Matthew Hancock doesn’t know if the PIT will ever recover. Photo by Vishal Malhotra.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A family heirloom of sorts — a tasty one — might be
By LAURIE BARKER JAMES
As Matthew Hancock tells it, the most recent version of The PIT Barbecue Restaurant was pretty much his idea of heaven on Earth.
“I like good food, good wine, cold beer, pretty women, and live music,” he said. “We all had a ball there this summer.”
Hancock, along with Robert Gaithings, who inherited the property and restaurant on North Henderson Street from his mother Sammy Gaithings, revived the 60-year-old brand earlier this year. The PIT Barbecue Restaurant weathered decades of different presidential administrations, two wars, and a lot of social upheaval. Last month, however, it may have finally met its match.
Forty-foot skid marks on Henderson tell the story. On Halloween night, driver Justin Steward, riding with a passenger, hit a telephone pole nearby, knocking it down and sending his vehicle airborne and into the restaurant’s roof with enough force to pulverize the old concrete walls. Steward is still in the hospital, according to Hancock. The passenger also was seriously injured, but nobody was killed. And that, he said, is something of a miracle.
“The driver and the passenger will survive,” Hancock said. “But The PIT might not.” The restaurant has been shuttered ever since.
Steward’s full-size Chevrolet missed The PIT’s gas meter — and therefore, likely, a major fire — by inches. The car hit the electrical panel, took out two walls in the dining room, and caused extensive structural damage. An insurance settlement is pending. Given the success of the restaurant’s most recent incarnation, general manager Brandon Busch, Hancock, and kitchen manager John Randall may continue, although they haven’t yet determined how or where.
The property has been in the Gaithings family for three generations, but following the family’s departure from the business in 1995, the building was leased to a series of short-lived restaurants.
Enter Hancock, a lawyer and owner of the property management company that handles The PIT’s location. About six months ago, he began managing The PIT’s day-to-day operations and brought in Busch and Randall. Gaithings provided the original recipes, including the secret for the thick, sweet, tempura-battered onion rings. The recipe, according to Busch, came from a 1930s-era carney who swapped the original owners his secret for a meal.
Together, Hancock and crew painstakingly recreated The PIT’s original look. Old decorative touches, which had been relegated to storage, were refurbished and returned to original 1940s grandeur. Hancock used old photos as his guide.
The PIT reopened in April — “April Fool’s Day,” Hancock pointed out — to good reviews from the local foodie community. The Weekly’s Chow, Baby and a Star-Telegram food critic both crowed about the brisket, ribs, and the rub. The PIT won the Weekly’s staff choice for the best ribs in town this year.
The new endeavor also featured a custom-built outdoor stage made out of reclaimed Pacific Northwest cedar that was “too ugly to use in homes,” according to Hancock. The PIT featured live music, mostly rock and blues, five nights a week. Live music, good food, and cold beer — and all in one convenient location. A weekday lunch buffet drew a near-religious following, and Hancock and company were making money. In early fall, The PIT crew had teamed up with the local radio station Lone Star 92.5-FM to host a “Bike Night.” A benefit for Catholic Charities, “PIT-fest,” was scheduled for this month.
Hancock and Busch are back managing other properties, and though he always claimed he wanted to, Gaithings never did quit his day job. The half-dozen other employees were told to expect an extended hiatus and “encouraged to seek employment elsewhere,” according to Hancock.
Getting the restaurant back up and running won’t be easy. Hancock knows that, of all kinds of restaurants, a barbecue joint is one of the most labor-intensive and expensive to get started.
“The restaurant business is hard,” Hancock said. “It’s 16-hour days, and I completely respect those who work in the food-service industry.”
All of which is bad news for barbecue fans — but maybe not horrible financial news for Hancock and his associates, in the long term. He thinks there may be at least a little BBQ-sauce lining to the cloud that rained such wreckage on them last month. Truth is, The PIT building may already have been in jeopardy. Depending on which map you look at, the land it sits on could be right in the path of the Trinity River Vision project. The property, according to Hancock, could end up as lakefront, part of a bridge, or actually under water if and when the central-city part of the TRV project is completed.
“We might be the first boat dock on Chesapeake Bay, in Lake Kay Granger,” Hancock said.
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