Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Five Days in Ft. Worth, Day Five

Home for the holidays, this travel journalist approaches her hometown with the fresh perspective of a traveler.


Five days is scarcely enough time to build a new relationship from scratch. There's so much to learn that only time can reveal. However in some cases, five days is enough to rekindle a romance, or at the very least, revive some interest in it. Sometimes it's enough to remind you that there was something you valued about it to begin with. 

And so it has been with the relationship between myself and my hometown. It's true that we were never in love. When I was younger, I never had the feeling that Ft. Worth was where I would live my whole life; or even where I belonged. I wasn't sure where that place was, it just didn't seem like it was in Cowtown. 

But after 14 years away, with only intermittent visits, the past five days in Ft. Worth have given me a fresh perspective on the city that I spent my childhood and teen years in. I've been reminded what I valued about it to begin with: the cross-culture, the music, the food, the relationships with the people I care about. The city has grown and changed, and so has my relationship with it.

In the years since I moved away, I've traveled all over the world. Most of the time, it's hard to even scratch the surface with less than a week unless one has some pretty good insider information. Thankfully, I still know plenty of insiders here. They're all friends and family, however. Which means that some days, I don't get to go out. I have to catch up with people. On my fifth day home, this is what I do. 

My mother and I stay in our pajamas all day, pop open a bottle of champagne, and watch George Bailey help Clarence get his wings. For me, it's the perfect end to my time in Ft. Worth. 

But it may not be yours. After all you don't know my mother or where she lives. So for the rest of you, here's an itinerary for one of the most popular destinations in the city if you're in search of the real flavor - and smell - of Cowtown. 

In the mid-1800s, what had been a sleepy little army fort and settlement overlooking the Trinity River after the Mexican-American War became a stop on the famed Chisholm Trail. 

Credit: Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau
Millions of head of cattle were run from all over the region north to Dodge City, Kansas. Cowboys would come through with their heard, stop to stock up on rations, and blow off a little steam one last time before the long drive north into no-man's land. 

In 1893, after the addition of a railroad to the already strong cattle industry, a local businessman formed the Fort Worth Stockyards Company. The city had staked its claim to fame. 

Located just under three miles north of Downtown's Sundance Square, the Stockyards National Historic District runs along Main Street at Exchange Avenue. Street parking and lots provide ample space for stowing your car. Once you're there, everything is within walking distance. 

The old cattle pins and slaughter houses are still there, although they no longer work as such. Now they're home to shops, bars, museums, and restaurants. Although there are re-enactments of cattle runs through the streets of the district; check the Stockyards website for details.

The main drag really is Exchange Avenue. Lined with saloons named things like Booger Red's and Filthy McNasty's, it's hard to know where to start sometimes, I know. I like to start at the seminal White Elephant Saloon near the corner of Exchange and Main. 

The hats that line the ceiling of the White Elephant come with some famous signatures.

With live music - leaning heavily toward country, for obvious reasons - every night, it's one of my favorite spots in this neighborhood. People still wear cowboy hats and Ropers here without a hint of irony. In the late 1800s, there was a well-publicized shoot out in front of the White Elephant. It's as authentic as the district gets. 

The Stockyards was a working cattle industry hub until the 1960s when the two largest meat packing houses  closed their doors. The history is exciting and rough, and you can learn more about it by tripping down Exchange to the east and visiting the Stockyards Museum and the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame. You can even prevent yourself from walking the next day by going on a horseback ride from the stables located near the  Hall of Fame, if you'd like the full western experience. Contact Stockyards Stables for more information. 

Stockyards Stables

Spend the afternoon wandering the district - if you can still wander after that horseback ride - and find your own favorite spots. At the opposite end of Exchange from the museums is Pearl's, a dancehall and saloon that folklore has it was started by Buffalo Bill Cody when he arrived and decided the neighborhood's nightlife was lacking. In response, he opened Hotel Pearls, a bordello.

The last stop on this itinerary is one of the most hallowed institutions in Country Music. If you're a Country fan, you've most likely heard of it. If you're not, you'll get it once you're there. Either way, head on into the world's largest honky tonk, Billy Bob's Texas

From Exchange Avenue, cruise up Rodeo Plaza and you'll come face to face with the legend. Superstars of the Country scene still play here regularly, and the venue is the perfect size for intimate shows with people you otherwise may not see outside of a stadium. 

On nights when a huge headliner isn't there, you'll find solid local acts and smaller touring bands that have a lot to offer. 

There are dance lessons at least once a week so you can get your two-step on without fear, and there's a bar about every three feet inside the gigantic space. 

When you're tired of all the line dancing and the games of pool on dozens of tables, there's the bull riding. And not on the mechanical bull, either. They sadly did away with the old girl a long time ago. I remember it from when I was a kid. No, I'm talking about the real bulls, being ridden by the pros. 

Billy Bob's prides itself on the fact that it operates a full size rodeo arena in one end of the complex. This is definitely where you get the full sensory experience of the Stockyards. It brings new meaning to the phrase dinner and a show

And see? You got out and didn't have to sit at my mom's house all day in your pajamas. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Five Days in Ft. Worth, Day Four

Home for the holidays, this travel journalist approaches her hometown with the fresh perspective of a traveler.


OK, kids, everyone on the bus. It's time for a field trip. Museum-style. 

If you just got excited, congrats; you're one of the nerds like I was in my school days in Ft. Worth. If you just groaned; sit at the back with the rest of the ADD kids and don't throw stuff. 

So far my five days back in Ft. Worth - my hometown - have centered around food, booze, and music. All worthy of attention, certainly. But every now and then one has to dry out and see the daylight. My cholesterol is cresting at dangerous levels and my kidneys hurt.

I came back to spend the Christmas holiday with my Mother and friends. Although I visit occasionally, I've been away for 14 years now. I grew up in Ft. Worth at a time when the social centers of the modern city didn't exist. But the cultural ones did. 

And so each year, our class field trips centered around one or two of these old faithfuls. But here's my confession: I would actually hang out at these places when I wasn't in school. Don't tell anyone. 

Much to its credit, Ft. Worth has always had a solid - if small - cadre of theater and museums. The old oil and cattle money going back generations made sure of it. The upper crust has always been proud of the cultural institutions of the city and its patronage has kept many of these organizations kicking when their counterparts in other cities slowly passed away. 

The Cultural District of Ft. Worth lies along the south side of Camp Bowie Boulevard between Montgomery and University. It's a compact few blocks that are easily walkable, and street parking is available as well as museum and city lots. 

As a young student, the obligatory yearly visit started with the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, which was most exciting because of it's planetarium and Omni Theater (the permanent collection of the history of medicine and the dusty cavemen are a little too creepy when you're 7 years old). 

Now, though, the entire collection as well as the attractions are top-notch. The Omni is still the driving force, screening full IMAX films in a spectacular wrap-around dome theater. Originally opened in the 1940s under the name Fort Worth Children's Museum, the organization now caters to adults as much as children with adult lecture series and even an Adult After Hours series, featuring bi-monthly nights open to people aged 18 and up, featuring music, food, and drinks. Oh my kidneys. 

Just north of the Science and History museum is the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. In his will, newspaper publisher Amon G. Carter Sr. stipulated that his private collection of Remingtons and Russells be preserved and presented to the people as part of a new museum that should remain free to the public. Today the Amon Carter houses one of the most impressive collections of exclusively American art in the country and is still free to the public. 

To the east of the Amon Carter lies my favorite, the Kimbell Art Museum. The Kimbell was famously designed by Louis I. Kahn and opened in 1972, providing an ultra-modern backdrop for its collection of antiquities. The architecture is as much a draw as the art. 

The permanent collections range from Egyptian, Grecian, and Syrian antiques from as far back as the third millennium BCE, to masterpieces from around the globe through the mid-20th century. 

The founding policy was to concentrate on the quality of the acquisitions, not the quantity, and the complete permanent collection totals fewer than 350 pieces. The Kimbell purposely stays away from collecting American art so as not to compete with the Amon Carter, as well as not holding any art from the modern era, so as not to compete with the Cultural District's newest shining star, The Modern. 

The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth is the district's newest sibling; born in the 1990s. Designed by Japanese Architect Tadao Ando, it consists of five pavilions surrounding a 1.5 acre pond. The 2,500 plus pieces in its permanent collection boast the usual superstars of Modern art, from Pollock to Serra to Picasso. And yes, the obligatory Warhol is there too. But the main attraction is still the site itself. The buildings look as if they float on top of the reflecting pond and it's worth at least having lunch in the cafe that edges up to the water. Or if you're particularly flush, do dinner. The food is gourmet and so are the prices, but it makes a lovely topper to the day. 

©2007, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, all rights reserved.
Photographs by David Woo, Tom Jenkins, and provided by courtesy of Tadao Ando Architect & Associates.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

The Place: The Dresden

The Dresden, in Los Feliz, Los Angeles. Two ancient lounge lizards play to a young, eclectic crowd nearly every night. Saturday nights you almost can't most through the bar. Full menu. 60s kitch is alive and well. #travel

Monday, January 02, 2012

Five Days in Ft. Worth, Day Two

Home for the holidays, this travel journalist approaches her hometown with the fresh perspective of a traveler.


Quick, what's the first thing you think of when you think Texas? Cowboys and country music, right? Of course you do. Everyone does. Or possibly the theme from the TV series Dallas (the first time I went to London, locals made a point to tell me how much they loved that show). They wanted to know if it was really like that? 

But that's not the Texas I grew up in. No one I knew looked like Patrick Duffy, unfortunately.  

The corner of Texas I grew up in was filled with neither cowboys nor country music. It was filled with classical music from all of the ballet classes I took as a child, and later, by The Blues as a teenager. Good Texas Blues in the vein of Stevie Ray and his predecessors. It's one of the handful of things I actually miss about the culture there when I'm between visits. 

So on day two of my five days in Ft. Worth, I get out and get my fix. 

I start by grabbing dinner with my mother and friends, because tonight calls for fortification. 

Benito's isn't authentic Mexican food. It's authentic Tex-Mex, which is a slightly different animal. 

It's been in a one-story corner shop on Magnolia Avenue in the Fairmount/Hospital District since before I was alive, and I think most everyone in the kitchen has been too.

The salsa is melt-your-brain hot, as always, and the chicken soup, which includes a full half-chicken is worth the flight from L.A. alone. In all the years I've eaten here, I've only had one meal that wasn't up to snuff, and that isn't tonight. 

I order my old standby, cheese enchiladas, which come characteristically with chile con carne, a Tex-Mex standard. The meat sauce is rich and fattening; I can feel my cholesterol shooting up nearly instantly. But damn, it's good. And good for absorbing whatever I'm about to imbibe. Which starts with a frozen margarita swirled with sangria. 

The place is always busy, but it's large enough that there's rarely a wait, and the crowd is friendly. It's a tradition of mine, since I was raised on this style of Mexican (I think a tortilla was the first solid thing ever stuck in my mouth once I had teeth). 

Having paid homage to the Tex-Mex gods, we take off for a temple of another kind of cultural worship: The Blues Bar. 

I refer to the tradition of Blues throughout Texas and the South in religious terms, because the men and women who play this stuff live and breathe and perform it with such conviction that you get the idea that there is something intangible taking them over when you witness it, as with any real art-form. 

And the great thing is, you can swing a cat and hit any little dive on any given corner in Ft. Worth where you'll find pretty darn good locals who have some serious chops. Which is fortunate, because no one wants to hear the Blues if it's bad. 

My little group starts at Keys Lounge, a notch-above-dive bar in a utilitarian neighborhood called Wedgwood East. It's not much to look at, but we're not here for the scenery. 

Keys is wedged into a run-down strip mall which seems to lend itself well to playing the blues. It's open Wednesday through Sunday nights and they charge a minimal cover on Friday and Saturday. People can still smoke in bars here, which I always forget about when I'm away, and I have to adjust to the air quality for a few minutes.

The acts are usually relative unknowns who tour the region regularly and the music is solid, ranging from traditional Blues in the electric Texas style to Rockabilly. Tonight's a jam night, with locals and semi-pros rotating out every few songs, playing old standards and generally just doing it for the love of the music. 

There's a big dance floor, which is always in use, and neighbors and Blues fans mingle and dance and drink out of Mason jars. The crowd is largely made up of blue collar, middle-class baby-boomers, unless they bring their grown kids in, like me. I only spy a couple of other people my age in the place, which makes me hope somewhere people younger than me are still being exposed to this American art. 

Drinks are cheap, strong, and big (Mom orders a White Russian and it comes in the afore mentioned jar), and everyone circulates past your table at one point or another and says hello. 

Our last stop is the new incarnation of a Ft. Worth Blues institution. 

Tucked in the shadow of downtown Ft. Worth, 
J & J Blues Bar was, for decades, such a stalwart member of the blues scene in town, that it basically was the scene, at times. 

It was known for great regional acts, but it also had feathers in its cap because men like Kenny Wayne Shepherd would occasionally show to sit in on the twice-weekly jams when when they were in town playing larger venues. 

It started going downhill in the mid 2000s, musicians started favoring other bars, and it closed its doors a year or so ago. 

New ownership came in and breathed life back into the place, renamed it NOS Bar, changed very little else about it (except for removing the ancient, dusty collection of women's bras hanging from every inch of the exposed metal rafters), and threw the doors open again a couple of months ago.

I've been coming to this bar since I was 15, and it's nice to see it kicking again. Although it is off to a slow start. My mother, a huge fan of the Blues, has been invited here tonight by some members of the band, who are friends. They're solid musicians and again, the drinks are strong and cheap. There are even a few new bras hanging from the rafters. 

The only drawback I know of tonight is that two of the large doors are left open and it's a little too chilly for that, but on hot, sticky, Texas summer nights, it's perfect. 

The bar could still use a few more bodies coming in, but it will take some time for the community to realize that it's back. There are a few preppy college kids at the bar, beside a few middle-aged cowboys in Ropers and Wranglers, and all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors in between.

It's great to be back in the place, with The Blues.