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14 of Dallas' oldest restaurants reveal how they survived the pandemic

14 of Dallas' oldest restaurants reveal how they survived the pandemic

Chicken Fried chicken
A meal that will never go out of style in Dallas. Photo courtesy of Norma's Cafe

The pandemic has wreaked all sorts of havoc across Dallas' food & beverage world, with many restaurant casualties and closures in the past year.

But fortunately for Dallas restaurant history, some of our oldest institutions have powered through, using the survival skills they've acquired over decades of service to persevere during difficult times.

Here are 14 of the very oldest restaurants in Dallas, listed according to how long they've been around, and their tales of survival through COVID-19.

Dickey's, founded in 1941
A little history: Travis Dickey opened the first Dickey's at US-75 and Henderson Avenue in 1941. They began franchising in 1994 but the company is still family-run and still dedicated to hickory-smoked meats.

How they survived: "We were able to serve from most of our restaurants throughout the pandemic," a Dickey's spokesperson says. "We were able to pivot our operations to to-go and contactless delivery options. Sales were down by 38 percent during March 2020, but online ordering, a free delivery offer, and family packs had a positive impact and we've been up in sales now for 12 months, largely due to online ordering."

"We leaned on our purpose statement, which is 'to do both well and good in the communities in which we do business,'" the spokesperson says. "We have also kept our 'let us get that for you' service style — meaning our pit crew will serve guests sides, sauce, sodas, and other items to reduce community touch points, and we will continue offering curb side pick-up and contactless delivery for guests that prefer to have their barbecue at home. Our dining rooms are open where that's allowed, but we're deeply thankful to be able to serve folks."

Campisi's, founded in 1946
A little history: Dallas' iconic pizzeria began in 1946 as a bar at Knox and McKinney before relocating to Mockingbird Lane in 1950. Their thin-crust pies stood out in a city that didn't have much in the way of pizza.

How they survived: "We never closed," says owner David Campisi. "We closed one location for a week — our downtown Dallas location, when all the rioting was going on and they bashed in all our windows. Now sales are rebounding, although we're still missing the corporate and catering orders."

"Luckily, we were in a uniquely good position due to the hybrid model we've had since 1994, where it's quick-serve plus delivery and pickup, so we didn't have to pivot that much," he says. "One big change we've made is the use of third-party delivery companies like Favor. Our in-house delivery fees are low, but that doesn't matter to people who order directly from those apps."

Tupinamba Cafe, founded in 1947
A little history: "Tupy's" is Dallas' oldest family-owned Mexican restaurant, known for its spot-on renditions of fajitas, cheese enchiladas, and smooth frozen margaritas. The restaurant has moved several times, but remains a favorite, presiding from its perch at 9665 N. Central Expwy.

How they survived: "We didn't close any days at all," says owner Eddie Dominguez. "We stayed open throughout the whole ordeal. We struggled through it, at times I thought we've have to close, but we kept plugging along. The PPP helped us, and we got help from my landlord, and we are grateful we have a loyal following that kept getting orders to go."

"We're not back to normal but we're much better along," he says. "The real difference came after the winter storm. I did have to close the restaurant for a couple of days because people couldn't get to work. But I guess people were tired of being cooped up. The following weekend, the governor loosened things up and slowly but surely, things started coming back."

Old Warsaw, founded in 1948
A little history: Landmark of sorts specializes in French Continental cuisine such as steak Diane, lobster thermidor, beef Wellington, and tableside cherries jubilee. It remains a special occasion restaurant for diners of a certain age.

How they survived: "We never closed, not for a day," says owner Al Heidari. "There were some days when we had no business. And some our staff left. But we kept a basic crew."

"It's getting much better," he says. "We began to notice the change a couple of weeks ago. After the governor brought us back to 100 percent. People are dining again, people are going out. I feel optimistic."

Arthur's Steakhouse, founded in 1948
A little history: Once dubbed "the ultimate spot for fine dining, steaks, and expensive wine," Arthur's was opened by Arthur Bates and his wife in 1948; currently owned by Mohsen Heidari, it's been in Addison since 2001.

How they survived: "We closed for a few months, then reopened in June 2020," says events director Melinda Lee. "Business was slow. People were afraid to go out. It was a real struggle, especially for fine dining restaurants. I handle special events, and bookings were nonexistent until recently. Things are picking up. That's for the restaurant. We also have the nightclub and bar area, and that's been packed. We have live music and dancing and it's remained a popular hangout."

Goff's Burgers, founded in 1950
A little history: Park Cities hamburger joint began grilling burgers in 1950, when Abe Gough and his wife opened the first location on Lovers Lane. Their son Harvey inherited the business, then sold it to Jim Francis in 2004. The restaurant suffered a devastating fire in 2016 and reopened at its current location at 3032 Mockingbird Ln. two years later.

How they survived: "We did close last March for a short period of time," a spokesperson says in a statement. "We closed the dining room and were only doing takeout and curbside. But that changed once the governor opened restaurants to 100 percent. On March 10, Goff's resumed all pre-pandemic functions. The dining room reopened at full capacity and we stopped providing curbside services. This is what the majority of our customers have requested and we apologize for the inconvenience this may cause to those choosing to continue to self-isolate."

Zodiac Room, founded in 1953
A little history: Venerable restaurant at the downtown Neiman Marcus has been remained an exquisite classic and the premier lunch spot since 1953, staying relevant with seasonal menus while also serving favorites like their Mandarin Orange Soufflé.

How they survived: The store reopened in August 2020, but the Zodiac Room remains closed for more than a year. According to a company representative, some other NM restaurants such as the Mermaid Bar and NM Cafe at NorthPark, reopened in early spring; however, most of the chain's major restaurants have not.

At the downtown location, the Espresso Bar on Level One has reopened and is serving many Zodiac Room staples to-go including chicken broth and the signature popovers.

Dunston's Steakhouse, founded in 1955
A little history: Old-school family-owned steakhouse founded by Gene Dunston (it was originally called "Gene's") does decent steaks at a bargain price, at two locations: 5423 W. Lovers Ln. and the charmingly kitschy location at 8526 Harry Hines Blvd.

How they survived: "We closed down for a short time, and started a curbside and to-go operation that was new to us," says a representative. "We reopened in May 2020 and things were slow, but we started to see a recovery back around the holidays. After the governor's order, we opened to 100 percent, and our salad bar is back open — that's been a big thing, people are really liking that."

Dairy-ette, founded in 1956
A little history: Husband-and-wife Ed and Andy Prikryl opened Dairy-Ette in Casa View in 1956, serving burgers, fries, and ice cold root beer, both in booths inside the restaurant and at drive-in slots in front. The restaurant remains in the family and still boasts its original cash register and soda fountain.

How they survived: "We never outright closed — we kept the drive-in option open and we've always done takeout — but we did close for inside dining," says a spokesperson. "It got a little slow but we reopened last summer, and things are pretty close to normal."

Norma's Cafe, founded in 1956
A little history: The original Norma's in Oak Cliff opened in 1956, a quintessential diner serving home-cooking classics and some of the best pie in Dallas. The chain currently has five locations in Frisco, North Dallas, Park Lane, and Plano, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner at a great price.

How they survived: "We never had to close any of the restaurants although it did get slow for a time when we were to-go only," says Bill Ziegler, Norma's director of operations. "But we were saved by the fact that we have been around such a long time and have such a wonderful clientele and community support. Our customers ordered family packs and donated to our Favor a Neighbor Campaign, sending food to hospitals and teachers and other worthy groups."

"It feels like now we're back, especially after the ice storm, things really changed to where we're almost back to normal," he says. "We've heightened our sanitation with guidance from the Texas Restaurant Association with ideas like putting up partitions. Things are good — we just need to find more employees."

Sonny Bryan's, founded in 1958
A little history: Local barbecue chain's roots date back more than a century, with the original Inwood location opening in 1958. The original Sonny's remained the standard for barbecue in Dallas for many years and is still lauded for its brisket sandwiches, available 24 hours a day. Two other locations are on Lovers Lane and in Richardson.

How they survived: "Things slowed down a little but we never closed," says a representative. "Our to-go operation was already pretty good even before the pandemic, so that put us in a better position. We didn't see too much drop, the stores stayed consistent. The only place we saw an effect was our catering which is a big part of our business, and we took a big hit. But it's coming back."

Kuby's Sausage House, founded in 1961
A little history: Family-run German restaurant and meat market located in Snider Plaza has been an Dallas icon since 1961. Originally a market featuring German sausages, Kuby's empire now includes a full-service restaurant open daily for breakfast and lunch and dinner on the weekends, plus grocery and bakery.

How they survived: "The restaurant was closed for a full 13 months," says a spokesperson. "The market was here the whole time but we finally just reopened the restaurant for dining on April 15, and we've been jammed. It's almost like a reunion, it's been exciting."

Keller's Drive-in, founded in 1965
A little history: Drive-in chain wth three locations (6537 E. Northwest Hwy., 10226 Garland Rd., 10554 Harry Hines Blvd.) feels like it did when it opened in 1965, still serving thin patty burgers with lettuce, tomato, and Thousand Island on a poppy-seed bun with tater tots and a shake.

How they survived: "We opened every day, even during 2020," an employee says. "The hours did change a little bit. We closed early some nights. But with our drive-in format, we didn't see a big change and things have been back to normal since the beginning of 2021."

Jimmy's Food Store, founded in 1966
A little history: Beloved East Dallas Italian market and deli is most famous for its housemade Italian sausage as well as its imported Italian groceries, including cheeses, pastas, crackers, olive oils, and wine. Oversized sandwiches from its deli counter are a longtime foodie must.

How they survived: "We only closed for three days due to COVID-19," says owner Paul DiCarlo. "The winter storm was worse — that closed us down for seven days. We actually did OK during the pandemic. If anything, we're a little slower because everyone is going back to restaurants, they're not cooking as much."

"For now, we're not doing any hot sandwiches — we're doing pre-made cold sandwiches, but no sandwiches to order and there's no in-store dining anymore," he says. "We did that to keep the crowds down. It's been that way over a year now. We're waiting to see what happens."