Massey's, a Fort Worth culinary landmark since 1947, has served its last chicken-fried steak years after barmaids resembling novelist Dan Jenkins' fictionalized "Juanita" had stopped tossing Lone Star longnecks to thirsty customers.
At dinnertime Tuesday, a steady stream of customers approached the locked door and tried to shake it open.
It closed Feb. 6, and "I put it on the market on Monday," said Diane Massey, who had leased out the Eighth Avenue restaurant in 1997 after she and her husband, Charles Herbert Massey Jr., closed it the year before. "My tenant left in a kind of a hurry."
Her father-in-law, Charles "Herb" Massey Sr., opened the namesake eatery in what had been an early drive-in with curb service called Herman Jones, which became Denny Harmon's, according to Jenkins.
Massey Sr. launched his venture after breaking with his business partner and twin brother, Hubert, in a Jacksboro Highway cafe, Diane Massey said.
In 1978, the Texas House of Representatives passed a resolution declaring Massey's signature dish to be the "greatest chicken-fried steak served in Cowtown" and, simply, a "classic Texas meal."
From 1978 to 1986, Massey's sold 6,000 steaks each week, "just regular as clockwork," Massey Jr. said in 1996.
"Massey's was our Left Bank of the Seine; it was our literary hangout," sportswriter and novelist Bud Shrake said in 1996. "We played the bowling machine and ate the open hot-steak sandwiches. We'd sit at Massey's for 12 hours at a time, drinking coffee, just talking about everything."
Jenkins immortalized the restaurant as "Herb's," which many locals then called it, in his 1981 novel Baja Oklahoma, set in Fort Worth . It was later made into an HBO original film starring Lesley Ann Warren as Juanita Hutchins, a feisty 40-something barmaid who couldn't be out-sworn by male customers. Jenkins had already introduced the gastronomy of chicken-fried steak to the eastern half of the country with his earlier novel, Semi-Tough, he said.
To generations of Cowtown residents, it was comfort food in the form of breaded and deep-fried meat, not literary references, that drew them.
"Half of our lunch orders were always the chicken-fried steak," said Diane Massey, who toiled there 25 years before and after marrying Massey Jr., who had returned home from California to run the restaurant after his mother died in 1972. "But he enjoyed it so much he stayed on," she said. Her husband died in 2005.
The chicken-fried steak recipe never varied when the family ran it, she said. "We used a good cut from Taylor Dressed Beef, and always double-dipped it in a flour, milk and egg batter."
In 1996, Massey Jr. explained why.
"If you don't buy the best you can buy, why, it's like trying to eat shoe leather, I guess," he told the Star-Telegram.
He recounted that by the mid-'80s, sales plummeted as even Texans became increasingly aware that fried steaks and cream gravy clogged arteries.
"There was the cholesterol kick and the fat kick and the fat grams, and that beat us over the head," he said. Business "just kind of went sliding downhill from then on."
The Masseys closed the restaurant in 1996. The next year, Todd A. Scott and John Hamilton leased the building and reopened under the same name with the same menu -- but using frozen french fries instead of freshly peeled and cut ones, Diane Massey noted. The partners later split, and Scott started closing Saturdays. He then cut evening service until he was unable to scrape by, she said.
Diane Massey said she allowed him to operate five weeks rent-free before he departed. Without the funds to bring the building to code, she said, she reluctantly decided to put the property up for sale.
"No, no, no, no -- gee!" Ron Gentry, whose family has operated Kincaid's Hamburgers for three generations, said when told of the end of Massey's.
"I am so distressed by this news. It's saddening," Gentry said via cellphone. "I've got to drive off the highway. Actually, I'm now heading to Massey's for one last look."
Gentry said it was the place to bring out-of-town guests curious about an exotic dish called chicken-fried steak.
"That's one of my favorite places -- just iconic," he went on. "Growing up in Cleburne, when we came to Fort Worth it was always Angelo's for barbecue, Joe T. Garcia's for Tex-Mex and Massey's for chicken-fried steak."
Jenkins, who did much to make the restaurant a landmark, said he can't pick out a particular reminiscence. He called the memory of Massey's "just a continuous world of laughter about life its own self."
"In the glory days, there was the bar side and the restaurant side joined by a doorway," the novelist said by e-mail. "The bar served beer only, but in those days you could brown-bag it also. But most of the sitting around was about drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and discussing the 13 roads leading out of Fort Worth to a more glamorous future. Stupid us."
The years have made hurtful changes, he acknowledged. "All I know is, the Massey's that's closing is really not the place that all of us once knew. Still, that street corner will always be sacred."
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718