By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
For Zielke, Oak Cliff is an attitude as much as a community, home to a subsector of Dallas that is interested in food, aware of environmental impact and loyal to their part of town. "We couldn't have done this in Uptown," he says.
David Pedack, owner of Blue Collar Bar and Urbino Pizza e Pasta, observes that the pair strongly complement each other. Where Zielke sees the long-term sweep of a concept, for instance, Jeffers is able to focus on the details. Trust between business partners is critical, Pedack says, "but the dynamics of a relationship—the yin-yang thing—is just as important."
Zielke admits that it's difficult, still, to be around normal people and show a concerned side. When we dined at Hula Hotties, one of the café's owners recognized him and brought out a flyer listing specials and events. He took several, promising to display them at Bolsa. "I'm still not used to that," he later says.
With their success came property owners who approached them, wanting the pair to replicate Bolsa in this or that neighborhood. But they refused all suitors until Bunkhouse Management called them in July. The Austin hotel management firm had been concerned with the lagging performance of the Cliff Café, the restaurant attached to Belmont Hotel.
Both men were drawn to the opportunity to create something new in an existing restaurant space. After thinking it over and raiding the life savings of Jeffers' wife to fund the project, they convinced chef Tim Byres to jump from Stephan Pyles. Then they approached Bunkhouse with the idea of replacing the café with an upscale barbecue joint based on old-fashioned techniques of wood fire and smoke.
The Bunkhouse folks laughed...then nodded their approval.
In comparison to Bolsa, Smoke was a cakewalk. They gutted the interior and then rebuilt in less than two months. Their largest expense was the installation of a wood-burning barbecue built by the A. N. Bowley Company for a restaurant being developed by former Cowboy Emmitt Smith—only the deal fell apart. Byres fixed up an old Volkswagen bus and cruised the American South, from the Mississippi delta to the hills of North Carolina, picking up wood-fired cooking tips along the way.
Jeffers and Zielke have been through the aimlessness, been through the suffering, battled personal demons and come out on top. Now the only thing troubling the hottest restaurateurs in Dallas is that nagging matter of success.
At the moment, however, it's difficult to imagine anything putting the damper on these two. Gray skies and intermittent downpours hardly spoiled the grand opening hoopla at Smoke on September 11—although conditions did force scheduled performances by Slobberbone, Sarah Jaffe and others indoors from stages originally set on the restaurant's back patio and by the hotel pool. More than 800 people sent RSVPs for the bash, and most seem to have kept the date. A little more than a year since their check-bouncing Bolsa opening, a line of would-be partyers with rain-soaked hair huddled near Smoke's front door. Jeffers had already ditched the snakeskin sport coat, which he wore in honor of Kinky Friedman, author and gubernatorial candidate who served as ceremonial host. Jeffers is not the sort who can pull off a wild python pattern, and the Kinkster probably didn't notice as he busied himself hawking cigars.
Where a week earlier there had been an empty space, now there was a mass of people swirling around the place, some in cowboy hats—probably Kinky's influence—others dressed for a more fashionable scene. A rectangular bar, fully stocked, juts toward the main entry, creating a dividing line between the dining room, lit by the flicker of a faux-flame fireplace, and a less formal lounge area. Once in awhile guests would brave the rain and dive onto the back patio and its less attended bar (the main one was sometimes stacked three or four deep). From there they might run into the hotel itself—spillover territory for the crowd. In front of the open kitchen, a display case set up in the last few days before the shindig held whole cured hams, along with links of homemade sausages. Not really the thing you expect to see at an upscale party.
But this is indeed what people had crowded into Smoke's main dining room to see: meat, the very smell of it—sweet, tart and heavily smoky—wafting through the room, being absorbed into Levi's and Prada alike. It smelled like the old South, and crowds descended on every plate of ribs brought from the kitchen. Never have I witnessed such fanaticism at an opening event. To hell with Southern manners: Men practically dove over their women to grab a bone from the pile, while women in nightclub whites gnawed at sauce-slathered barbecue. Strangers kept coming up to me, yelling over the din: "Have you tried the food?" or even more often "Where is the food?"
Such is the spectacle caused by the former bartenders, a circus not only of hungry well-wishers, but of media: four other reporters, including one from The Dallas Morning News showed up. At least five photographers roamed the area and a few TV cameras, as well. Yet through all the tumult, Zielke and Jeffers moved about calmly—though with purpose, directing the operation by walkie-talkie, solving little dilemmas that cropped up. I tried to ask them how things were going, but a waitress stepped in. Kinky wanted one thing or another; a few minutes later, it was a band member demanding a four-top set-up near the improvised stage.