Food News

As the Neighborhood Changes, a Beloved Oak Cliff Diner Stays the Course for 60 Years

Ed Murph got to buy his favorite restaurant. Back when he attended Adamson High School, he constantly ate at the original Norma’s Cafe in Bishop Arts, he says. He remembers having dinner there with his family and eating burgers and fries with friends after school. Thirty years ago, Murph bought Norma’s Cafe from the original owners and, other than adding a few salads, basically kept it the same. Now this Dallas institution is celebrating its 60th anniversary.

When Murph first heard Norma's was for sale, he immediately headed to the restaurant to start negotiating, he says. He believed Norma’s was an important part of the community and was keenly aware of how a combination of home cooked meals, good value and attentive service can go a long way.

“This is the kind of food I was raised on,” Murph says. “My aunt and grandmother made it. We quickly discovered that the same could be said for many people throughout the neighborhood. It’s a natural fit for the community.”

Norma’s is known for having one of the best breakfasts in Dallas. They have Mexican offerings like migas, chilaquiles and huevos rancheros, but they also have one of the best chicken-fried steaks in town and huge omelets made with three eggs. The chicken-fried steak is also a popular item for lunch and dinner, along with shredded chicken with cornbread dressing and meatloaf made from scratch. 
Another factor in Norma’s tremendous success is simply the home-style veggie options that come with entrees. It may not be the first thing that comes to mind, but these dishes stand out when served with options that hit close to home for many — hand-peeled mashed potatoes, black-eyed peas, buttered corn, turnip greens, glazed carrots and steamed broccoli.

The food is more or less your standard typical greasy spoon cafe fare, elevated by fresh ingredients and six decades of practice making perfect. But Norma’s is not a cookie cutter diner; it remains a 1950s style cafe in the fiercely loyal neighborhood of Oak Cliff. Arrive for breakfast or brunch on any weekend and the line is out the door. Even a parking space is hard to find, but you won’t see people turning away. These are loyal customers who are greeted by their first names as they walk in the door.
“We have a lot of repeat business,” Murph says. “It’s one of the things that makes it unique. We develop relationships with people. It’s not like we get them today and hope they come back. We have generational customers.”

Norma’s is a great spot to people-watch. You may see someone sitting at the bar wearing sweatpants with someone in a suit sitting right next to them. Like walking down a sidewalk in New York City, this is a place where you will see people of virtually every background. There's also a wonderfully infectious energy at Norma’s. As soon as you get in line, servers with shirts that say “That’s too much bacon — said no one ever” are working hard to keep it moving, shouting your name and asking for the size of your party.

The environment is more communal than what you would expect from a restaurant in 2016. Instead of faces staring at iPhones, completely indifferent to servers and other diners, you're more likely to see people having conversations. If someone accidentally breaks a plate, don’t be surprised if the entire restaurant erupts in applause.

“When I bought Norma’s Cafe it was pretty much like it is today, an icon of the area,” Murph says. The endurance is all the more remarkable considering the rapid change of Bishop Arts. There are many more restaurants to compete with these days and the demographics have changed considerably, but Norma’s Cafe still has a special place in people’s hearts.

Now working on opening his fourth location near NorthPark Center, Murph will celebrate the 60th anniversary of Norma’s Cafe twice this month. For a fundraiser on June 14, donations will be accepted and limited edition cups will be sold, with all proceeds going to the Birthday Party Project, a non-profit organization that partners with homeless shelters to throw birthday parties for homeless children. On June 23, Norma’s will roll back prices to the 1950s on three favorites. For one day only, chicken-fried steak, meatloaf and chicken and dressing will be $1.79 each.

Norma's, 1123 W. Davis St.
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Jeremy Hallock