With an umbrella protecting her from the light rain, Diane Massey watched as a big part of her life disappeared Wednesday morning.
Massey’s served its last chicken-fried steak in 2011 but it was still hard to say goodbye to the landmark Fort Worth restaurant.
“It’s too bad it wasn’t kept up because then that way we would still be doing something else with it,” said Massey, who reached a deal to sell the building to Dallas businessman Don Williams in December. “I had high hopes that a restaurant was going to go in over here.”
It took about an hour for most the building to be knocked down Wednesday morning, leaving behind a plate of red bricks and dust along Eighth Avenue on the edge of the Fairmount National Historic District.
Massey, the widow of Charles Massey, ran the restaurant with her husband for 25 years, but it dated back to 1947 when Charles’ father, Herbert Massey opened it. The Massey family had not been directly involved with operating the restaurant since 1996 but she still had bittersweet feelings about seeing it go.
She can remember the lines outside the restaurant in the 1970s and the fame the restaurant received from being in Dan Jenkins’ novel Baja Oklahoma, and later in the HBO movie of the same name that starred Lesley Ann Warren and also a very young Julia Roberts. But Jenkins called it “Herb’s Cafe.”
It purportedly served up to 6,000 chicken-fried steaks a week during the 1980s.
Though it was very popular during the 1970s and ’80s, Jenkins said it meant more to him in the ’40s and ’50s when he and fellow writers like Bud Shrake would hang out there.
“It was our Left Bank,” Jenkins said.
Yet Jenkins was hardly sentimental about the building’s demise when informed it was gone.
“People did come and look for it, and I hope they weren’t too disappointed,” Jenkins said. “What I wrote was an exaggeration.”
Massey said the restaurant’s fortunes began to change as people become more health-conscious. Suddenly, a regular diet of chicken-fried steak didn’t sound like such a good idea.
“I tell you what hurt us was when they first came out and started talking about fat in your diet,” Massey said. “A lot of people were here eating chicken-fried steak every day and then they cut back.”
Remembering good times
Amidst the sadness, it was also a time to reminisce.
Mary Anne Boyd ran the Blue Note, the bar that was attached to Massey’s for 21 years. She still has the old Blue Note sign in her garage and she got it fixed so it still works.
Boyd and Kathy O’Brien, who was a longtime waitress, started swapping some of their favorite stories as the building came down behind them.
They recalled that the no-smoking section once consisted of only eight tables and that Diane Massey would hide the electric bill from her husband during the summer because keeping the poorly insulated building cool would cost a fortune.
Then there was the time that O’Brien didn’t recognize her own family.
“How about that time you went up and said ‘Can I take your order?’ and it was your parents?” Boyd said. “She didn’t know it. She just kept taking their order.”
Without missing a beat, O’Brien replied: “Well, my parents lived in Illinois and I hadn’t seen them in a long time.”
The property’s future
While most people were talking about the past, there is also concern about what will replace the old restaurant.
For now, the two Massey’s signs will continue to stand, serving as a reminder of what was once there. There had been talk of a medical office building or another restaurant.
But Jayson Williams, who has been overseeing the property for Don Williams (no relation), said they haven’t really been marketing the property for the last six months. Once it is scraped clean, they’ll see who takes an interest.
One former customer and long-time Fairmount resident, Larry Schuessler, who came by to snap some photos, has some opinions about what should go there.
“It would be nice if it would be restaurant, but not fast food,” Schuessler said. “In Fairmount we used to be scared about medical stuff but it would be nice if the architect would build it in an architectural standard like the ’20s or the ’40s rather than just a modern building.”