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Second Thought: Wednesday, July 16, 2003
The Ballad of Burdav’s Café

By SAMUEL HUDSON

The sign on the little restaurant on West Vickery one door west of Clover Lane says, “Vickery Café” and the fine print on the business cards of the new owner says, “formerly Burdav’s.” That “formerly” is the heartbreaker. Burdav’s Café was one of the small, seemingly unremarkable, everyday places that make Fort Worth somewhere in particular, a fully inhabited city, the hometown.

For 28 years, the food at Burdav’s Café was the kind of down-home cooking your Scots-Irish Texas grandmother put on the kitchen table, but at Burdav’s it was done right, not cooked until it was good and dead. “Simple food served fast,” chief cook Dennis Harlin says.

Harlin and his staff of three are still turning out breakfast and lunch every weekday and breakfast on Saturdays. Waitresses Carol and Molly and Dee (for Delilah) and new hire Carol Two are still on duty, still moving around the room tirelessly, gracefully, and very fast. The vanity Texas license plates — WEE BUB, 2SENUF, GO RORO, 1POET, REAL ST, ICE PRO, WHY DAD — are still on the walls. Many of the customers who had been coming to Burdav’s “forever” are still coming to eat at the Vickery Café.

But the spirit of Burdav’s Café is departing like a long, expiring sigh.

Burdav’s Café was what urban anthropologists call a “third place’’: It’s not home, it’s not work, it’s a third place where you go to relax and be yourself when you’re not at home or at work or running errands. Operations like Starbucks and Applebee’s and the Black-Eyed Pea are corporate imitations of a third place, unanchored plastic constructs floating in a post-urban nowhere. The food served there is just another mass-marketed product, the same in Omaha and Los Angeles, Boston and Tupelo, home cooking if your home is in a shopping mall.

To find out how Burdav’s became a real third place, a slow, sustained collaboration between customers and owners, the first thing you need to know is that Burdav was a dog.

When Louis Burkhalter married Naomi Davis, Louis had a miniature dachshund and when Louis registered her with the American Kennel Club, he gave her the name of Heidi Burdav. At about that time, Naomi and Louis were thinking about starting their own restaurant. Naomi had worked in the business all of her life, starting out washing dishes in a tiny place in Slaton, Texas, and moving up to manage a series of restaurants that closed out from under her. Louis had a job with what is now the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. When Louis’ job vanished, the couple made the idea of their own restaurant a reality.

When Burdav’s first opened for business on West Vickery in 1974, Naomi ran it and Louis presided over it and brought the customers in. He went to the auto repair shops on West Vickery and passed out biscuits and sausage and asked the mechanics to give Burdav’s a try. He went to the linemen on Montgomery and invited them. The food was good. The place was special. And the men Louis had invited in told their friends, and their friends told their friends and so on ad infinitum. Pretty soon all kinds of people were coming to Burdav’s: skilled workers, clerks, old people, mothers with small children, white people, black people, Latinos, Asians, a cross-section of Fort Worth. Louis met them at the door with a quick little bow and directed them to their tables. If they wanted to talk, he spoke to them. If they were escaping from their jobs for half an hour and sitting alone, Louis left them alone.

“Louis was somebody special,” Naomi’s son Tommy Davis said. “Louis had a gift for people. He understood right off who someone was and how they were feeling. And it turned out that he was a good, tough businessman, particularly in getting low prices and reliable deliveries from suppliers.”

Sometimes the customers played pranks on Louis and Naomi and the waitresses, like the time some mechanics sneaked in the back door and chased Naomi around with a garden hose turned on. On Halloween, the staff appeared in costume. One year, Louis was a giant Hershey’s Kiss. “Is he really that sweet, Naomi?” a customer asked. “Almost,” said Naomi. And so it went for 24 years.

But Louis died in 1998 and the economy sank and business fell off, and finally Naomi decided it was time to sell Burdav’s. She put an ad in the Star-Telegram. On the fourth day it ran, John Pendergrass called, and soon enough Naomi sold the cafe to him.

John Pendergrass is a large, energetic man, retired from a career in telemarketing. He greets customers at the door with a big smile and a hearty handshake. He leans over them when they are eating and asks them how they are doing. He talks enthusiastically about marketing his Vickery Café. He has added an open-face hot beef sandwich to the menu.

And there ends the ballad of Burdav’s Café.

Samuel Hudson is a Fort Worth freelance journalist.


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