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

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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.

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