The Muddled Path of Eddie Campbell, Dallas' Wandering Barkeep
It's a hot Friday night at Abacus, and Eddie "Lucky" Campbell is lovingly describing a gin cocktail, finished with lime and garnished with a copse of fresh herbs, to an older woman at the bar. Kent Rathbun's flagship restaurant is fine dining tailor-made for its Uptown neighborhood, and the woman's dress matches her apparent desire for $50 steaks and $100 tasting menus. But she wasn't interested in Killing Thyme, a drink that Campbell helped make popular when he worked at Oak Cliff's Bolsa. She ordered the Big Daddy instead. Campbell slides a martini glass across the bar; she takes a tentative sip. "It's very citrusy," she says with approval, and then tips the glass again.
Seeing Campbell without his trademark fedora for the first time is like seeing your dad after he shaves off the mustache he's worn since before you were born. You might not recognize the tidy drink maker behind the bar at Abacus, even if he's helped you grind the edge off your troubles many times before. It's not just the missing hat. His demeanor has shifted. When Campbell shakes a cocktail, his body no longer sways to the rhythm of the ice cubes as they crash against the sides of a stainless steel shaker. His style is more restrained, even a little quiet. And, hey, that's weird: He's not standing on the bar.
But grab a seat and previously fuzzy memories will come into focus. His rasp of a voice resurrects drinks swilled down at countless bars around town, and his long hair is familiar, even if it's now bridled in a tight and neat ponytail. Campbell has become a fixture in Dallas' cocktail scene, despite never settling in at one bar. His fedora has bounced around town like the white ball in a cartoon sing-along, but it's left a trail of well-dressed cocktails in its wake.
Campbell spins a bar spoon in a crystal glass like it's his calling, but before he worked behind a bar, he was a bike messenger in Washington, D.C. "It was nothing short of life-threatening," he says. Shuttling documents on a bike in heavy urban traffic is death-defying work, and if a cab didn't squash you, the Internet eventually squeezed you out of the job. Campbell's decision to move to Dallas a decade ago was a good one — even though it didn't look so at first.
Campbell found himself running cases of cheap bottled beer, cutting limes, taking out the trash and breaking up fights at a since-closed bar named Suede in East Dallas. "You would think I would question my progress in life," he says, reflecting on his time as a barback. But something about the sticky floors and broken bottles clung to him. He loved the service industry and has worked in it since. He still has to take out the garbage.
Of course things are a little different when you're heaving a heavy plastic bag dripping stale beer at your own place. After time at The Mansion, Bolsa and a slew of other bars, he partnered with Ed Bailey to open up The Chesterfield downtown, a little cocktail lounge that seemed poised to become a great bar. But it overreached, Campbell says. Cocktail dens are rarely open at noon, for instance, and the good ones tend to focus mostly on drinks. With its full menu and extended hours, The Chesterfield offered too much to too many customers, and Campbell started to see a little bit of himself in every lemon twist he squeezed.
"I was having trouble keeping up with our schedule, and I was having a lot of trouble keeping up with the food program," he says. "I could feel the service slipping." Campbell was eventually removed from the bar in an ownership drama that played out like a whiskey-stained soap opera. He returned briefly, standing on the bar as he delivered a rousing speech. But then he was booted again. The disagreement devolved into a lawsuit that's currently pending, and Campbell has been looking for his own place ever since.
While making a great living might be tough, it's not hard for a skilled cocktail doctor to find work in Dallas. Campbell turned to the special events and other gigs he'd worked in the past, and slipped behind the bar at restaurants all over town. But he was constantly prowling for his own space to lease while dreams of his next bar came to shape.
He also talked to Kent Rathbun. Campbell's second job in Dallas, after mopping floors at Suede, was Rathbun's restaurant Jaspers, and the two met again at other bars and events around town. Rathbun eventually offered Campbell the Abacus job, and since good news and bad news always come in overpours, that's when Campbell's phone rang about the perfect spot for his new bar, also in Uptown.
The announcement of Campbell's next bar, to be called Parliament, and his subsequent intentions to remain on the staff at Abacus, sounds a lot like another food professional who pledged loyalty to his current job as he'd come into new opportunity. Not long ago the city's best chef, Matt McCallister, was working as chef at Campo, a short-lived restaurant in Oak Cliff, when he announced plans to open his current restaurant, FT-33. He said he'd stay on at Campo as a consulting chef, but his relationship slowly dissolved as his dreams for the new restaurant solidified. Campo closed and FT-33 is thriving.
While Abacus will be fine with or without Campbell, it seems like a stretch that he'll be able to work both jobs while giving his latest creation the attention all new establishments need. But he insists he'll make it work.
"I can do this all my waking hours, seven days a week," he says. "I live for my guests."
As for the Parliament, Campbell's design sounds like it could keep those guests drunk for a while. He's planning an interior he describes as avant-garde, professing a love for fabric-draped walls and crystal chandeliers. "It will be a little more refined and luxurious, and there's no question that there will be an old-timey feel," he says. "The exterior will be like a French sidewalk café."
As he talks, I remember why Campbell is a successful bartender. Like most good barmen, he's a raconteur as much as he is a skilled drink maker. Boredom and temperance are never an issue when he steps behind the bar. Take a sip from your drink and you can see the ghosts of future customers holding cocktails and pulling on cigarettes as they sit at wrought-iron tables out front of Parliament. It's a lasting image. And if Campbell can find a home in it, this city might be a better place to drink.
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