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