All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their histories while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
It’s nighttime at Lee Harvey’s. It's humid and there's no breeze, so still you’d think we’re on a planet with no atmosphere. The moon is cutting a spotlight to local band The Coppertones as they blast The Temptations, and a few drunken dancers are surviving the heat. A giant Dalmatian has his paws up on a wood patio table, ready to pounce on a tray scattered with leftover french fries. A man is lying across a bench with two rare xoloitzcuintli — hairless, smooth pups that he tells me “were used as guard dogs by the Incans” — sitting on his chest as the band plays.
This is one of Dallas’ always-interesting and steadfastly reliable dive bars. It's where you eat cheeseburgers and onion rings and fries under moonlight and, on the right night, to the sounds “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.”
Lee Harvey’s feels like a different time. There’s nothing quite like it Dallas. There are so many bars and so many patios in the city, but none has the precise sense, somehow, of New Orleans-like magic that you’ll experience inside and out. It’s a bar with a historic and storied feel, as though you'll catch a fleeting glimpse of a ghost shooting pool if you're careful.
Just behind Lamar Street’s major artery, Lee Harvey's is surrounded by backstreet trees and high wires and the Dallas police headquarters. The gravel spread over the patio grounds crunches under your shoes. Maybe the magical feeling has something to do with the fact that the indoor bar was formerly a house, which separates two living rooms, or the eerie, slightly disturbing outdoor bathrooms.
Owner Seth Smith created Lee Harvey's in 2003, but it had been a bar for much longer — about six decades longer. For a while, it was a biker bar. Sometime before that, it was a home. One of the bathroom stalls still has a shower curtain.
"Every now and then, I turn off the lights, and I realize, hey — this used to be someone's house," says general manager Timm Zbylut. When Zbylut jumped aboard Lee Harvey's about 11 years ago, there was no outside bar and the patio was truncated; a parking lot used to be in an area now filled with seating. The updated patio and outdoor bar are about the only things that have changed. You'll still find a 19-inch TV that was bought at a pawn shop near the liquor. You'll still find the cigarettes on the window ledge from the regular who used to live across the street. (He's since died.)
"I don't think you can buy a new place and make it a dive bar," Zbylut says.
Despite the seemingly obvious connection, the name was never supposed to reference Lee Harvey Oswald. It's hard to believe it's not a tongue-in-cheek reference of some kind, but Zbylut is pragmatic about it. "Everyone assumes that it's Lee Harvey Oswald. ... It's just Lee Harvey's," he says.
The bar once developed a T-shirt that featured the famous Oswald mugshot with an image of its equally famous house cat (named Bacon), and Smith squashed the idea. He didn't want to be associated with Oswald.
Cheeseburgers and onion rings have been Lee Harvey's staple for years. The chef fire-grills a prime Angus patty (80 percent beef, 20 percent fat), seasoned with the original chef's blend, and serves it with onion rings or fries. A chipotle mayo for dipping and Nathan's horseradish pickles come along for the ride. Quesadillas, sliced like mini pizzas with butter-toasted corners for dipping, are addictive. A Lee Harvey's regular invented the roadrunner, a grilled-cheese sandwich modified with avocado, chicken breast and basil aioli.
The burgers are overcooked sometimes, and the onion rings are the kind you’d find in a frozen bag; none of that matters when your tray is delivered. They work, and the drinks are strong. This is a community bar. It’s a place to share — whether it’s petting your hairless dog, halving burgers and passing them around, or swapping quesadillas — in the dead heat or the bracing cold.
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In the winter, staff members light outdoor wood furnaces that churn spicy smoke into the air. It clings to your clothes, and everyone on the patio is lit with flickering orange. In the summer, the outdoor bar with a roof overhang shields some, only some, from the thick heat. Bands play, and it’s a simple good time.
"We don't cater to one crowd of people. We got outlaw bikers and retired DAs," Zbylut says.
The Coppertones finish their set, and I polish off the rest of a plate of marvelously cheesy, tortilla-crisped quesadillas. They’re perfectly Texan when you swipe them in salsa and sour cream. We close our tab at the bar and walk out with the crunch of gravel beneath our feet and moonlight above.
Lee Harvey's, 1807 Gould St.