Feature: Wednesday, February 27, 2003
Lonesome Love

A young gun is helping shine upthe Stockyards’ star — and rubbingsome folks the wrong way. Story and photos

By Jeff Prince

Bars and restaurants have come and gone during the past 25 years in the Stockyards district, but one thing that’s been as consistent as Grandma’s lemon cake is the White Elephant Saloon, owned by an assortment of colorful and cowboyed characters, including popular overseer Joe Dulle. Now the city’s most storied saloon is evolving, and change is often met with resistance in the Stockyards, where a collection of businesspeople and regular customers constitute something of a bickering but clannish family. “It’s like Peyton Place down here,” said Belinda Fry, co-owner of Rambling Rose Antiques & Collectibles.

The White Elephant’s transformation is linked to the arrival of a talented but controversial couple. Tim and Emilie Love opened Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in 2000 just around the corner on Main Street. An upscale restaurant with an eclectic menu was a new concept, and something of a gamble in a district known for its down-home steakhouses and Tex-Mex restaurants. The Loves succeeded and expanded. In October, they bought the White Elephant Saloon and the adjacent Beer Garden.

Their honeymoon with Stockyard neighbors was short, however. Tim Love angered regular customers by not keeping some of the saloon’s popular employees. His vow to attract younger bands and patrons spurred suspicion in the older cowboy crowd. He has isolated himself from surrounding property owners, who describe him as bigheaded and self-centered. Love said he is misunderstood.

Still, most view Love’s emergence as part of a welcome trend. Lonesome Dove’s success has helped bring the moneyed crowd to the Stockyards, which fits into plans to take the district to a higher level in terms of growth, tourism, and economic impact. Business owners requested a public improvement district to provide more amenities and clout, Texas Christian University is considering a satellite site there, and deep-pockets developers such as Holt Hickman are focusing on family-themed attractions.

Despite the hubbub, White Elephant’s barstools aren’t lacking for warm bottoms. Most customers visit because of the saloon’s western heritage, name recognition, the fact that Walker, Texas Ranger taped scenes there, the hundreds of cowboy hats on the ceiling, and the live western music. They aren’t embroiled in Stockyards politics and don’t care whether somebody is stepping on a few local toes.

The power bunch is supportive. Dulle, Steve “Mayor of the North Side” Murrin, City Councilman Jim Lane, preservationists, and others applaud the Loves for invigorating the area with youth, energy, and ideas while maintaining the western feel. “Tim is a new and different type of businessman who has seen an opportunity out there, and he is taking advantage of it,” Lane said. “He is making it work, and people need to give him as much leeway as we can because he knows the right combinations.”

The Loves are learning, like Holt Hickman and other developers before them, that the Stockyards can be a tricky minefield to traverse for brash newcomers with big ideas. Maverick spirits are nothing new to the area, but few have shown Love’s knack for thinking big and following through. Even his most ardent critics recognize that his success will be good for the Stockyards, regardless of whether he wins any popularity contests in the meantime.

Chef and owner Tim Love leans against a rail on the wood deck behind Lonesome Dove Western Bistro and absorbs the view. Huge rocks, stacked to resemble a natural stairway, lead down to the banks of Marine Creek. Trees shade the sidewalks winding around the creek. Chirping birds provide a gentle soundtrack, and flowers and bushes offer a sprinkling of color. A glance northward reveals the back of the White Elephant Saloon and the Beer Garden, two of Love’s recent acquisitions. To many people, this scene would be an impressive work of art. To Love, it’s little more than a canvas with a coat of primer.

In 2000, the Loves leased a long and narrow 1,400-square-foot building in the 2400 block of North Main Street and opened a white-tablecloth southwestern cuisine restaurant that seats about 50 people. Few observers predicted their success — or even their survival. A hoity-toity bistro in the meat-and-potatoes Stockyards seemed odd, but Love was smart. The former Reata chef combined tasteful, creative, and pricey food with a rustic and western décor and pleased the city’s most discerning diners. Lonesome Dove was a resounding success. The Loves later bought a larger adjacent building and turned it into a dining room, office, and an elevated outdoor deck to provide a view of Marine Creek and surrounding Saunders Park, which were beautified with federal grants in the 1970s but have remained sorely underutilized.

Love envisions a landscaped courtyard behind the White Elephant and Lonesome Dove, with fountains, a fire pit to roast marshmallows, additional lighting for nighttime strolling, and live bands playing outdoors. He wants to transform the rustic Beer Garden into a taqueria that will provide access and an enticing view of the courtyard for people strolling East Exchange Avenue. He is urging the city to invest more resources. Across the creek, he envisions future commercial development from Holt Hickman.

“My dream since I built this deck is to have this corner of the river pretty,” Love said. “We’ve got a gem back here that nobody knows about. I mean, I’ve got Fort Worth people that attend my restaurant, deep Fort Worth people, and they go out on that deck and the look on their face is unbelievable. For some who have lived here 40 years to not know that that’s there, there’s something wrong.”

Maximizing the creek’s potential will take time, but the ball is rolling, with Love being the most aggressive proponent so far, said city Parks and Community Services assistant director Randle Harwood. “He’s kind of adopted his side of the creek and is really taking care of it,” he said. “We haven’t finalized an agreement yet, but it seems he wants to do something extremely positive with Saunders Park. In response to requests from Tim Love and the business owners in the area, we’ve gone in and cleaned it up more this winter. We also requested the Tarrant Regional Water District help us with cleaning out the creek.”

Existing city and county budget money paid for the clean-up. Love volunteered time and money for shoreline landscaping. More improvements are conceivable in the future, Harwood said. “It’s premature in terms of what it will be and how it will look, but [Love] is really eager to do improvements there.”

Before long, the creek and courtyard will blossom, Love said. Within eight years, he predicts, a management team will run the day-to-day operations of the restaurant and saloon, and Love and his family will have more time to enjoy the spoils of their toil. Right now, though, he is swamped. They have a 15-month-old son, and Emilie Love is eight months pregnant with twins. Tim Love is working about 18 hours a day, yet still dreaming of new ideas, scoping out other properties, and pondering fresh ambitions. “My mom tells me, ‘Why don’t you just sit back and relax?’” he said. “But now is not the time to relax, you know — now’s the time to build and grow and learn what’s good and what’s bad and create new things for my management team, keep them excited. To be where we’re at today is beyond a dream. It’s unbelievable.”

Love, 31, grew up in Denton, attended college at the University of Tennessee, and began forging his local reputation as a chef at Mira Vista Golf Club and then at Reata in the late 1990s. Emilie Love managed Del Frisco’s downtown restaurant. By 2000, Tim Love was itching to open his own restaurant, although Emilie was tentative. After all, they had jobs at the premier restaurants in town. During a visit to the Stockyards, the Loves noticed a vacant building with paint on the windows. They climbed on a gas meter and peeked inside to see hardwood floors, high ceilings, and plenty of potential. Emilie looked at her husband and said, “I’m in a lot of trouble, aren’t I?”

Tim Love called his boss, Reata co-owner Mike Evans, and asked to meet. He made an appointment for May 29, 2000, to give his notice. “We were going to go out and have some Mexican food and have some margaritas and I was going to tell him what I was doing,” he said. On May 28, a tornado hit downtown Fort Worth and pummeled the skyscraper where Reata was located. “It was almost like a sign from God that it was the right decision,” he said. “It was one of those weird things.”

Love spent 60 days renovating the Stockyards property, opened Lonesome Dove in summer 2000, and offered eclectic dishes that went beyond beef and chicken to include quail, venison, buffalo, and kangaroo, all done with flair. Lunches are a bargain, but the dinner crowd expects to spend at least $80 a couple. Business boomed, and Emilie Love soon quit Del Frisco’s to work fulltime with her husband.

The Loves named the restaurant after the Larry McMurtry novel, Lonesome Dove, the tale of two retired Texas Rangers who leave behind a comfortable but drowsy existence to make a marathon cattle drive to Montana territory. The book was made into a 1989 mini-series starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. “It’s a very honorable type of movie, very upstanding people, people with a lot of drive and individualism and a lot of entrepreneurship,” he said. “I’ve only read about four books in my life, and that’s one of them.”

Their adventure reminds him of owning a restaurant, he said. “There are so many trials and tribulations on a daily basis, if not an hourly basis,” he said. “It’s like those guys — they went through a bunch of crap, but they loved it, and they wouldn’t have had it any other way. Otherwise they would have stayed in Lonesome Dove and run their little cattle business. But they wanted to continue to strive for newer and bigger and better things, get to that new frontier.”

The cattle drive killed the novel’s most beloved character, Gus McCrae. But local people are more inclined to compare Love with McCrae’s single-minded and sometimes callous partner, Captain Woodrow Call. The stereotypical Stockyards local is a casual and jovial cowboy or cowgirl. Love wears a cowboy hat with his baggy chef clothing, but he seldom takes time to chew on a straw and say howdy-do.

Business owners hesitate to criticize counterparts in public, and many refused to go on record for this article. Off the record, they describe various encounters with Love that show him as un-neighborly. The examples don’t mean a lot individually, but together they paint a picture of someone who can be self-absorbed.

Some complained that Love instructs his delivery truck drivers to park in front of other businesses to preserve parking spaces in front of his own. A business owner made a point by parking a car in front of Lonesome Dove and said Love started hollering.

Jack Walters is one of the Stockyards’ most beloved characters. He bought his first Stockyards property 53 years ago and over the years has purchased other properties that he leases to tenants. Walters has a work truck with a tall ladder rack and for years has parked it behind his building. A fence separates his property from Lonesome Dove, but the top of the ladder rack is partially exposed to deck diners. A code enforcement officer contacted Walters about a complaint that he was storing an abandoned vehicle. Walters explained that the truck was in working condition, fully registered and licensed, and used for his business. The city worker apologized and left.

“I’ve been here over 50 years, and I’ve never had an argument with a neighbor,” Walters said. “He’s trying to throw his weight around.” Love needed only to walk over, introduce himself, and politely ask that the truck be moved, and Walters would have obliged, he said. Instead, the truck remains where it was.

Teri Pitts leases a parking lot near Lonesome Dove and rents parking spaces to customers at night and during special events. Some nights she would show up and discover that Lonesome Dove was using her lot for customer parking. She complained, and it stopped. Then, during a Pioneer Days festival, Lonesome Dove valet attendants parked cars across the entrance to her parking lot. She asked an attendant to move the cars but was treated gruffly, she said. The situation was resolved after she located a police officer. “How rude is that, during an event, to block off a parking lot gate?” she said.

Rambling Rose co-owner Fry said she introduced herself to the Loves shortly after they bought the Lonesome Dove building and began renovating. “I just got the cold shoulder,” she said. “They weren’t interested in meeting anybody.” Fry’s store was in the same property, and she told the Loves she would be moving to a new location farther down the street. “They sandblasted the walls after hours and covered everything with dust right before we moved over here,” she said. More recently, she parked her car on a public street beside the New Isis Theater, which has been closed for years. A Lonesome Dove parking attendant objected. “He said, ‘This is Lonesome Dove valet parking,’” Fry said. “I had a few choice words for him.”

For years, business owners parked their cars in the Steve Murrin-owned parking lot behind the building that now houses Lonesome Dove. One day, notes were put on windshields that threatened to tow cars in the future. The notes were signed, “Lonesome Dove,” even though Murrin, not Love, owned the lot. Pitts said people were irritated, not so much because they couldn’t park there anymore, but because of the note’s abrupt tone. “He’s had an attitude since he got here that he can do anything he wants to,” Pitts said. “It’s gotten worse since the White Elephant.”

Rumors that Tim Love was buying the White Elephant Saloon leaked out weeks before the sale in October 2002. Worried employees asked Dulle what was going to happen to them and the saloon, and he told them that Love planned to keep things the way they were. Then, a week before the sale, rumors started that Love planned to fire all but a few of the 27 staffers. He asked to meet with everyone at the bar. Scowls awaited him.

Bartender Patty Hickerson had just finished her shift and rushed to the meeting a few minutes late. She said Love called her “mean-spirited” and said, “You never have a smile on your face.” Hickerson was stunned. She barely knew Love. She had worked at the Elephant for 14 years and was known for her talkative nature and vast knowledge of Stockyards and Fort Worth history.

Love explained his vision for the saloon and entertainment complex and stressed his demand for quality service. “I don’t care if someone sticks their head out of the bathroom and orders a beer, take it to them,” employees recalled Love saying. A few nights later, a bartender carried a beer into the restroom and handed it to a regular customer as a joke. Love wanted every customer treated like a king, but employees knew that customers occasionally get rambunctious and need to be hushed or ushered out the door. Love came across as demanding and naïve.

Hickerson’s sister, Mary Crabb, was stewing. She had worked at the Elephant for 25 years and was the saloon’s most popular bartender. Tourists made special trips to visit her, and the locals bantered with her like a favorite aunt. Crabb, figuring that her days were numbered, cut Love off in mid-vision and demanded to know what was going to happen to the staff. Love said employees would have to re-apply for their jobs and be interviewed by him. When he said, “You can call me an asshole if you want to,” Crabb took him up on his offer.

About 20 employees, including Crabb, 53, and Hickerson, 50, were out of jobs. Many of them were part-timers, and Love preferred a streamlined and full-time staff. He wanted to appeal more to the under-40 crowd, add the new generation of Texas Music bands to the roster of traditional western swing performers, and downplay acoustic solo acts.

He doesn’t appear concerned about his critics. “I hardly ever regret anything I do because I feel that I made the decision for a reason,” Love said. “I make mistakes all the time ... but I don’t regret my mistakes because I learn from them.”

Those words may be small comfort to those affected by his actions, mistaken or otherwise. Word of the employee bloodbath spread among locals who for years have spent afternoons fraternizing at the bar. Some won’t return, choosing instead to visit Cattlemen’s, H-3, or Stockyard Saloon in the afternoon and Borrowed Money at night.

“I won’t go to the White Elephant,” said Gus Boyd, a former regular who looks like an old-time cowboy with a bushy mustache, starched shirt, tight jeans, boots, and hat. He characterizes Love as arrogant and worries that a hardnosed and ambitious owner who wants a younger crowd will change the saloon’s western aura. “He has planted the seed of fear,” Boyd said. “Now hardly anyone I know goes in there, and it’s a shame.”

Despite the uncertainty, physical changes so far have been few at the White Elephant. Love knocked out some partitions and a wall to open up the saloon, provide better views of the stage, and improve the sound. He added a television so customers can keep an eye on sports scores. Some of Love’s critics are basing their fears on unfounded rumors and over-the-top expectations. Older locals criticized Love’s vow to bring in young bands, even though the bands carry Texas pedigrees, people such as Jack Ingram and Bruce Robison. Boyd called it “Austin music” with unkempt performers, rock roots, and tunes not geared for dancing.

The Austin sound germinated more than 30 years ago with the rise of Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker. The genre is not as old as Bob Wills or as dance-oriented as western swing, but it is popular among young and old music fans. On a recent Friday night, a band sprinkled songs by Elton John and the Doobie Brothers into their otherwise country-and-western set, and the audience appeared to appreciate the occasional pop forays.

Former bartender Jamie Hagwood didn’t survive the ownership change but holds no grudge. Love is putting money on the line and can do as he pleases, he said. “He’s a businessman with some good ideas,” he said. “I don’t think he knows a lot about the Stockyards or the bar business, and he’s either going to learn fast or things won’t go well for him. I feel fortunate to have been able to work there as long as I did. I don’t have any hard feelings against Tim.”

Sarah Biles, an administrator with North Fort Worth Historical Society, commended the Loves for bringing fresh ideas that still reflect and preserve the Stockyards’ history. “A lot of people don’t react to change all that well,” she said. “I’ve heard from folks that they miss some of the former employees, and maybe they don’t like the television being put in there. The music is still good. One thing I noticed that they did do is continuing the tradition of the Courtright-Short shootout anniversary that took place on Feb. 8. That was good to see.”

The cowboy crowd had wondered whether Love would continue the annual reenactment of the 1887 shootout that took place between a gambler and an ex-city marshal in front of the original White Elephant Saloon. Dulle began the annual reenactment years ago, and Love continued it this year. But even that caused dissent. Dawn Street, who owns Miss Molly’s Bed & Breakfast on West Exchange Avenue, portrayed one of the characters and said the script, unlike in years past, played like a long advertisement for the White Elephant. After the shootout, the actors headed to the Elephant for a few beers, which has become a tradition. Love provided each with a free drink ticket but charged a $5 cover to get inside. Street, who had volunteered her time, refused to pay and threw her drink ticket in the trash. “I didn’t need his beer,” she said.

Steve Murrin is as cowboy as they come, with a thick mustache, pants tucked into knee-high cowboy boots, and around his neck a bandana big enough to double as a parachute in a pinch. He owns numerous properties in the Stockyards and enjoys his “Mayor of the North Side” nickname. Dulle sold the White Elephant business to Love, but Murrin still owns a half interest in the building, as well as owning the courtyard and a building just north of Lonesome Dove that Love would like to purchase. Murrin finds himself in the enviable position of being a laidback partner linked with an energetic young upshot itching to make a mark.

“Joe Dulle has been out here as long as I have, and he just felt like it was a good time for him to go do some different stuff,” Murrin said. “Running a place like the White Elephant is 24-7. Joe really felt like Tim was someone who would carry on the traditions he had worked so hard to build up, but with a target clientele that’s similar to the Lonesome Dove clientele, which is good for the Stockyards.”

The Stockyards should never leave behind its western heritage, but it is time to move forward and make the district a magnet for more families, upscale patrons, and tourists, he said. “It’s a part of an overall evolution that’s taking place in the Stockyards,” he said. “A change from the Pioneer Days type of activity to the [cowboy poet] Red Steagall-type activity is the direction we’re going, and that is a much more western crowd, more family-oriented during the daytime, and one that doesn’t drink quite as much beer per capita as the old Pioneer Days crowd did. This area has the potential to be the most pure western area in the world.”

Murrin, Love, and others are encouraging the city to establish a public improvement district so they can tax themselves, unify property owners, and increase their clout at City Hall. Sundance Square and Camp Bowie Boulevard are two of about a half-dozen public improvement districts in the city. The districts make it easier to seek grants and pay for amenities. Some Stockyards businesspeople wonder if the arrangement will lead to favoritism for a few movers and shakers, but enough owners supported the district to put it before the City Council for vote. The additional taxes would raise about $32,700 a year to help pay for marketing, landscaping, security, and transportation and parking studies.

“City Hall has been waiting for us to have some semblance of organization so we could be a little more coordinated when we have a request of the city,” Murrin said. “It’s already really helping.” Murrin and other investors are trying to raise money to buy and renovate a building for possible use by TCU’s Center for Texas Studies, a challenge made easier by the impending public improvement district, he said.

Love wants to be “heavily involved” in the Stockyards evolution but doesn’t consider himself a chief. “I’m a small player in the whole deal,” he said. “I’ve gotten attention because I’ve got a restaurant that has gotten national attention.” He owns a small piece of the pie compared to Hickman, Murrin, and other major property owners.

Others view Love as someone with influence and say his success is a boon to the Stockyards. They’re just used to more joviality. The Joe Dulles and Steve Murrins exhibit grace and easy natures but never took the Stockyards to the next level.

“Steve knows what his limits are,” Lane said. “He’s a dreamer. He was smart enough to get people around him who can make things happen — Holt Hickman, Tim Love. When Holt first got out there he butted heads with everybody. Anytime you move into an old, established area you’re going to rustle some feathers, but Tim will do all right. No, he’s not a good old boy and he’s not a bubba, but he’s a businessman, and he knows the potential of the Stockyards, and he knows his future is there. We need guys like him in the business world. They know what they’re doing, they’re young and hardworking, and some of us older guys need to let them try their ideas.”

Jack Walters isn’t fazed by Love’s demeanor and wishes him well. “You can’t do what Tim’s trying to do without stepping on toes,” he said. “Your rich people don’t get where they’re at by being real nice to people.”

Another adjacent business owner chuckles at all the hubbub about the Loves. “They’re not diplomats, they’re restaurateurs,” said Georgia Linam, who has been in the Stockyards for 17 years as owner of Ponder Boot Company. “They’re young, they’re just kids. They’re not perfect. I’m sorry that they’re not able to carry the graciousness that they show in the dining room outside to all their neighbors, but I’m glad they’re here. They’re bringing a lot of people down here.”

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