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Behind the patio: Joe T’s and The Rustic

Joe T. Garcia’s

2201 N. Commerce St., Fort Worth

817-626-4356; joets.com

The Rustic

3656 Howell St., Dallas

214-730-0596; therusticrestaurant.com

Posted 6:08pm on Wednesday, Apr. 23, 2014

Almost every new restaurant wants to boast a patio these days. But there’s more to creating a great one than just wedging some tables between your front wall and the parking lot. Here’s a closer look at two that have caught on uncommonly well, a much-loved Fort Worth landmark (you’ve already guessed this one) and an improbable new one in Dallas that’s instantly become one of the most bustling spots in the state.

Related story: Best patios and outdoor dining in DFW.

Joe T. Garcia’s

The classic Joe T. Garcia’s patio experience begins outside on the asphalt of North Commerce Street, and if you go on a busy night (weekend evening, fine Texas weather), it can take a moment for your brain to adjust to the reality. You’re standing right in the street, waiting in a line that can quickly swell to the length of the whole city block. In front, the line snakes up a ramp and around a metal railing, like at Six Flags.

You won’t be asked your name. You may not even be asked your party’s size until it’s almost your turn to be seated. There’s no list, no little buzzer to grip. You just take your place at the end of the line and settle in.

If you don’t already know the drill, look around and observe the Joe T’s veterans. Many are already downing their first margarita of the night. You can buy one — bracing and classic, with just tequila, triple sec and lime juice — at a walk-up bar just inside the patio entrance (cash only, like everything here), or go for a whole pitcher. Yes, at Joe T’s, people happily stand in line while holding pitchers of margaritas.

The tequila, and the fact that the line moves fairly quickly, make for a congenial scene. One guy who ambles up to take his place at the end is nonchalantly carrying a large pair of mounted longhorns. My usual nosiness muted by the first first sips of weapons-grade ’rita, I don’t even ask why. We’re a couple blocks south of the Stockyards: Why not?

One festive-looking couple, Barbara and Fred Bowen of Keller, are regulars. “We look for patios all over the world,” says Barbara, a flight attendant at American Airlines. Though she’ll allow that outdoor dining in Italy is pretty special, she keeps coming back to Joe T’s. “This is the best that I’ve found.” The Bowens have even questioned the Joe T’s staff about specific plants and flowers to re-create the patio’s look at their home.

But everyone in this line is headed for the big outdoors. The separate line for indoor dining is much shorter. “We come just for this patio,” says Fred Bowen, who first ate here as a child, back when you had to walk through the kitchen to get to the dining area. “There’s no bad place to sit.”

Still, there’s a moment of suspense when one of the army of black-clad hostesses (Joe T’s employs 22 of them) eventually leads you to a table. Will you get a coveted spot next to the famous pool near the front? Or maybe one in the back so that you’re taken on a long, twisty journey through a series of the 10 or so gorgeous outdoor dining spaces?

From any outdoor seat, Joe T’s feels intimate and calming, but the true scale of the place is staggering.

On a peak night with nice weather, it takes 50 waiters to keep it all going, says Lanny Lancarte, grandson of Joe T. and Jessie (“Mama ’Sus”) Garcia, the couple who founded Joe T’s as a 16-seat restaurant in their house on this property in 1935.

Today, food is being pumped out of three kitchens staffed with more than 20 cooks apiece, one in the old front building, one in the middle of the complex, and one at the back, north end of the patio beyond all the diners. All three will be hopping on the busiest evenings, when Joe T’s can serve about 1,250 people at once, 750 of them outdoors.

You’ll rarely meet anyone who comes here just for the food, although the food service is pretty singular. At dinner, there’s no printed menu. If you have to ask, your server will run down the three menu options: the enchilada dinner served family style, or chicken or beef fajitas. (There’s a more conventional menu and more choices at lunch and brunch, and — shhh! — veterans know you can order unofficial items like the chicken enchiladas or fajita nachos, or even ask if there are any chile rellenos or flautas in the kitchen.) Most people just let the staff bring on the traditional, unfussy Tex-Mex: enchiladas, plus communal platters of nachos, rice, beans, guacamole and tacos for the table.

Lancarte sees no reason to change what has worked for decades. “The truth is, my grandmother and my grandfather, that’s what they taught me. That’s who I went to school with. If you do something and do it right, that’s all you gotta do.”

Lancarte, who is 64, runs the huge operation with his wife of 45 years, Jody, and his younger brother Joe. But the patio is Lanny Lancarte’s baby. “It’s actually not a patio,” he says. “I call it a garden. It’s much more of a garden than a patio. And I think people just love being in a beautiful setting.”

He opened it in August 1970, when it was just a plain-looking back yard with a newly installed swimming pool that had been intended for the family, who still lived in the house. “People started asking questions about eating outside back there,” he says. He set about transforming the space.

“I wanted that feeling I got when I was sitting in a garden in Mexico City. Just that ambience, which was overwhelming. I wanted to bring that home.”

It’s evolved into a series of outdoor rooms, lush with foliage, fountains, pergolas, Mexican tiles, footpaths, Virgin Marys, little hidden nooks. It’s an industrial-scale operation that serves hundreds, but every spot has a human scale.

Everything has a story or some personal touch — Lancarte will push aside a branch and show you the ruin of a piece of fence that he preserved in its spot because it shows where the first little patio ended, or where a bunch of A-frame houses once stood. He has the decorated planter boxes custom made in Querétaro, Mexico. Some of his favorite quotations are enshrined in tiles on the walls.

Food prep starts at 5:30 a.m. daily, as you might expect for a large restaurant, but so does work on the gardens. “We start hosing down the patio, watering the plants, checking for dead flowers.” It’s Lanny and Joe Lancarte who do this every day. “We have a pretty good eye by now. We’ve had a lot of practice. Before Joe grew up and started helping me, I was killing a lot of plants, putting plants in the wrong places.”

Inside the east wall, Lanny envisioned a walk lined with a canopy of banana trees on both sides. They all died, but “Callejón de Plátano” (“Banana Alley”) lives on in a lovely tile marker.

The passion for plants came from his grandmother, whose portrait (surrounded by flowers) is prominently displayed in the offices. “She could make anything grow.” Among scores of old family photos hanging in the two-story former family home used as the restaurant’s offices, he gestures to a photo of Mamasuez in her apron working at the stove in that cramped first kitchen. It was a cash business from the start. “My grandmother ran all the finances through that apron right there. I mean, no one touched that apron. That’s so significant to me, that apron. She probably made more money than we make now, because she knew how to take care of a dollar.”

Lancarte moves on to what he calls the “command center,” a big room down the hall from his old bedroom. Above his desk, a bank of four large flatscreens lets him monitor the whole property. Three show views from the 76 cameras placed around the restaurant. “So I can know what’s going on everywhere.” The fourth TV is permanently tuned to the Weather Channel.

It’s the Lancarte brothers themselves, Lanny and Joe, who also keep a close eye on the weather. On a drizzly evening like this one, weather is a huge factor in how busy they will be. It’s 5:30 p.m., and he’s keeping a lot of waiters around hoping for a cloud break. If that doesn’t happen, many will be sent home at 6:30.

That’s the level of work and worry it’s taken to transform a humdrum city block into an oasis that has been embraced by generations of diners, including the famous and well-traveled.

Dallas-born actor Luke Wilson has been a frequent visitor over the years. He drove over from Dallas with his parents recently to eat in the gardens.

And earlier this month, when CBS newsman Bob Schieffer brought big-name journalists Bob Woodward, Jane Pauley and Peggy Noonan to his TCU journalism conference, they ended their stay with a late-night meal at Joe T’s.

On the patio, of course.

Longer ago, Ted Nugent and some friends once threw their tables into the pool. “I remember telling him, I’m gonna have to charge the heck out of y’all for throwing stuff in there,” Lancarte says, “and he goes, ‘Just put it on our bill.’ There are Colonial stories, too, I can’t tell you about.” Those might involve a couple of broadcasters, he adds.

The pool, which was also popular with noncelebrities for birthday dunkings, was partially filled in several years ago so that it’s too shallow for all that, more of a pond now.

It didn’t hurt the ambience.

“The gardens bring that feel of being out of town,” Lancarte says. “That’s why I walled everything in, to where you can’t see anything from the inside. You can literally think you’re somewhere else, you’re at the beach, you’re in Mexico. I think that’s what makes it. ”

The Rustic

If Lanny Lancarte and his family have spent decades building an oasis in north Fort Worth, in Uptown Dallas, a pair of young restaurateurs have a giant overnight success with The Rustic. The sprawling restaurant/bar/outdoor music venue opened in October with a concert by a third partner, country star and Fort Worth resident Pat Green.

The Rustic’s food team is impressive: Sharon Hage, formerly of York Street, helped develop the menu, and Matt Balke, formerly of Bolsa, is in the kitchen. But the huge patio is clearly the draw.

“The idea came when we were out on a friend’s ranch in the middle of the Hill Country,” says co-owner Kyle Noonan, who with business partner Josh Sepkowitz has also recently opened Bowl & Barrel, a bowling and beer restaurant/tavern, and Mutts Canine Cantina, an open-air restaurant overlooking a dog park, next door to The Rustic. “We were grilling steaks over an open flame, we were out under the stars and had cold beer and good music. We were just hanging out enjoying life, and we thought: Wouldn’t this be cool if we could create this in an urban setting? That was really how The Rustic was born. And I think we got pretty close to it.”

Noonan is an evangelist, almost a poet of outdoor dining, full of metaphors.

“My first car was a 1982 Lincoln Town Car with plush blue velvet seats. The front seat felt like a living room sofa, it was so relaxing. I’ll never forget the feeling of driving that car, and that’s kind of how I want my patio to be.”

The Rustic is comfortable, but you wouldn’t call its materials plush. It does look like you’re hanging out in the Hill Country, maybe in the outdoor area of a barbecue joint, or a craft brewery.

Until you look up. Just outside the walls, the setting is as far as you can get from backcountry Texas. It’s at the intersection of Central Expressway and Lemmon Avenue, next to a DART station and surrounded by thousands of apartments and condos. Most jarringly, the 42-story Cityplace Tower looms overhead.

It doesn’t harsh the mellow too much, though.

“I think any great patio really evokes the same sensation, the same feeling that you get when you sit on the beach: a little mini vacation from our normal lives with cars and cubicles. If we can get some sort of relief from our daily lives, that’s the feeling that makes a good patio, and I think there’s a lot of ways to get there,” Noonan says.

“One way is by having a great view. If you have a mountaintop or a view of an ocean, good for you. Unfortunately, we don’t have that. So the thing that makes the most sense is greenery, having lush gardens, trees. And we’re fortunate enough to have nine 60-year-old post oak trees that are 50 feet tall and just beautiful.”

But when you first arrive on a busy night (which is all of them, it seems), the greenery is not the first thing you notice. It’s the sea of humanity. It’s pleasant chaos, with open seating and people grabbing any sort of perch that works. We end up sitting on a big coffee table, putting our drinks and plates beside us.

The crowd is diverse, mostly though not exclusively young and hip. The music is loud, even with no band this early in the evening, but not too loud for talking.

We have no idea how our genial and seemingly unflappable young waiter, Chris, is handling the chaos, but drinks and two rounds of appetizers come out at a good pace, and he manages to find us each time and remember our questions and orders. He remembers my vegetarian preference and steers me away from salt-and-pepper deviled eggs (Pat Green’s Fave, the menu says) because there’s a chicken topping not mentioned on the menu. We get a trio of dips with homemade chips, and a couple of interesting salads. It’s serious food, mostly sourced locally and regionally. The beer, wine and spirits menus show a deep commitment to Texas producers. Besides craft brews and Texas wines, there are Texas vodkas, eight Texas whiskeys — it’s as local as a drink menu gets.

The decor is a look that, frankly, might be becoming a bit of a cliché. Picnic table seating? Check. Dirt or gravel underfoot? Check. Corrugated tin? Check. Horizontal-slat fencing? Check. Garage doors? Check.

But it’s a feel we all seem to like right now. Perfect for outdoor dining in Texas, it’s reminiscent of The Woodshed in Fort Worth, or Contigo in Austin, or any number of places with “Ice House” or “Beer Garden” in their names.

Seating also includes some scattered Adirondacks, your great-grandparents’ metal lawn chairs and a lawn area. People are sharing picnic tables with strangers, which is by design. “We wanted big tables out there,” Noonan says, “because we wanted to really supply a sense of community, so you could either come with large groups and sit at a big table, or come with two or three people and sit with another group of two or three people and hopefully leave as friends.”

A young biker in a leather vest complete with patches (the best one: “THESE ARE MY CHURCH CLOTHES”) came with three friends to enjoy some people-watching. It’s the kind of place where bikers (!) come to gawk at other people. He says they usually avoid Uptown spots because he doesn’t like some of the local types.

A group of middle-aged guys wearing Titleist hats say almost the same thing. Robert and Mike (who decline to give their last names) like that’s it’s not as upscale as other places in the area, and they don’t feel too old to be here. They’ve brought a friend visiting from Pennsylvania, who’s thrilled just to be eating outdoors.

Most people in the crowd are eating as well as drinking, and Noonan says there’s roughly a 50/50 split between food and drink sales.

And it’s a lot of sales. “We’re the busiest stand-alone restaurant and bar in the state of Texas,” he says, based on TABC-reported alcohol sales. Remarkable for a place that’s been open for only seven months. The patio seats 600 for dining. For a major concert, they can remove the tables and seat 2,000 (most nights, they don’t).

“We weren’t prepared for the volume we’re doing. We exceeded expectations by about 50 percent.” One result, he says, is that the kitchen is about 50 percent too small.

So far, there are about 240 employees, although Noonan says because of the huge wave of business, they’re still staffing and training. Waiters already have to master a 180-page manual in the training phase.

Another result of the unexpected demand is food and drink service on the lawn. The patio is ringed by a small, raked grass section (we instantly dubbed it The Grassy Knoll) that was really meant for concert seating, but people are getting served food and drinks out there.

“We said, you know what, we’ve got an opportunity there,” Noonan says. “Now we’re working on picnic lunches where you can get a picnic basket and blanket and go out there with drinks and a lunch for two and sit on the grass.”

It’s the beginnings of organic growth, maybe a bit like Joe T’s. And people are responding to it in a similar way, like it’s a rare outdoor paradise in the city.

You truly cannot tell Central Expressway is right outside the walls. You can’t see it or even hear it, at least when there’s music playing.

“We hired acoustical engineers, did sound studies, figured the best way to position the building and the fence, to make sure the noise we wanted was in and the noise we didn’t want was out,” Noonan says.

“There’s a lot that goes into making something look simple.”

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