FORT WORTH — In the mid-1960s, when John Roach was fresh out of business school, his allowance was a dollar a day to park in downtown Fort Worth, a dollar a day for lunch. That’s one reason Roach was a regular at Bailey’s Bar-B-Que on Taylor Street.Like most other customers, he pretty much subsisted on the sliced beef sandwich. There was always change left over from his buck.Roach eventually became the CEO of Radio Shack and thus had the means to enjoy more pricey lunchtime fare. But five decades after his first bite, the now-retired executive still frequents the hole-in-the-wall joint across the street from the federal building downtown.“The food is fine and I wouldn’t get a lot more pleasure if I paid three times as much to eat somewhere else,” Roach said recently. “I’m not sure it has changed since when I was in there in the mid-’60s. The building, everything was pretty much the same. It’s a landmark sort of an institution.”In a downtown landscape transformed in the last 30 years, Bailey’s, virtually alone, remains a touchstone, a reminder of a different time when massive department stores ruled the heart of the city. When there were blocks of old-time movie houses. When downtown strollers paused to watch through huge windows as the Star-Telegram presses churned out the next edition.And when the celestial aroma of cooking brisket wafted down the street, all the way to the corner of Taylor and Seventh Street. That part hasn’t changed.Not since 1931. That was when a Navy cook named J.T. Bailey decided to set up shop on Taylor Street. His nephew, Willard “Buddy” Pratt, helped out around the smoker and meat cutting board. Pratt took over ownership in the early 1960s. His daughter, Brenda Phifer, started working summers at the cash register in 1975 when she was 15.‘I love it’Phifer inherited Bailey’s in 1994.“It has changed some,” she said recently, sitting in the tiny dining area, surrounded by the ancient wood paneling and massive longhorns on the wall. “We had school benches along these walls and sawdust on the floor. … Today we make the chopped beef leaner because people don’t like the fat.”The brisket and sliced beef sandwich, however, are the same because you don’t mess with perfection.“I eat the sliced beef every day,” Phifer said. “I love it.”A secret recipe?“No,” Phifer said. “Everyone thinks you wrap the briskets in foil and put all this rub on them and everything else. We cook them with oak wood and we smoke them. We don’t put a rub on them or anything fancy. Everyone swears up and down that we do but we don’t. No salt.”At 7 each morning, cook Calvin Robertson fills the smoker with 25 briskets, which simmer until 4 in the afternoon. The meat is taken out, refrigerated overnight and warmed up the next morning in time for the first customers, who start lining up at 10:30.That’s when the Bailey’s assembly line swings into action. Phifer is behind the cash register. Diane Esquivel is next to her, filling brown paper sacks with sandwiches and chips, drinks, cole slaw or potato salad. Robertson, her husband, keeps up with the orders at the meat cutting board.“People don’t have a long time at lunch so we’re pretty good at getting them in and out,” Phifer said. “And I’ve always tried to be reasonable on our prices. The brisket is good. So the business stays steady. If gas gets extremely high you’ll see your business slow down. After 9-11 it slowed down some, but it’s stayed steady; it’s really something.”‘One has to make a choice’Most Bailey’s customers grab their food and run. William Tucker, retired chancellor at TCU, is one who prefers to linger at one of the few tables.“I like Bailey’s because I don’t have to worry about spilling sauce on the white tablecloths,” he said. “Now Bailey’s is not for someone who for some reason chooses Brussels sprouts over beef. That’s to say, it’s not one for those shackled with caloric affliction.“One also doesn’t have to think too deeply before ordering because there are very few choices and they are all good,” Tucker continued. “If it’s good it can’t be healthy. One has to make a choice.”But for Tucker, the food is only part of the attraction. “You always see an interesting mix of people in Bailey’s,” Tucker said. “If you are a people watcher, it is a good place to go because it gives you a sense of the whole.”College presidents, federal judges, construction workers, attorneys, federal employees, secretaries and captains of industry all come through on a daily basis. Bailey’s has also made a small fortune off Star-Telegram employees who wander over from nearby offices. No one appreciates good, cheap barbecue more than an ink-stained wretch.I started as a cub reporter at the Star-Telegram 30 years ago and had my first sliced beef sandwich within a week. Occasionally, over the years, I have strayed toward the sausage or chopped beef but always return to the brisket. As is the case with most of her customers, Esquivel knows my order without me having to tell her: sliced beef with spicy sauce and mustard, on wheat.It’s nice when someone remembers how you take your brisket.
Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544 Twitter: @tsmadigan