The Bronx says farewell

After 35 years, The Bronx Cafe closed its doors for the last time Sunday, following a busy weekend that saw finding a table harder than Final Four seats. Around 7 p.m. Sunday, everything was cycling down and the remaining staffers — including co-owner Jess Gilbert and his nonagenarian mother, seated center, posed for a final photo. It was a tearful last few days, following the announcement earlier this week that the restaurant that basically invented the gayborhood sold to the Warwick Melrose Hotel. No word yet on what will become of the space.

“We need to start a petition to keep it The Bronx!” one patron insisted to me. Of course, the Melrose probably bought it with a plan in mind we don’t know about, so I don’t know how successful such a petition would be. But it didn’t matter Sunday — everyone was choked up, but there was also joy in the air.

To read last week’s story on the Bronx closure, go here, and to see additional photos, go here.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Bronx. Cheers!

THE USUAL SUSPECTS  |  It’s a melancholy week for Bronx staffers and friends, above, but a long time coming for co-owner Jess Gilbert, left. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

After 35 years, The Bronx — the institution that basically invented the Dallas gayborhood — shuts its doors

CLICK HERE TO SEE MORE PHOTOS FROM THE BRONX

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

After 35 years, The Bronx — the institution that basically invented the Dallas gayborhood — shuts its doors

Probably the first time Jess Gilbert fully realized just what The Bronx means to his customers came this Wednesday. A regular lunch customer was sitting at his usual place and Gilbert walked over to say hello.

“I’m not speaking to you!” the customer snapped. “I’m mad.”

Gilbert didn’t take it personally; he knew why the man was upset. The night before, Gilbert and his partner, Howard Jacks, quietly announced that The Bronx — which has been an institution in Dallas for 35 years, owned and operated by the two — would be closing almost immediately. After months (even years) of rumors, Gilbert and Jacks had finally sold it to the neighboring Warwick Melrose Hotel.

The end came swiftly — the Melrose wanted everything cleared out within seven days. So this Sunday, April 3, will be the final day of service for the restaurant.

The news shocked almost everyone, especially long-time employees like David Eckert, who for 16 years has been a server and helped manage the restaurant. Eckert teared up just discussing the last day.

“It’s like having a wake,” says Gilbert.

“It’s a real emotional time for us cause we’ve been there a long time,” says the director of special events, Jamie Carmen, choking back sobs.

The reach that The Bronx had on gay Dallas cannot be overstated. When Jacks and Gilbert decided to open a New York-San Francisco-style bistro on Cedar Springs in 1976, “Afternoon Delight” was the big radio hit, the Bicentennial Minute played nightly on TV and men thought bell-bottoms were pretty cool. The gayborhood also didn’t exist — at least, not like it does today.

“There were no gay bars here back then,” recalls Jacks. “Hookers hung out on the street. But we knew gays would always come into neighborhoods, tart them up and make them chic.” That’s exactly what they did.

“Really, it was a social thing,” Gilbert explains about their motivation for opening The Bronx. “We didn’t do it to make money, though it did. We planned to keep it open about 10 years.”

But The Bronx basically spawned the Crossroads; by the mid-1980s, it was the granddaddy of the neighborhood, revered as much for its friendly atmosphere (“we had really interesting music,” Gilbert brags about its early success) as for its then-cutting edge cuisine.

“Wow! I’m shocked,” says Stephan Pyles, the celebrity superchef who began working there as a line cook in the 1970s, working his way up to executive chef before starting the Southwestern movement at a string of restaurants. “I feel like I was born there — and to some degree I guess I was. To say it’s the end of an era seems like a gross understatement, but it is just that on so many levels — both personally and to the city.”

During their run, Jacks and Gilbert have played hosts to numerous celebrities, including Carol Channing, Tab Hunter, the Manhattan Transfer and Monica Lewinsky. The building itself was built in 1910 — “We weren’t here at the time, despite appearances,” jokes Gilbert — and while the Melrose has asked that all fixtures (including silverware and linens) be left in place, no one is sure what will happen to it.

“It’s soon to be rubble,” speculates Jacks, though rumors range from the restaurant staying open under new management to the lot being cleared for parking or condos.

It’s that change in the Strip that’s partially behind the decision to sell — there’s less foot-traffic than there used to be, and Jacks laments what he calls a “hardening” of the neighborhood.

“We’re getting up in years,” says Gilbert (he and Jacks were both born in 1933; they met at a party in San Francisco in 1960). “I have a mother to look after, too.” Gilbert’s mom is 93; Jacks’ died a year ago at 104.

So while the regulars may see this as an end, for Jacks and Gilbert it’s merely the third act in their story.

“Life goes on,” Jacks shrugs.

The final day at The Bronx will be Sunday, with a farewell party starting about 6 p.m. To see photos of the restaurant, go here.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 1, 2011.

—  John Wright

What’s Brewing: Bronx Cafe to close Sunday after 35 years; gay staffer for Rep. Johnson dies

Your weekday morning blend from Instant Tea:

1. The Bronx Cafe, a staple on the Cedar Springs strip since 1976, will close its doors for good after brunch on Sunday, The Dallas Morning News reports (paid subscription required). The Bronx property — four parcels totaling 30,000 square feet — reportedly has been purchased by a sister company of the adjacent Warwick Melrose Hotel. In a statement, representatives from the hotel declined to comment on the company’s development plans because the sale of the property is not yet final. For more, see Friday’s Dallas Voice (no subscription required).

Chris Crowe, shown at a rally in Washington in March, died Wednesday at 29.

2. Chris Crowe, a gay staffer for Democratic Dallas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, died Wednesday at age 29 as a result of complications from a staph infection that damaged his heart, according to The Washington Blade. Crowe was president of the LGBT Congressional Staff Association. Kat Skiles, spokesperson for the LGBT Congressional Staff Association, said: “It’s devastating to fathom an individual as kind, strong and spirited as Chris leaving us due to troubles with of all things — his heart. We send our deepest condolences to his loved ones and family.”

3. A civil unions bill cleared a Senate committee in Delaware on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Lesislature in Washington state approved a bill to recognize same-sex marriages, civil unions and domestic partnerships from out of state.

—  John Wright