The Belmont Hotel has provided stunning views of the Dallas skyline since 1946. This West Dallas spot has stood on Fort Worth Avenue while the area around it develops, bringing in newer businesses that draw visitors but also gradually block those picturesque views.
And come the start of 2020, it should have two new places to eat.
Josh Harmon, the chef of the Butler's Cabinet in Fort Worth (and former chef of Junction Craft Kitchen in Deep Ellum) is now working on two establishments in the iconic hotel.
Harmon, 31, will run the new cafe of the hotel, Coyle Cafe by BC, and the restaurant taking over the space that once was Smoke — the Belmont Room.
That name hearkens to a time when it was called the Dallas Room: “Something that sounded like it, yet (is) still new,” as Harmon says.
“I’m really excited about what we’re going to call it, because for me it goes back to the coolest iteration,” he says. “The earliest that we know of is in a postcard where it’s called the Dallas Room. It looks so hip, and the cars outside are like Chevys, Chryslers; it looks like Mad Men.”
The space still needs renovating — to remove the smoker of the former restaurant, they had to knock out a wall — so a contractor will be redoing all of it in the coming months. (To walk through it today, you need sturdy shoes and possibly a hard hat.)
Harmon has spent the last couple of months going through menus of historic hotels for inspiration.
“This place needs something that’s more lasting, that’s like a forever restaurant. That’s why we’ve stuck so close to these old hotel menus,” Harmon says. “You’re going to see things that have been done for a long time … we’ve just updated them with our style.”
Most of the Belmont Room’s menu will change often, but items that will remain include prunes with pioneer bacon, pickled shrimp with clotted cream and a happy meal cheeseburger.
Youngblood chicken will also be a mainstay, referencing the name of a restaurant from another decade: Youngblood's Fried Chicken.
“This is our homage to that,” Harmon says. “It will be small pieces of chicken thigh cured in koji, served super crispy with shiso leaves to wrap it in and this fish sauce pepper-vinegar for dipping. It’s going to be a really fun fried chicken dish.”
If you go to the Butler's Cabinet, you’ll see approachable dishes elevated in a style that’s specific to Harmon: fermentation, funk and fun. Of course, you’d know that, too, if you had gone to Junction in Deep Ellum.
Junction was a success — for a while.
“I felt like all I was feeding was chefs and media. We did great in that sense, but I needed more people coming on the regular,” Harmon says. “We became more of an occasion kind of restaurant.”
It was a struggle that still resonates.
“Nobody ever knows this story, and I think everybody blames the chef: ‘You left Junction, and it closed, it was your fault,’” he says. “I was a partner-chef, I wrote menus and hired cooks. I don’t even know what bank we used … I took four pay cuts before I left there because I kept thinking we were going to be OK.”
The owners ended up asking him if he would switch Harmon’s farm-to-table approach out for mass distributors of ingredients, he says.
Buying from mass distributors would dilute the restaurant’s integrity, Harmon says, and he pushed for a concept change.
The restaurant’s owners didn’t agree to that, Harmon says, but they financially needed to move to other distributors. When the two couldn’t go together, Harmon was out. Really out.
“I basically threw my phone in the woods, I changed number, lost friends … People hated on me after Junction,” he says. “It left a bad taste in my mouth. I felt like nobody wanted to eat my food. When I bailed, it ruined my idea of Dallas and cooking in it.”
Despite that, he stayed, mostly thanks to two chefs: Regino Rojas of Revolver Taco and Misti Norris of Petra and the Beast. The two separately invited him to help work some and do pop-ups.
Norris, he says, was instrumental in helping him realize he needed to take the pickling and fermenting game more seriously, and it eventually led to the Butler's Cabinet, where he brought the fermentation but found a right balance, for both that business and his overall career.
“I grew up Southern. The house (his mother) built, that I grew up in most of my life, had a thing in it called a butler’s pantry, which is an old-school service station — get your coffee and stuff, set up your spoons. And it would be in between the kitchen and the dining room,” he says. “My mom had one, and ever since I was a little kid, she was doing something 24/7. Cooking always.
“She would hide all of her best stuff in the butler’s pantry thinking I wouldn’t get to it,” Harmon says. “Hide it in all the different cabinets, and it would be anything, find a muffuletta in a cake box, find an old antique hat box and find cupcakes in there.”
And that’s where his Fort Worth restaurant got its name.
They cure their own meats, make their own mustards and pickles, etc. If you’ve had his food there or at a pop-up, you know that a bite of Josh Harmon’s food means something you haven’t had before and something you can’t quite get enough of.
“We don’t stop pushing it. I think we’re always going to do that,” he says.
They push the envelope while selling more mainstream items (think an avocado and turkey sandwich) and it all seems to level out. Just as having a stable restaurant like that one helps him be more experimental in other endeavors.
While you’ll find his flavors in the Belmont Room, they’ll also be in the cafe of the hotel. The restaurant is down the driveway, and the cafe will be in the main building of the campus, and it will be another version of the Butler's Pantry.
The Coyle Cafe by BC will have a coffee bar, sandwiches, pastries and the like.
Here’s a taste: The Mikey Likes it sandwich has BC’s pastrami, kimchi, 5,000 island, fish sauce slaw and Swiss (housemade) cheese whiz.
“At BC, we’re getting to do everything I did at Junction and do it on a bigger scale. I think the one here will be even cooler,” Harmon says. “It’s kind of what I was doing in the beginning in Fort Worth, so I’m pushing it a lot harder, it will be a lot of fun.”
The cafe will have a further developed coffee program, with items such as a sweet potato latte with Apple Jack cereal milk and the fig Lebowski, a Vietnamese coffee with fig and Vietnamese cinnamon syrup. (Of course, the expected coffee items will be available, too.)
This will also mean room service is finally coming to the Belmont, as is food for the bar in the hotel.
Both the Belmont Room and the Coyle Cafe are set to open by the first of the year. Elizabeth Dry of Promise of Peace Community Gardens is already working on a garden on the premises where the nonprofit will grow goods for the restaurants and one day have an apiary.
Harmon says the Belmont’s a perfect fit for him.
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“The thing for me is, I’m a hopeless romantic. I collect a lot, I collect handkerchiefs, records, I have probably 300 or 400 vinyls,” he says. “The first time I came in here, I got goosebumps.”
The Belmont can easily have that effect on people. It has plenty of fans, even in its current state where some stucco is showing cracks throughout the property. Owner and operator Jordan Ford is currently in a “summer 2019 cleanup,” fixing the roofs and stucco and repainting to bring the campus back to its glory.
“I fell in love with the Belmont, and I realized how much Jordan loved this place,” Harmon says. “And that’s a big part of what we’re doing here, we want to build on the culture.”
Belmont Hotel, 901 Fort Worth Ave. (West Dallas)