A look back at Austin’s Barbecue

During the 1950s through early 2000s, Austin’s reigned as the destination of choice for thousands of Oak Cliff diners.

Austin’s was once the go-to spot for almost everyone in Oak Cliff

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.”


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  • DavBow

    You were given some bad information. There were no Austin brothers, The Bull Pen was started by Austin Cook and Bert Bowman.

  • DavBow

    Hello, Gayle, wow, first time to hear of you in so many years, would love to have contact with you! David Bowman

  • DavBow

    Thanks for this story, Gayla, you covered it well. But like most stories, there is a lot more to it, and my memories serve me well.

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  • Gayla Brooks Kokel

    Darealoe, I don’t have an email address for Jesse, and, because the magazine has a different system that it did when Jesse originally posted, I don’t know if he’ll get the message. I may be able to find him though his wife on her FB page. I’ll let you know

  • Darealoe

    Are you talking about Star? The one that married Red?

  • Jay Philbrick

    Great story Gayla! Brings back a lot of memories. I was picked up for loitering at Griff’s one night while hanging with the guys (Fletcher and the Bouillion’s) who didnt have enough money to bail me out. They called my Dad who didnt have enough cash and went to Austin’s who were the only people who would cash a check! Too funny!

  • Chris Nix

    Thanks for another “stroll down memory lane” for this “Cliff-ite”. I spent many hours “cruising” the place and much money while parked under the awning, too.
    My Dad and “Big Daddy Austin” were friends and business contemporaries from the early ’50’s. I have fond memories of going there long before I was old enough to drive. A favorite past-time was the juke-box at table-side, playing rock and roll songs while waiting on the delicious barbecue and french fries to come.
    I spent time there with my Dad while working with him during high school (KIMBALL), and taking my kids there as an adult. Austins’ BBQ is long gone but not forgotten.

  • Kathy Fox Hardin

    I remember the great chopped bbq sandwiches and greasy homemade french fries and an ice cold coke. What a wonderful memory. Like Florence Greenspan Marsh said, “cherised memories bring a smile.” Too bad it went the way of progress otherwise I’d head on over for dinner.

  • Florence Greenspan Marsh

    I have so many wonderful memories of going to Austins with my now husband of almost 45 years Jim.Marsh. We both went to Kimball, classes of 64&66. After a movie would drive to Austins in his 58 Bel Air and grab a booth npt too far from the front. It was a place to see other classmates with theor Saturday nigjt dates. Fond cherished memories bring a smile.

  • Gayla, I really enjoyed your story. Austin’s was my favorite hangout place — a step up from the Dairy Queen for sure!
    In a book I co-wrote with Sandra Allen, we featured Austin’s in one of our scenes. With some of the story taking place in Oak Cliff, there’s no way we could leave Austin’s out!
    Thanks for the terrific article.

  • Mary Newton Maxwell

    Your stories sure take us back to fun times. I remember that just the smell of the air as we drove by Austin’s beckoned us in and we always were happy to indulge the temptation. And let me just say, looking at the names of all the people making comments conjures up memories as well. Love ya, Gayla

  • Danny Smith

    I remember the mad dashes to Austin’s during our breaks from summer band practices for a few minutes of air conditioning and a giant iced tea. There apparently was a second location on Harry Hines, but I didn’t find out about it until a couple of years ago. Must not have gone over too well. Thanks for the memories, Gayla!

  • Gayle Cook

    For those who might be interested, my father, Austin Cook, died August 30, 2006. And there was never anyone with a last name of Austin associated with the restaurant, though everyone kept thinking it was his last name instead of his first. Thanks for the wonderful article and the great comments. I miss the place too.

  • Sherry Smith

    Great article! If I remember right from what my mother said, it was first started by 2 Austin brothers. Think one of them was Buddy Austin. Remember going there and Daddy kidding one of them that he refused to be jealous because Mother used to date one of them. P.S., I remember Ray Zauber from the Oak Cliff Tribune. Great memories!

  • Jim Roberson

    I agree with Bill Konrads memory. Skip Bilhartz and I both from Kimball, and Tommy Hott from Sunset, had some great BBQ after our Cross Country practice, and any other time we could meet at Austins. Austins BBQ and Nailors Fried Chicken (close to Tyler Street Methodist), were our hang outs.

  • Eloise Myers

    Ray constantly ate at Bar b que restaurants. There were three he spent a great deal of time in talking to friends and politicians.
    Son Vonn Zauber recently treated me at the current Bryan’s
    location which is no longer Red’s or in Oak Cliff.

  • Vonn Zauber

    There was another slogan that Austin had, it went something like this. “If you like our barbecue, tell your friends. If you don’t, keep coming back, you’ll get used to it.”

    As my son said, I may have taken the picture of Austin and Dad (Ray Zauber) for the Oak Cliff Tribune.

  • Ryan Zauber

    This is a great article Gayla. Someone pointed me in the direction of this article saying the guy on the left looked awfully familiar. The man on the left in the photo is Ray Zauber, my grandfather and former editor and publisher for the Oak Cliff Tribune for many, many years. The photo may even have been snapped by my dad as he was the photographer for the paper for many years.

  • Mike Harris

    Thanks for the great article! I remember seeing Tippit there on weekends many times. Great place, our home town version of Arnolds! A great place to show off your new ride or your new 8-track stereo!

  • Cherie Griffith McBee

    Thanks Gayla for another home run. I love your articles. They bring such memories of the days gone by.

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  • Gayla Brooks Kokel

    Yes, Bill, I do! Austin’s was “the place” for sure. Great memories. And I most certainly do remember you at KHS. Fun times! Thanks for posting.

    Jesse–I don’t remember the carhop with the star on her hand. Sounds like there would be another good story. Thanks for commenting.

  • BILL BRABSON

    Gala, I graduated with you from Kimball in 1965 so like you Austin’s was an important part of our teenage life in Oak Cliff. When we skipped school it seemed we always spent a lot of time in Austin’s back room where he mever reported us. I, also dated a carhop from there, one that I still occassionaly hear from. Do you remember fighting to be under the awning on the front row for your car- that’s where all the action was.

    Please keep up there great articles.

  • jesse aldridge

    I sat in a booth many week ends and talked with Mr.J D Tippet at Austins. Everyone seemed to think he was a bad guy. He really wasn’t.

    Does anyone remember the name of the waitress outside,
    hint she had a star on her hand.

  • Susan Smythe Hallmark

    I remember Austins well. Occasionally went there on dates!
    Thanks Gayla for bringing up memories of our high school fun places!!
    Didn’t know the story about Tippit/Oswald/Ruby.

  • Karen Cotten

    Loved Austin’s! And I have one of those cups.

  • Jane Little

    Thank you so much Gayla for keeping the memories alive!

  • Gayla Brooks Kokel

    Dear Readers;
    Please feel free to post your own “Austin’s stories.” Others enjoy hearing YOUR memories of the old place. Really.

    Gayla

  • Patsy Summey

    What fun, Gayla–I remember cruising around Austin’s and having to jockey for a parking place in the summer of 71–after our church league slow-pitch softball team games and/or practices at Kiest Park. I was fairly new to the Cliff at that time and some of the girls on our team didn’t have cars–so they trained me well–Austin’s and Kip’s were our two favorite hangouts. Oh my goodness–what great memories this stirs! Thanks, Gayla!

  • Bill Konrad

    Gayla – You did it again! A great article about one of my favorite Oak Cliff hang outs. During two-a-day football workouts, I remember alot of Kimball Knight football players went to Austin’s right after morning practice to replenish on lost fluids during the August heat. The very tall glasses of ice tea(usually two) did the trick with lunch. Then it was nap time before the afternoon session with Bo Campbell and Jack Hitchcock! – Bill Konrad

  • LON OAKLEY Jr.

    Fondest memories from Austin’s was three Adamson Leopardettes taking me under their wing the summer of my sophomore year TO SHOW ME THE ROPES! Long story short…one summer I will never forget cruisin’ Austin’s with them. Smiles all around GREAT JOB GAYLA AND ANOTHER GREAT ONE FOR YOUR UPCOMING BOOK ON “THE CLIFF” Lon Oakley Adamson ’65

  • Linda Wells Nelson

    Great memories of Kay Wickersham and I having fries at Austin’s drive-in. Wish we could again!

    Great article as usual, Gayla. Your careful reconstruction of our past brings such great memories. We appreciate!

  • denise klos

    Another home run, Gayla!
    Who could forget those giant glasses of iced tea?