No restaurant lasts long unless it develops both a loyal cadre of regular diners while adding new patrons, and that has saved a number of Arlington spots still in business after steering through the city’s explosive growth.
Cuisine-wise, a trek through Arlington’s old guard restaurants – multi-decades survivors in a tough business – nets some tasty culinary surprises that run the gamut: Everything from capelli d’angelo al pescatora (pasta with several kinds of seafood) to classic cheeseburgers. Or maybe Texas batter-fried catfish served up with yeast rolls and pinto beans.
Or you might munch your way through a New Jersey style bomber sub. Perhaps drop by the restaurant that takes credit for inventing the frozen margarita, a libation so cold it’ll give you an ice cream headache.
With Arlington clocking in at a paltry 49,000 residents in 1960 – it recently tiptoed past the 400,000 mark – you’d think there wouldn’t be that many old restaurants still around.
And you’d be correct because it’s a fickle, competitive business. Stats indicate that 90 percent of independent restaurants shut down the first year, and most of those that survive their first year are long gone five years later.
Yet, some do persevere, sometimes passed down through the family but more often through successive owners, often with shifting addresses as well. This much is certain: No restaurant lasts long unless it develops both a loyal cadre of regular diners while adding new patrons.
Here’s a list of such non-chain survivors, some of which have been dining mainstays for more than a half century. All of them have been around more than 30 years.
• Catfish Sam’s: Sam Lester and his wife Jo Dale (both deceased) showed up in Arlington in 1948 as 19-year-old newlyweds, operating a small motel and restaurant (originally Half Moon Barbecue) on what was then U.S. 80, quickly converting that to the La Casita.
When Tex-Mex restaurants became the rage with too many competitors, they shifted emphasis again (and the name) to Catfish Sam’s – fried catfish with a recipe from Sam’s mother, hushpuppies and pinto beans, plus some well-regarded yeast rolls (served with honey) and chicken fried steaks.
Rebuilds have been necessary after two devastating fires.
A big chunk of east Fort Worth also regards Sam’s as a personal favorite. It’s an unassuming, relaxed endeavor with lots of fans. And beer. Seventy years and three generations later it’s still run by the Lester family at the same 2725 W. Division St. location.
• Candlelite Inn: When it opened in 1957, it offered a dish otherwise unavailable in Arlington at the time – something exotic called pizza. Owners built a bigger restaurant on the same lot in 1964, itself recently redone by current proprietors Alan and Bonnie Petsche, only the third owners in 62 years of operation.
The menu of steaks, Tex-Mex (meals still come with corn chips), Italian entrees, and mugs of beer has been consistent and little changed for the last half century, though they do have rock ’n’ roll/rhythm and blues singers playing free in the banquet room every Tuesday night. Lunch and dinner served. 1202 E. Division St., three blocks south of AT&T Stadium.
• Piccolo Mondo (Translated from Italian, “small world”): Antonio Capaccioli showed up from Siena, Italy, 37 years ago with an idea that Tuscan-style Italian food in an elegant piano bar restaurant – one with a superior wine selection – would go over big.
He was right, serving both lunch and dinner – the piano bar also the setting for a thousand new romances, the dining area a few thousand business deals. Sure, there’s great pasta but be a big spender and try the cold-water lobster tail sautéed in a vodka/herb sauce. Or the shrimp prepared with a lemon garlic and white wine sauce. Be sure to check out specials always on a chalkboard in the foyer. 829 E. Lamar Blvd.
• Al’s Hamburgers: If you’re feeling truly oblivious to both calories and cholesterol, here’s the recommendation: Try the double-double jalapeno bacon burger with fries on the side (prudence might require that you split it with friend).
Al Matthews, now deceased, opened his drive-in burger place on North Collins in 1957. And he prospered. They sell BMWs at his original site, but there’s still an Al’s in a north Arlington strip center serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, including some menu items that are not hamburger variants.
His daughter and son-in-law run the place, cooking up burgers on Al’s vintage cast iron grill. 1001 N.E. Green Oaks Blvd. All that’s missing is Al himself, along with his trademark 1939 Ford.
And there are other old guard places worthy of exploration. Try these:
It’s been a while since Main Street Café was on Main Street circa 1949 but look hard and you’ll find it – ten or so owners later – tucked into the back of a strip center at 2033 S. Cooper. Great breakfast specials – go for the waffle special which comes with a couple of eggs. Or blue-plate lunch specials like mom used to make – beef tips, chicken and dressing, meat loaf and more.
Or, there’s Jo-Ed’s Bombers, around with a blended Marine Corps, Second Amendment ambiance, serving essentially the same Jersey-style torpedo sandwiches with secret sauce since 1969 (1924 W. Pioneer Parkway). Ditto for a somewhat expanded similar menu favored by the pickup-driving crowd at Dino’s Subs (2221 S. Collins Street).
That frozen margarita pioneer? Try Mariano’s Hacienda, 2614 Majesty Dr., off the access road to Texas 360. Otherwise it’s standard Tex-Mex. Café Pulido’s is part of a smallish regional restaurant group and has moved a couple of times but is still one of the better Tex-Mex places around in Arlington for 40-plus years. It’s also one of the few spots offering a decent bowl of chili served with a side of not-refried frijoles (3330 Matlock Road). East Arlington locals favor the smallish old-guard Tex-Mex restaurant Bigotes, offering breakfast tacos and refillable lunch platters – 1821 E. Abram St.
J.R. Bentley’s, 406. W. Abram, has moved a couple of times and been burned out once, but perseveres in what is now year 42. Think of it as a UTA-hangout, English-style fish-and-chips kind of pub that also serves big burgers. Lots of nights there’s live music.
Or finally there’s Arlington’s unofficial downtown dive centerpiece, J. Gilligan’s Bar and Grill, 400 E. Abram, now in year 40 and occupying most of the block. There’s a saloon-size bar where some eccentric story tellers hang out, live music sometimes, lots of TVs, outside patio, plentiful craft beers and Irish nachos made famous by once being featured on the TV Travel Channel.
O.K. Carter is a former editor and publisher of the Arlington Citizen-Journal and was also Arlington publisher and columnist for the Star-Telegram and founding editor of Arlington Today Magazine. He’s the author of the definitive book on Arlington’s colorful history, Caddos, Cotton and Cowboys: Essays on Arlington.