The saying goes that friends are the family you get to choose. There's truth in the words, however cliché, but we don't have as much control choosing the fixtures in our lives as we believe. Some friends are lifelong companions we can rely on, and others serve a different purpose, enriching our existence temporarily in some way we can't on our own. Both come into and leave our lives whether we want them to or not.
Local bars are like this. Bound by geography, a local is usually chosen based on proximity. Even when there are a handful of bars to choose from, one of them seems to single us out more often than not — in a bartender whose company we enjoy, regulars we chat with or even a single menu item. Before we know it we become fixtures ourselves. But a standby can open or close at any time, with or without warning, or choice, or a chance to say goodbye.
Goodfriend is that kind of bar. Dubbed a Beer Garden and Burger House, it opened in early September and brought with it something new to a section of East Dallas ready for change. Dive bars are plentiful here, but the gentrifiers were waiting for a place they could call their own. They wanted a local that signaled their arrival and marked the change they'd seen taking shape in pockets of the neighborhood, one house at a time.
Bye-Bye Birdie $8
Dippity Do $5
Cuddly Pigs $8
Spuds Mackenzie $7
Nacho Mamma $7
Lovin Cup $4
The bar's home, a small strip mall near the battered intersection of Peavy and Garland, has been changing for a while. Less than a decade ago, it housed the Texas Trap, a rough-edged biker bar patronized by the Scorpions Motorcycle Club. The Trap closed when its owners retired, and the structure lay fallow for nearly eight years. But early this year, Good 2 Go Taco opened in the western-most suite of the building, selling upscale tacos for yuppies and hipsters — the sort of crowd that, on a hot day this summer, attracted a mobile clothes designer in a tricked-out short bus.
Goodfriend opened next, marking its arrival with a massive cedar pergola on the patio and tables and benches hewn of cedar and angle iron. Good 2 Go gave the gentrifiers a place to get Mexican food if they didn't want it from a dingy taquería. Now they had a bar, too. The transformation was complete: choppers and leather and cheap domestics out, Hondas, plaid and craft brews in.
Not everything has turned over, though. A few Texas Trap fixtures remain, including Jimmy D, an old-timer who, the way he tells it, has been drinking in the space since the '80s. He sits at the bar topped in an original Adam Hat (he'll even show you the label), sipping from a Miller Lite bottle wrapped in a tattered, damp cocktail napkin. Others at the bar remember the space when it was the Trap, too, but nobody's complaining about the makeover.
Matt Tobin, who co-owns Vickery Park, a successful well-worn bar in Knox-Henderson, jumped on the space just after Good 2 Go opened. He was friends with the taco place's owners, Colleen O'Hare and Jeana Johnson, and the pair agreed to design and execute the Goodfriend menu. The shared kitchen transforms every mid-afternoon, from taco joint to burger bar and then back again the next morning.
Outside, Tobin built that impressive cedar pergola, but it's inside that his work, with designer and friend Melissa Easley, really shines. Dark paint coats the walls. The left side of the bar looks like a shabby-chic den stuck in the '50s. Knickknacks, including a vintage Panasonic FM tube radio and an old-school typewriter, are perched here and there, and a wooden crate of old records becomes a coat rack on a chilly night.
A massive glass coffee table anchors three retro couches and a big-screen TV. And above the table a large metal-work chandelier looms, like a dream catcher turned nightmare spilling downward. Much of the material is reclaimed, like the old wood paneling that's become bathroom partitions, the crystal knobs that open the doors, and the bar itself, fashioned from oak that used to be the Texas Trap dance floor.
Cedar barn boards line the back wall, punctuated with unframed local art hung from chains and binder clips. A white rabbit lays prone on a sea of black and a simple pencil sketch depicts a wishbone. Other works display forms like ghosts, too abstract to describe.
On a large mounted roll of butcher paper stretched ceiling to floor there is another sort of art: a beer list scrawled in marker that features specials worthy of the Beer Garden name. Goodfriend may not hang with other beer-driven restaurants across the city (Meddlesome Moth and The Common Table come to mind), but it does push well past Jimmy D's Miller Lite bottles. Local and regional brews share space with European choices. You can have a Left Hand Milk Stout or a Guinness, an Avery Joe's Premium American Pilsner or a Bud, all in a space where it's effortless to find someone to talk to while you wait for your food.
"Is that a squirrel?" That was the entrée into one of these conversations, launched from a few bar stools down. It was a reference to my sandwich, the Bye-Bye Birdie — a massive chicken breast encased in a thick greasy coat of deep-fried waffle batter. As far as chicken sandwiches go, this one comes up short, tasting of bland chicken and an oily waffle coating.
Most of the menu items here sport names that may test your patience. Order the Dippity Do if you want chips and salsa, and Cuddly Pigs if you want to try hot dogs wrapped in bread, a snack that features links from Rudolph's in Deep Ellum. Request Spuds Mackenzie if you want a mountain of waffle fries covered in queso, sour cream and jalapeño peppers. All these dishes pass as decent bar food.
Nacho Mamma invokes a sizable aluminum plate of small tortilla chips. The queso is floury and short on flavor, and braised pork is mushy, like soft, wet yarn. But a bright green chili flavor sent me hunting for more pork anyway.
Lovin' Cup produces a sizable bowl of meat, not unlike any other competent bowl of chili served in Texas. The kitchen tops it off with sour cream, cilantro and cheese, but they should serve it with hot sauce or a lime wedge as well. This stuff screams for acid.
Better are the burgers, which you'd expect to be passable at a place with "burger house" in its name. In fact, despite some dryness, they border on greatness.
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Each sandwich comes on a white bun buttered inside and out and is served on aluminum quarter-sheet baking trays lined in parchment paper. The burgers come out as ordered more often than not; a request for rare produces a warm but almost raw center. Better to follow your server's suggestion and order yours medium — you'll enjoy a well-cooked, pink and flavorful burger that tastes simply of charred, high-quality Angus beef.
The Loretta Lynn is a showstopper. Topped with cave-aged blue cheese to recall the country singer's coal-mining roots, the burger features a sweet, bacon-laden onion jam.
P.L.O.T. comes with lettuce, onions, tomato and thick-sliced pickles. If you're a mustard person you'll enjoy this burger's most complementary condiment, and if you're not you should reconsider — the sharp yellow tang plays nicely off the crunchy, sweet cukes.
Longtime East Dallasites have a little gem in this modest local bar, where the old neighborhood gang can drink comfortably and where even a few Scorpions have returned to make an appearance or two. And it's just as appealing to the new guard, who've come in search of affordable urban living, a sanctuary from the exurbs and a little slice of Texas that feels like a little slice of somewhere else. For the newcomers and old-timers alike, there's something familiar in Goodfriend, which may not be a lifelong companion for everyone, but is certainly a worthy shoulder to lean on, at least until it's not.