The Smoke Pit barbecue restaurant, a classic, dimly lit 1960s Texas tavern lined with gimme caps, license plates and neon beer signs, will close Friday so the owner can reopen another old Fort Worth restaurant nearby: Sammie’s.
One mile on East Belknap Street from the Tarrant County courthouse but decades backward in time, the Smoke Pit opened in 1961 and became a hangout for politicians and lawyers.
More than one license plate on the wall read “State Judge.”
Co-owner Sam Gibbins said the closing of the Smoke Pit, 2401 E. Belknap St., is timed with the October reopening of Sammie’s Bar-B-Q, 3801 E. Belknap St. That’s a newer building that was left vacant when the 72-year-old Sammie’s closed last year.
Gibbins said he’s heard an apartment complex will replace the Smoke Pit, which he co-owned with Annette Hinkle.
Gibbins took over the Smoke Pit from the family of Betty Mullen, the restaurant’s matriarch from 1958 until her death in 1993.
The restaurant is so classically Texan that it became the setting for plays by the local Hip Pocket Theater.
When Mullen’s granddaughter Delanya took over the restaurant in 1996 at age 23, she promised not to change anything.
An old .45-rpm record jukebox gave way to the newer CD version, but the Smoke Pit remained basically unchanged.
“I was brought to the Smoke Pit as an infant and put in a Styrofoam beer cooler while my family worked,” Delanya Mullen Young wrote from her home in California, where she is a barbecue caterer.
She stood on a pickle bucket to help wash dishes, she said.
“My first tip was from [Texas House Speaker] Gib Lewis,” she said.
“I brought him a tea and took his dollar and he he gave me 50 cents.”
The switch to Sammie’s renews a name that has been part of Fort Worth barbecue lore since 1946.
The current Sammie’s was built in 1987, but it replaced a 1946 drive-in with car hops, nickel goblets of beer and the best pork ribs in Fort Worth.
In author Dan Jenkins’ 1974 golf novel, “Dead Solid Perfect,” two characters argue over “whether Angelo’s or Sammie’s had the best barbecued ribs.” In Jenkins’ 2014 novel “You Gotta Play Hurt,” Sammie’s was the site of a coaches dinner for mythical TCU Horned Frogs football coach T.J. Lambert.
When Gibbins bought Sammie’s last year, he said he would keep that restaurant’s bracelet-size, thick-breaded onion rings.