Out to pasture

The Hungry Jockey--a North Dallas institution--fades in the stretch

Location is important, food is important, atmosphere is important. Restaurateurs and chefs and critics love to argue about which is the most important, but no one would argue that one of the three had better be good.

People will eat good food in lackluster surroundings; they'll eat ordinary food in good surroundings. They'll eat anything in a convenient location. And one thing that isn't usually mentioned is habit. People will eat where they usually eat.

So The Hungry Jockey, a North Dallas institution that, honestly, served only okay food but in an idiosyncratic atmosphere that had been in the same location for years, was playing against the odds when it moved.

Ready to "put on the feed bag?" Hungry as a horse? Were these the phrases that long ago in the misty past inspired the eccentric decor of The Hungry Jockey?

No, cliches had nothing to do with it--The Hungry Jockey got its name and its theme from the owners' and customers' passion for horses. It seems pretty daring now. How did they know people would relate to it? What about the animal rights people? How many of their targeted clientele watched the Kentucky Derby every year? How many knew who Man O' War was?

Before the days of market research and consumer profiles, I guess people just did what they liked, not what they thought would sell. This guy liked horses, and so did his friends, who brought pictures of their personal favorites to decorate The Hungry Jockey.

A standard, a classic, even a rarity in Dallas, where restaurants are lucky to last a year, the Jockey was tucked into a corner of Preston Forest for decades. Its booths were built to look like stalls, its walls were covered with ribbons and portraits of racehorses. Most of its patrons lived and worked in the neighborhood; the hardcore owned horses, or rode horses, or raced horses and lived horses and came to the Jockey to talk horses. They ate at the Jockey often. They knew what time to go to avoid the rush, they knew which day was chicken-fried steak day and which day to go for meatloaf.

The Hungry Jockey was always crowded when you wanted to go there. It obviously filled the needs of its neighborhood, but crowds are "bad," so it's ditched its niche and moved north to greener, that is bigger, pastures, losing itself in the process.

In the new location, the ancient and browning portraits of champion horses and faded equestrian awards look out of place on the spick-and-span tattersall walls. The crowds at the old place made for a kind of intimacy and energy; the waitresses (they always seemed to be women and there always seemed to be lots of them) bustled around the little room, aiming to turn those tables once more before closing time.

The new space is larger, all right, but instead of seeming spacious, it just seems empty. Our waitress moved fast and efficiently, but there was no need to hurry so people could be seated. There was plenty of room for everyone. The booths are built of brand-new Astroturf green vinyl; they're the only bright thing in this sterile room. And the food won't win any blue ribbons, either.

There was never anything original or even wonderful about the food at the Jockey; it was and is a typical diner menu, breakfasts of sausage and egg combination plates, lunches of burgers and blue plate-type specials. But these plates of food could have come from a high-class high school cafeteria: a round of pre-chicken fried steak, tough to cut and damp on the outside from sitting on a steam table, with kitchen-cut green beans (frozen?) and great, slightly lumpy mashed potatoes.

On Monday, the lunch special was smothered steak--more like what we used to call Salisbury steak--a browned ground beef patty smothered with brown gravy. The chunks of gargantuan carrot were sweetened with raisins, plumped in the cooking like little footballs. A plastic basket of heavy cornbread rolls and stiff yeast rolls comes with the lunch.

Chocolate pie, a weeping slice of pudding-y chocolate custard topped with meringue (the latter welcome when so many places have surrendered to whipped topping, though the meringue had that overwhelming cream of tartar taste that comes from over-insuring its rise with chemicals). Breakfast is a better bet. The stack of pancakes didn't dissolve in the syrup (the major flaw I find in commercial pancakes), the strips of bacon were 10 inches long and flat as, well, pancakes; cooked under a weight, they were meaty and crisp.

But frankly, there's nothing to draw you to the Jockey unless you happen to be in the neighborhood (Preston at LBJ). Or unless you really love horses.

--Mary Brown Malouf

The Hungry Jockey, 12829 Preston Rd. Suite 120, (Preston at LBJ), 661-0134. Open for breakfast and lunch Monday-Saturday 6 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sunday 7 a.m.-2 p.m.

The Hungry Jockey:
Lunch Special $5.25
Country Griddle Breakfast $4.95
Chicken Fried Steak Lunch $5.25

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