The grill was gone.
In 2014, Jeff Brightwell, who’d nursed many hangovers at Club Schmitz with a double cheeseburger, peeked through the window of the restaurant. Club Schmitz was gutted. Brightwell saw owners Bob Schmitz and Bob's cousin Larry eating a box of chicken inside the plundered restaurant.
A week earlier, Brightwell had taken the last single stool at the bar, downing one of the last burgers then-67-year-old Club Schmitz would serve, and he asked Bob if he could buy the famed grill. Before Brightwell could scoop it up, a man showed up at Schmitz carrying a wad of cash. He cleared the place out.
No hard feelings, Brightwell said to Bob, but he was not one to take no for an answer. This old flat-top mattered to him.
"I find it incredibly culturally significant," he says. Imagine the conversations, the people, the food that passed over that griddle. So Brightwell bugged Bob Schmitz for contact information for the man who'd bought the grill.
"I know this sounds creepy, but I monitored his social media," he says.
Brightwell contacted the man, but the grill wasn’t for sale. Still not backing down, Brightwell discovered the man with Schmitz's grill needed a unique floor job for his restaurant, and Brightwell had an idea: Trade a great floor guy for an ancient grill. That's when Brightwell offered the man the use of his general contractor in exchange for the Schmitz grill.
"I’ll buy you a floor if you give me the grill," Brightwell told the man.
The grill, which is so old that there are no model or serial numbers (Brighwell wagers it's at least 50 years old), sat in his garage for months before the kernel of an idea popped for Dot’s Hop House and Cocktail Courtyard.
Dot’s Hop House opened in November to rave reviews from Deep Ellum drinkers who love the massive open-air patio, the 100-beer tap list and the menu of indulgent pub fare. On a recent afternoon, gray clouds sweeping across the sky, I’m battening down the hatches at the bar. Dot's bourbon and whiskey shelf glows in front of me, a near-staring contest that begs me to order drinks on the rocks.
I order the Club Schmitz Burger, made with two quarter-pound 44 Farms beef patties, American cheese, shredded lettuce, tomato, red onion and house-made pickles. This is America’s sandwich. Each patty has cheese melted over it like a Salvador Dali clock. This burger is painterly. This is a burger you put away your phone for. You keep this one to yourself.
Tomato is sliced thin alongside rings of red onion and chopped lettuce placed underneath the double patties. The pickles, brushed with horseradish flavor, are placed on top of the cheese-soaked patties. One bite in and there’s a buttery, wintery, cheesy feeling that sinks into your bones. I’d asked for a medium rare cook, but the burger arrives more on the medium side. Even slightly overcooked, floods of hot juices are in every bite of my burger.
“I don’t care if it’s messy,” Brightwell says. “That’s what I always got to cure my hangover at Club Schmitz.”
There are no condiments; they’re looking to stay true to the 44 Farms beef, cheese and lettuce-tomato-onion burger that’s soaked in the beef’s fine, fine juices.
I’m 75 percent through the burger before I touch at my fries. American cheese and beef grease have made their way into the rounds of red onion and lettuce, like the best salad on Earth. It’s addictive. On my first visit, my burger didn’t have that hard, crusty flat top sear, but it was sincerely juicy. How’s that?
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“That’s the magic of the Schmitz Grill,” Brightwell's business partner Brian Milburn says.
Just before the close of 2016, Brightwell found a way to get Bob Schmitz down to Dot’s to try the burger. Schmitz devoured a cheesy burger in front of the grill. Did he like it, I asked?
“I think so," he says. "He ate the whole thing.”
Dot's Hop House & Cocktail Courtyard, 2645 Commerce St.