All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their histories while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
There’s no chef and there’s no one at the door. It’s open. You can see into the bar from the street, the front door propped open on a bluish-tinted evening at Greenville Avenue and the patio umbrellas as open as parachutes and rippling in a summer breeze. A couple of weeks ago, the Libertine nodded at its 11th anniversary of living on Lower-tumultous-Greenville. Did it do anything to mark the occasion?
“No, not really. We didn’t even really remember,” co-owner Simon McDonald says with a chuckle.
If you’re a patron of the bar, you’re likely not surprised by how laid back it is here. Amidst the change and trends on Greenville — a new artisanal gelato place is opening across the street — it’s been a bar that eases you to the ground like a parachute. The Libertine, like always, has the aroma of the inside of a fermenting barrel. There’s something deeply comforting about the bar’s whiff of stale beer. Do we want our pubs to be smelling like the inside of the French Laundry? I don’t think so.
The Libertine accepts. It accepts whatever status you’re in. On my recent visit, a woman sat at a table with her head hanging down, the guy she's with rubbing comforting circles on her back. She stumbled out a few minutes later. Been there, friends, been there.
“Everyone’s kind of welcome. That’s kind of our thing. You know, there’s no door guy,” McDonald says.
It’s not a common feeling at every neighborhood bar. Dallas’ great taverns are amplifying their presence with social media and Culinary Institute of America graduates. Whether the food’s fantastic or not, these shifts can notably change the atmosphere of a pub.
The Libertine tried it already, multiple times. It empowered chef-driven dishes years before it was popular. It tried chicken and waffles. It had a pulled-pork sandwich with slaw on a sliced baguette long before it was common to find one at a neighborhood bar. It's surfed the trend wave, and now it's on the other side.
It doesn't have an executive chef now; it has a kitchen manager. And it works. The food's not going to win any James Beard awards, but it's going to satisfy your beer-soaked hunger.
“We’ve kind of gone away from the chef-driven menu literally because it’s unaffordable. It’s hard to find waitstaff, much less someone to run a kitchen. But we’ve been doing this for 20-plus years,” McDonald says, referring to his history running Expo Park’s Meridian Room.
A hanger steak sandwich drops in front of me. Fries circle the plate. A cup of jus — beef stock, pepper and simmered onions — tastes beautiful when you swipe the Esmeralda bakery baguette through it. The steak, which gets a medium-rare cook on a flat-top in its own juices and some beer, is sticky with a melted sheet of Gruyere cheese. There’s a dipping ramekin of horseradish mayonnaise for everything, and alongside a beer, a wave of good feelings washes over you. What else do you need at your neighborhood pub? A good steak sandwich, fries and a beer are really all.
Will the Libertine find another chef to run the kitchen?
“Probably not,” McDonald says. “Not that it’s impossible, but young kids getting out of culinary school these days are demanding 100 grand a year. I don’t make that.”
The food, no matter who’s in the kitchen, is pub-driven, not chef-driven. It’s burgers and club sandwiches and french fries, ones that you might not have time to make at home, that care more about delivering a meal than a presentation.
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“Sometimes people want to be a title,” McDonald says.
Maybe the lack of chef is for the best at the Libertine. It's riding the evolution of things on Greenville, and lately, there’s been an increase in simple, no-bullshit, “pre-foodie” dishes. American cheese, for example, is back with a vengeance.
“We’re a small, small place,” McDonald says. “It’s just me and my partner. We’re not, by any means, getting rich doing this. But it’s fun, and it’s a great job.”
The Libertine, 2101 Greenville Ave.