Photography by Danny Fulgencio.
Rick Barton and his brothers worked every summer in the Waco cafeteria their dad owned.
He went to Baylor University and dated a guy for the first time at the end of his sophomore year. He and his younger brother, David, never came out to their parents, but they did follow the family business.
Barton moved to Fort Worth after graduation to work for JC Penney, at the newly opened Ridgemar Mall, in 1977. Meanwhile, David opened a hamburger restaurant called Billy Whizbang’s in Arlington. The oldest Barton brother, Mike, founded the original Billy Whizbang’s, which is still open in Waco.
Barton was living in Oak Lawn and working for Southwestern Bell, driving a boxy Volvo 240 when David came to him suggesting a Dallas restaurant. “David decided he wanted to open one in Dallas, but he wanted a partner, so he approached me to open it with him. I was in the real world of business, which I found that I didn’t really care for too much,” Barton says. “So I decided to take the leap and go in with him.”
They each put up $50,000, as Barton remembers it. He put up everything he owned as collateral, including his Volvo. They opened Hunky’s in a 1,000-square-foot space at “the crossroads,” on Cedar Springs at Throckmorton, in 1984.
Hunky’s, with its cheeky name and delicious burgers, was one of the first gay hangouts in Dallas that wasn’t a bar or club. “It was still a happy time in 1984. The AIDS crisis hadn’t really taken hold yet,” he says. “We opened to just almost instant success. And the neighborhood was so welcoming.”
While David was running Billy Whizbang’s, Barton helmed Hunky’s. Barton says he worked constantly for the following five years. “We were there to run a good restaurant and provide good food and good service to everybody,” he says. “Being gay was almost secondary to everything else. You had to conform to society a little bit more. And then when you wanted to be gay, you went to Cedar Springs.”
Hunky’s was a place you could come have a burger while showing Kaposi sarcoma, the rare cancer that sometimes inflicts AIDS patients. It was common for customers to bring friends and family to Hunky’s as a neutral place to come out to them, Barton says.
It worked because Hunky’s didn’t discriminate — gay, straight, women, men, black, white, sick, healthy, everyone likes a good burger.
While the wild mid-80s days of Cedar Springs were going down, Barton worked seven days a week. “I didn’t have much time to go crazy, but I lived vicariously through my employees who partied a little harder,” he says. “I heard all the stories.”
By 1986, he was burned out, and his brother sold the Arlington restaurant. Barton left Hunky’s to his brother’s management and moved to the Upper West Side of New York City “just to see what the world was,” and work in retail and fashion. He worked at the original Tommy Hilfiger store on Broadway at one point, and he lived in the Ansonia Hotel, where some of his neighbors were old Ziegfeld girls. He paid $250 a month after taking over a pal’s lease.
The Ansonia’s ground-floor club, where Bette Midler used to perform, already had closed as AIDS ravaged New York’s gay community. Barton returned to Oak Lawn and Hunky’s in 1989. Soon after, David moved to San Francisco. And very quickly, he became ill.
David moved to Houston for treatment for AIDS, but he died. Barton was the one to tell his parents that David had AIDS, but no one talked about it.
While Barton excels at operations — he wakes up at 6 a.m. and reports to Hunky’s in Bishop Arts by 8 a.m. — his brother was good with numbers and marketing.
“I hated the name ‘Hunky’s’,” Barton says. “But people thought it was catchy and cute and that it doesn’t bring out any negative connotations. So I give him credit for the name.”
Barton opened the Oak Cliff Hunky’s in the building that once housed Ginny’s Bishop Grill. He and then romantic partner Michael Amonett bought that building in 2006. Barton opened Hunky’s, and Amonett opened Alchemy Salon. They still own the building together.
Even though Barton, now 64, says he and his brother never came out to their parents, he says they knew. It wasn’t talked about, but it was accepted. “My grandparents came up from Waco one day,” he says. “My dad came up, and he walked over to JR’s and had a beer one time.”