecue reigned as the destination of choice for thousands of Oak Cliff diners. Just about everyone ate there.
Although Fred’s in Wynnewood Village and Red Bryan’s Smokehouse on Jefferson were also popular ‘cue’ stops, Austin’s pulled in more customers than all the others, not just because of its tangy-sauced barbecue but also because of its lunches, dinner plates and breakfasts.
Sitting mostly in booths, if you were seated in the front — or at tables, if you were seated in the back room — customers enjoyed sliced beef sandwiches, greasy fries (real ones, mind you), coleslaw, beans, ribs, steaks and to-die-for burgers. Some customers, however, opted for the outside drive-in slots, parking under the canopy to order food and drinks from Austin’s no-nonsense carhops.
The eatery provided south-of-the-Trinity high schoolers a place for after-game celebrations or simply a place to hang out. Families ate there, too, as did coaches, businessmen, moms and students from Dallas Baptist College — a concoction of patrons from various Oak Cliff socioeconomic groups. Gulping huge glasses of iced tea or sipping Dr Peppers, Austin’s was sort of the then-Oak Cliff version of the bar in “Star Wars”. Because so many neighborhood citizens gathered there to discuss what was going on in the Cliff, Austin’s functioned, according to one local historian, as the unofficial Oak Cliff City Hall.
Inside, teenage customers always hoped to snatch one of the booths with the mini-jukeboxes mounted on the end panels. Students could enjoy a cozy confinement with friends while conveniently picking music selections for the main jukebox. Fun!
Outside, teen diners lingered as long as possible to observe other students coming and going. Often with little money to spend, only one (or maybe two) of those in the car actually ordered anything — perhaps an iced tea or soda shared with the others. Lingering over the drinks as long as possible provided the perfect maneuver to legitimately hold a drive-in slot. For the guys, it was a great vantage point for “chick observation.”
Originally named the Bull Pen, the restaurant at 2321 W. Illinois opened in 1949. (It sat on the northeast corner of Hampton and Illinois, property now occupied by the eastern portion of the CVS Pharmacy building and the western portion of Compass Bank.) For the next decade, the Bull Pen welcomed dining room patrons as well as beer and liquor customers. The restaurant remained open till 2 a.m. Few places did in those days.
In 1957, when Oak Cliff voted itself “dry,” co-owner Bert Bowman sold out his half interest to his business partner, Austin Cook, who changed the menu, the restaurant’s name and the hours of operation. Then, like the Texas Theatre, Austin’s Barbecue became a part of — of all things: the Kennedy assassination probe.
Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit moonlighted at Austin’s, working security on weekends. The Staff Report of the Select Committee on Assassinations reads “that he [Cook] had employed Tippit at the time of the assassination ‘as a deterrent’ to any teenage trouble from youths who frequented the establishment.”
Due to a web of coincidental liaisons between Bowman and assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, the FBI interviewed Cook and many of the Cook and Bowman family members, with Cook telling the investigators that he never heard Tippit mention Oswald or Jack Ruby.
A man named Ralph Paul had purchased the restaurant Bowman opened after selling his share of the Bull Pen to Cook. Bowman’s wife stated she had known Paul since his 1951 move to Dallas and that at the time of the assassination, Paul was living in the lower level of the Bowman home. She reported that Paul was a close friend of Ruby’s and had expressed great concern for his friend after Oswald’s shooting. She also stated that Paul had brought Ruby by her home approximately four and a half years earlier, but that Ruby remained for only a short time.
Nothing came of the investigation.
In 2002, Austin’s fell to the wrecking ball. The waitresses, most of them somehow related to the then-owner, John Zito (Cook’s stepson), had all been at the restaurant for 15 or more years.
On the final day of operation, now 57-year-old Cliffite Ken Holmes (who remembers first eating at Austin’s sitting in a high chair) waited for the restaurant to clear, then paid for his dinner and walked out the door. He was the last customer.
With the demise of Austin’s, another page of Oak Cliff history faded into the book of bygone days. But the establishment will always be remembered by those who frequented the place, whether walking through the doors holding hands with a sweetheart, bolting in with a group of friends, or perhaps sharing a Saturday breakfast with parents, or from the old days of beer and liquor.
The restaurant’s well-remembered slogan probably leaves about as good a eulogy of the old landmark as anything else — Austin’s Barbecue: “As Tender as Ole Austin’s Heart.”