Chris Jeffers doesn't tend bar anymore. He doesn't drink anymore. But back when he did, he was an expert at both, and he was the best bartender in town. He'd make fun of you and make you feel like you owned the place, all in one sentence.
Once, when I was trying to light a cigarette with a red votive candle at the Barley House (back when you could smoke indoors in Dallas, and the Barley House was on Henderson Avenue), Jeffers' raspy voice boomed from behind the bar, telling me to be careful. I asked why.
"If you put out that candle you'll kill a sailor," he said.
He was that kind of bartender: Full of useless knowledge, keeping the bar open after hours for his friends and passionate about music. The first time I ever heard South San Gabriel was when Jeffers loaned me his copy of Welcome, Convalescence. I still have it. Been meaning to return it for a decade.
It was during that time Jeffers mentioned his plan to open a bar in Oak Cliff. He wanted it to be a place where good bands played. I thought, "What a terrible idea."
Now, sitting across from him at Smoke, one of his four very successful Oak Cliff restaurants, he's agreed to let me shadow him for the entire day. We're going back and forth between Smoke, Bolsa and Bolsa Mercado, and plan to end up at his newest edition, The Foundry, a sprawling outdoor bar and concert venue which houses a fried-chicken heaven called Chicken Scratch. He warns me that Smoke is short-staffed during the lunch shift that day, so he'll need me to refill tea.
Before that, at breakfast, he'd already been making music recommendations. In fact, he can't stop talking about music. He talks about his restaurants in terms of Bruce Springsteen albums. Bolsa, which opened in 2008, is Born To Run, he says.
"It's this great album with this young, enthusiastic kid from New Jersey and it wins everybody over," Jeffers says. "Then the next album comes out and it's Darkness on the Edge of Town. Great album, but it's not as good as Born To Run. The problem with that album ... is that he's trying too hard, and I think with Smoke, in the beginning, we were trying too hard."
Now it seems like they have it figured out. Chef Tim Byres recently won the People's Best New Chef 2012 award from Food and Wine. While the food takes the spotlight, the unsung hero of Smoke and all of Jeffers' places is music. He's carefully curated his music collection — some 30,000 songs — to shape the mood of each restaurant. The secret, he says, is using different songs from an album. Smoke's playlist is relaxed, but at The Foundry, he'll use the same album's more upbeat tracks.
We finish our breakfast at Smoke and head over to Bolsa Mercado, where we meet up with Jeffers' wife, Jessica, and his business partner, Chris Zielke. Jeffers offers me a drink and I take an espresso.
"I need something to get on your level," I say of Jeffers' early-morning energy.
"That's impossible," Jessica quips.
We take a seat on a couch with a nice view of posters from Texas artist Dirk Fowler. Jeffers says they're the template for Bolsa and Bolsa Mercado's design and that, early on, he and Zielke worked to make Bolsa a place to see really good bands, but it never panned out.
"The first guy we had play there was [Pleasant Grove's] Marcus Stiplin," Zielke says.
"I had to buy his bus ticket from Austin, put him up in the hotel at the Belmont," Jeffers adds. "I had to feed him and all of his friends and he played to, like, an empty house."
Jeffers tried for years to shoehorn live music into his venues, with little success. Barefoot at the Belmont, the popular summer concert series held by the Belmont Hotel, is the closest he's gotten. He doesn't count it, though, because he and Zielke don't own The Belmont Hotel, they just provide the food and beverage program, an offshoot of Smoke.
"Every time we've opened something," Jeffers explains, "the joke with Chris and Jessica is that everything we've ever done is like an inch closer to me opening my own live music venue."
We finish our coffees at Mercado and drive over to The Foundry, where the stereo is showering the lunch rush of mostly business types with a Pavement's "Shady Lane." Jeffers points up in the air and asks, "Isn't it awesome that I can own a place that plays Pavement?"
We pass by The Foundry's stage and backdrop, which is made of 650 wooden pallets. By design, the backdrop slumps over in Dr. Seuss-like fashion, adding a whimsical focal point to the huge yard. At night, under the lights, it's an incredible sight, one of the best-looking stages in Dallas.
He's finally got his music venue after years of trying to make it work at Bolsa and Smoke, and he has no idea what to do with it. In fact, he doesn't even go to shows anymore.
"I have a family. I'm too old for that," he says. "I'm 38. It's not very old, but there aren't a lot of 38-year-old guys going to see Dawes at Club Dada."
The problem is that The Foundry has shaped up to be a neighborhood bar, a place where people can have a few beers and enjoy the scenery. Charging a cover for a national act would send all the regulars elsewhere for the night, and doing it often will send them away for good. So Jeffers wants to keep the shows free. It's gray area, trying to brand The Foundry as a legitimate venue that doesn't charge a cover. He's hired Tactics Productions promoter Kris Youmans to navigate it and, for now, most weekends The Foundry has local bands, including Menkena and The Cush on Saturday. Jeffers is hoping to have some bigger shows, and admits he may have to charge a cover, but before that both he and Youmans want to wait and see what the venue becomes on its own.
"It almost has too much potential," Jeffers says. "We gotta let it have its own legs and see what it's going to be."