All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their history while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
Except for the hiss of the flat-top, it’s peaceful at Adair’s Saloon on a weekday. The jukebox is frozen, the page flipped open to an old George Strait album. Ice crashes from inside the hulking ice maker that suddenly picks up speed like an '80s computer, rattling and humming. On the TV above the bar, a soap opera is on mute: A fancy gentleman in an eye patch looks astonished in a posh living room. Around and behind me are the tattooed walls, and a couple of guys are waiting on burgers. One of them has a real-life eye patch on, and the circle of life is complete. This is a two-eye-patch kind of dive bar.
I will never quit Dallas’ dive bars. They are enduring churches, all of them a beacon of light in life’s murky fog, shining without irony, country on the jukebox and salted beef on the griddle. They’re hardened, dark stones, crafted in deep emotion and turmoil like lava rock. The walls at Adair’s are covered in macabre-looking scrawls, and there’s floor-to-ceiling wear and tear. The men’s bathroom door has a busted hole, like somebody tried to create a doggy door with a heavy boot. Inside the restroom, it looks like a David Fincher film.
Sitting at the bar on at lunchtime, the sounds of Adair’s are perfectly soothing. After a few minutes, there’s the flurry of thick bubbles from the french fries going into hot oil, and the zip-crash of a delivery dude dropping off boxes of beer. My server, Patti Kanouse (she spells her name to me in the NATO phonetic alphabet, “Kilo. Alpha ...”), hustles back and forth between tables. She’s managing the bar, the floor and occasionally stopping to tend to burgers on the griddle.
What's Adair's most popular sandwich? “The burgers,” she says swiftly. “We’re known for our burgers.” And that was the end of the advertisement. No more, no less. The menu’s as focused as Patti is: A thin yellow sleeve showcases a couple of burgers, hot wings (six of 'em), a BLT, a chicken sandwich, a hot ham and cheese, chips and queso, salsa, fries and that’s about it.
In the middle of an ocean of change that’s washing over Deep Ellum, Adair’s is a rough-and-tumble gem. The burgers, and the graffiti, started soon after Ann and S.L. Adair opened the doors in February of 1963 on Cedar Springs. It nestled into Commerce Street in Deep Ellum in January of 1983, change flickering around it ever since. At the grand opening party, according to history, next owner Lois Adair handed out black markers and the old traditions began anew. The walls show it. In 2006, Lois sold the restaurant to Joel Morales and Marty Monroe, who operate it today.
After about 20 minutes, my burger arrives in a spot-on, what-everyone-needs plastic basket.
The cheese drapes over onion and the half-pound patty, with chopped lettuce and tomato underneath. The burger is dead-on salty and juicy, a horizon of pink in the middle showcasing the medium rare cook. Crunchy bacon, my only add-on, rests on top. No mayo, just a spike of yellow mustard. It’s the burger you imagine when you want a good bar sandwich: Well-seasoned beef that’s been cooked with a close eye and good instincts, all for less than 10 bucks.
Halfway through the burger, I have a weird feeling. I’m here to observe and chat with folks who have been at Adair’s for years, but all I want to do is interview the restaurant itself. There seems to be so many stories, literally written on the walls. I want to hear the sounds of the place. I record two minutes of audio, half expecting to hear ghosts of long-passed regulars, sharing stories through the frequency of the recorder.
This is why Adair’s lives on in fast-growing Deep Ellum: Beyond the great burgers and the country music, the bar seems to live and breathe — even when there are few folks inside. When you enter, this bar has got its arm around you. It holds you up. When you walk out the door, as I did with a hot ham and cheese in tow (bread butter-griddled to toasty, with thick-slice ham, lettuce, tomato and mayo), you feel like part of you will still be back at the bar, listening.
Adair's Saloon, 2624 Commerce St.