The king of Oak Cliff barbecue

Red Bryan’s may be gone, but its mouthwatering legacy is not forgotten

As Red Bryan's was being constructed, from behind you could see the old Sears and Roebuck building. Courtesy of Mary McLachlan. Click photos to enlarge.

Most old-time Cliffites recall the name “Red Bryan” as the moniker of one of the neighborhood’s most recognizable restaurants. And they would be right.

Red Bryan's poster. This image shows the massive fireplace inside the Red Bryan's Smokehouse. The apartment mentioned in the column is shown on the second level on the back of the restaurant. Image courtesy of Jay Philbrick.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Elias and Sadie Bryan relocated from Cincinnati, Ohio to Oak Cliff and opened a smokehouse on Center Street. There, Bryan developed a new meat-cooking technique and a spicy sauce recipe that began the Bryan family barbecue tradition.

Growing up in the restaurant, the Bryans’ eldest son, William Jennings “Red” Bryan — named for the 1900 presidential candidate — went on to play football for Oak Cliff High School (now Adamson). Then, because he wanted a career of his own, he opened and operated a floral business over Lamar and Smith Funeral Home on Jefferson. In early 1930, however, he realized that with Oak Cliff’s steady growth, there was more demand for good, mouthwatering meals and side dishes than for funeral flowers, so he opened a barbecue business of his own on Jefferson. Nicknamed “The Tin Shack,” because he operated the eatery out of a retired Interurban car that had been retrofitted, Red Bryan charged 5 cents for burgers, while barbecue sandwiches went for 10 cents. But don’t let the Spartan framework fool you. Cadillacs driven by business leaders in silk suits frequented the place. Having grown up eating Bryan family barbecue, they still wanted more!

In 1947, he commissioned the prominent architect Charles Dilbeck to design the new Red Bryan’s Smokehouse restaurant located on the corner of Llewellyn and Jefferson. The expansive ranch style edifice boasted an exterior fashioned out of salvaged stone from an East Texas courthouse, a massive stone fireplace near the entrance, and an interior that showcased mounted wild animal heads (often with a cigarette or toothpick hanging out of their mouths, courtesy of mischievous customers).

Courtesy of Mary McLachlan

Oversized booths were covered in calf hide, and each offered hot barbecue sauce warmed in metal containers right on the tables. Sawdust floors and the aroma of smoking meat permeated the entire establishment, creating a familiar ambience experienced only at this unique restaurant. Jefferson Boulevard shoppers, Sunset and Adamson high school students, families, blue-collar workers and upscale business folk all frequented Bryan’s, satisfying hungry appetites with barbecue, steaks, chicken, burgers and shakes.

Eventually, William Jennings Bryan Jr., “Sonny,” took over managerial duties at the eatery and moved into the little apartment quarters on the upper back portion of the building, as his father had become a prominent Dallas citizen and was busy serving on the city council.

“My first memories are going to Red Bryan’s in the mid to late 1940s and early ’50s with my uncle or parents,” says former Cliffite Bill Strouse, “and getting a couple pounds of barbecue to go. Also back then, it was a drive-in and had carhops. [I] remember that on OU and Texas weekend the place was filled to the rafters with both OU and UT fans … drinking beer and eating barbecue.”

Mary McLachlan's grandfather, Clifton C. Farabee, during construction. Photo courtesy Mary McLachlan.

Angeline Churchill (Sunset ’67) says that in the mid-’50s their mother (whom she describes as “a beautiful woman”) took them to Red’s to pick up some barbeque for supper. “Red was at the door, greeted my mother with great gallantry, then kissed my sister and me on our heads, as we came in. I had been sitting in the car with my head up against the hot window glass, and Red proclaimed, ‘This one’s a real hothead!’ Great hilarity broke out between my mother and sister since I was a hothead, and I was totally impressed that he could instantly tell that I was the one with a temper.”

The front of Red Bryan's, as it was being constructed. Photo courtesy Mary McLachlan.

In 1973, sitting in his bondholder seat at Texas Stadium during a Dallas Cowboys game, Red Bryan suffered a fatal stroke and passed away shortly after. The W. H. Adamson Alumni Association honored Bryan when it inducted him, in 2009, into its Hall of Honor.

Today the Dilbeck building on Jefferson and Llewellyn is El Ranchito, opened by the Sanchez family in 1983 after their success with nearby La Calle Doce. But though Red Bryan and his restaurant are gone, the legacy of Oak Cliff’s barbeque king remains in force. The life of this Ohio son turned florist, turned restaurateur and then city councilman gives Cliffites reason to still believe that all things are possible.

Click here to read more of Gayla’s Oak Cliff Back Story articles.


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  • Debby

    Wonderful article! Thank you for teaching me.

  • Pingback: Red Bryan’s Smokehouse — BBQ, Oak Cliff-Style | Flashback : Dallas()

  • Pingback: Red Bryan’s Smokehouse — BBQ, Oak Cliff-Style | Flashback : Dallas()

  • Gayla Brooks

     Thanks for your comments and information, Carol/Devkirn. These are the pieces of Oak Cliff history that often fall through the cracks. I’m glad you shared your story/your parents’ story with the readers. Comment/post any time.

  • Devkirn

    My mother and father, HOward and Monica Shaft bought rd Bryan’s in 1960, they did a wonderful job of running all aspects of the business and I spent many years there! They built and owned Shafts Frozen Custard on Marsalis Ave. just before the viaduct from 195o to 1959 when the freeway was built and threatened thir business!!! That was Dallas in the 1950’s and 1960’s, I loved it so much.
    Devkirn Khalsa …aka Carol Shaft

  • Gayla Brooks Kokel

    Cruising was such fun! Always a favorite, especially if one had little money, which most of us didn’t at that time. Kip’s was great and all the other places were, too. Wish we could all go back for a weekend and things would be like before…including us!

  • Txkirtley

    Gayla is dead on! Some of us cruised Hampton Rd. and Kiest Park and Sivils Drive in. During my years in the “cruising lane”, no pun intended, Jefferson, on football nights was kind of territorial.  Seems as I recall, Kip’s on Zangs was the place to go for a lot of Kimballites. Red Bryans was a great place to go anytime and was a landmark in our old Oak Cliff. Thanks Gayla.

  • Gayla Brooks Kokel

    Great observation, Jim! And I agree about the sawdust-and-smoke aroma that filled the place. And the “Sears experience” at Chrstimas was also memorable–a really big deal to Cliffites in those days. I think just about everyone’s family made the annual trip to Sears each holiday season…and a quick trip across the street to RB’s made the perfect outting. Thanks for posting!

  • Jim Lyons

    The first picture shows two cars at the rear of the restaurant, one with a service tray hanging from the window. They must have been in operation while the construction continued. Also remembered was that we could ride the streetcar to the front door,go in for the great smell of the sawdust and smoked meat, then at Christmas time, walk across Jefferson Blvd. to see the corner window of Sears with its spectacular Christmas fantasy!

  • Jane Little

    Wonderful Charles Dilbeck!  I have fond memories of Red Bryans, and much later after I got married it was a private club, and we went there to have a drink.

  • Gayla Brooks Kokel

    I agree, Frances! Those were the days…and those were the places. We also hung out at Austin’s, Goff’s, Kip’s, and a few other spots, too. Everyone cruised Hampton Rd., Kiest Park, and some on Westmoreland Blvd. It was a “Happy Days” kind of world back then. I mainly wish that later generations were able to experience our more innocent, and certainly safer environment. It was a different world. However…cell phones would have been nice to have… 

  • Frances Phillips

    Gayla, you always manage to bring back wonderful memories of growing up in Oak Cliff.  Red Bryan’s was a perfect “after-the movie” date destination for Oak Cliff teenagers.  I can remember ordering many a barbeque sandwich and chocolate shake while seated in a cowhide covered booth.  Remember the mini-juke boxes in the booths?  Other neat place to hang out  were Arthur’s and Lone Star Drive- In in South Oak Cliff territory and Silvil’s Drive-In in Sunset territory.  You can’t convince me that teenagers today have nearly the fun that we did back in the day! 

    Frances George Phillips

  • Gayla Brooks Kokel

    What a great story, Lynda! I’m thinkin’ that you weren’t the only one who had an attachment to that bench. It was quite spectacular…at least to us in those days. Wouldn’t it be nice if today’s children could still be enthralled by such simple things? Guess we’re gettin’ old…

  • Bunnyroom

    I remember Red Bryan’s when I was a kid growing up in Oak Cliff. The thing I remember the most was the circular bench covered in cowhide in the entry room. For some reason I thought that big thing was so pretty and I loved to run to it and plop down on it. At that time, most girls wore a dress or skirt and I can remember that hide on my bare legs! I thought it was so cool!!! To me at that time, that bench was super. I also remember that wonderful aroma of the barbecue…I can feel my mouth water right now just thinking about it.

    Lynda Kokel

  • Gayla Brooks Kokel

    Barbara, Your comments are greatly appreciated and very generous. With such a great subject (Oak Cliff and its history), I have a rich data base.  And, I have all my “sources” that help me fill in the blanks!

  • Barbara Moffett SOC’65

    Just want to tell you how much I continue to enjoy your articles.  You always capture the memories in such a way that the reader is taken away from everything “today” and back to times that were so warm and endearing.  Thank you for keeping the Oak Cliff charm alive for those of us who lived it and bringing it to life for those who sadly will never experience such a wonderful time and place!

  • TOM STAFFORD

    I REMBER A MAN GRABBING MY HAND IN 1954 AND MY DAD GETTING INTO A FIGHT….I ALSO REMEMBER IF YOU HAD A BUFFALO HEAD NICKOL YOU COULD GET A BBQ SANDWICH…….GREAT MEMORIES MR . BRYAN…..AND SONNY YOURS ISNT AS GOOD!!

  • Gayla Brooks Kokel

    As always, Bill, you have great additional info to tag onto any story. I hope the family likes the story. Heard from one of the granddaughters, and she was positive. Keep your info coming. I’m all ears!

  • Billmelton37

    Even before his fabeled Red Bryan’s Smokehouse, we ate at his first location, a hole in the wall with the best BBQ and hamburgers in the World, just a copule of blocks away.  I had the pleasure of attending Sunset High School with Red’s two daughters.

    And perhaps Red’s involvement in the Oak Cliff Community is not as well known as his BBQ, but he served as President of the Oak Cliff Lions Club in 1940-41 and his Grandson Dr. Burt Bryan was
    President in 1989-90

    For those who never had the opportunity to eat at Red Bryan’s Smokehouse, they missed a real
    treat!  Red and the Smokehouse are Legend!

    Another great Article Gayla!

     

  • Gayla Brooks Kokel

    Thank you Mary and Jay–for the great photos! Red Bryan’s was a happenin’ place in its day. The good thing is that the building is still here. Another great Oak Cliff icon.