Back in 2004, the Belmont Hotel was just another mid-century roadside motel gone to pot on Fort Worth Avenue. But Monte Anderson, who grew up in Oak Cliff and the southern suburbs, saw its potential.
“I’ve been looking at the Belmont since I was 5 years old and my dad took me there to eat breakfast at the Hungry Bear,” he says.
Anderson bought the Belmont and turned it into what it is today, a lively boutique hotel with a dazzling bar and lounge, plus one of the most popular restaurants in Dallas, Smoke.
Getting there was no easy road to travel.
Anderson sold the 64-room hotel in June to Dallas-based Behringer Lodging Group, which has plans to renovate Bar Belmont along with the hotel rooms. Smoke and its neighboring fitness club, Claire Vista, will retain their leases.
Anderson and Smoke co-owner Chris Jeffers sat down with us recently to tell their history with the Belmont and Smoke.
Anderson bought the property on the hill behind the Belmont in 1999 with the idea that someday he would build a house there.
He insists that buying and renovating the Belmont took no “vision.”
“Here’s a beautiful little hotel between Kessler Park and Downtown and the Design District,” he says. “That’s not rocket science.”
But there was a serious need to revamp to space, both in its design and its perception. Consider that a few years before Anderson bought the hotel, a front-desk clerk had been murdered. In response, the front desk later was encased in bulletproof glass, giving it a hard edge. Prostitutes regularly walked out front on Fort Worth Avenue. The restaurant where Smoke is now was known as a rough-and-tumble dive bar.
The previous owners took care of the property to the best of their ability, Anderson says. Many tenants paid by the week, and one guy had lived there for nine years. The previous owners had never even seen the inside of his room.
“When we first started, the restaurant roof was caved in,” Anderson says. “It was nearly to the point that we needed to scrape it, but the architecture was too good. It almost would’ve been cheaper to build it new.”
When Anderson bought it, the steep part of the Belmont property facing Sylvan was covered in kudzu vine, an invasive species that suffocates and kills trees. Dallas city code requires those who remove it to keep it on their property as it decomposes to prevent it from spreading. Anderson was afraid that leaving the kudzu on the Belmont’s land would cause it to spread while the property was under renovation. So he called Texas A&M University for advice. Experts there gave him two words of advice: get goats. So, he found goats for rent to roam the property, eatting the kudzu as they went. It worked, except for a few hiccups. One of the goats once made it all the way across Fort Worth Avenue to Family Dollar. Another time, Anderson arrived at the hotel to find a Billy goat lazing on the roof of the restaurant.
The early years
The Belmont opened Nov. 19, 2005, amid much hoopla.
“We had a really good New Year’s Eve,” Anderson says. “And then the next few weeks, there was a time we had one person in the hotel. One. We never got to zero. But we had one.”
The Belmont hired and fired three hotel management companies in the first three years of operation. The Cliff Café was popular among locals but failed to draw traffic from across the river, and proved to be a money loser.
“The first five years was disastrous for me,” Anderson says. “Seriously, a couple of nights, the only thing left was for me to be on my knees in prayer in the office. Then Jeffers came along.”
“We were bleeding bad in food and beverage,” Anderson says. “It was bad.”
In summer 2009, he had lunch at Tortas las Tortugas with Chris Jeffers and Chris Zielke, who had opened Bolsa about a year prior.
Without coming to a concrete agreement, Jeffers went to work at Cliff Café the following day. He says he did it because he recognized almost immediately that he and Anderson have very similar personalities, so he stepped up to the plate on instinct.
“We were both broke,” Jeffers says. “And I think when you are broke, you are willing to take more chances.”
They had to piece together funding with credit cards, a loan from Grand Bank and a few other sources.
By August, they had brought chef Tim Byres on board and had worked up a concept for an upscale barbecue restaurant.
Anderson had always pictured the restaurant as a diner. But he compares it to having children: “You think you’re going to have a quarterback, and the kid turns out to be a really great swimmer,” he says.
Because it’s attached to a hotel, the restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day except Christmas. So the kitchen serves three meals a day in the restaurant, provides room service for the 64-room hotel and makes the snack menu for Bar Belmont.
They spent $140,000 to renovate, during which they never closed the restaurant.
“Do you realize how hard that is?” says Jeffers. “And we did it in 60 days.”
Smoke opened Sept. 11, 2009.
If you went to the opening night party, no doubt you won’t forget it. The place was a zoo, but the atmosphere was electric. Everyone wanted to be a part of the Belmont.
Anderson, Jeffers and partners had made it to the base of their climb.
In February 2010, dining critic Nancy Nichols of D wrote in a memorable review that the restaurant took its farm-to-table concept too seriously without focusing on its customers enough. She panned everything from the service to the brisket – at a barbecue restaurant.
“That review was one of the best things that ever happened to us,” Jeffers says. “We were trying to be all things to all people. So we had to narrow the focus.”
After that come-to-Jesus review, chef Tim Byres honed in on making their restaurant a fine dining take on Texas cuisine, in the great tradition of Dallas chefs. In 2012, the restaurant hit is stride, and the hotel was cooking.
The restaurant alone once had about a $4-million year.
Byres, whom Jeffers calls “the grandpa” of the partnership, won a James Beard Award for his cookbook, “Smoke: New Firewood Cooking.” They opened another restaurant together, Chicken Scratch. And earlier this year, they opened a second Smoke location in Plano.
Anderson and Jeffers say their partnership was about perfect. They had some tense moments, but they figured out how to make two separate businesses, Smoke and the Belmont, work seamlessly together.
One would never have made it without the other, they say.
Recently, over coffee at Bolsa Mercado, Anderson pokes his thumb toward Jeffers.
“When he came along, he was hurting in a way, and I was hurting in a way,” Anderson says. “And it kind of saved our lives, both of us.”