In 1992, Renie Steves, a food and wine writer in Fort Worth, wrote a book called Dallas is Cooking. In the forward, Caroline Rose Hunt reminisces about the Golden Pheasant. “The steaks served at the Golden Pheasant located on Commerce between the Adolphus and Neiman Marcus were the best in town. A stuffed Chinese golden pheasant looked down on the diners, many who came fro out of the city to engage in the booming oil business.”
This week, Amy Severson and I continue our History of Dallas Food series on SideDish with a look at The Golden Pheasant, a French restaurant known for their sizzling steak platters. If you would like to take a look back at some of our earlier reports, here are the links: La Tunisia, Ida Chitwood. and Eltee O. Dave.
The Golden Pheasant Restaurant was a Dallas institution for over 45 years. If its story were a play, it would be a tragedy filled with mobsters, mysterious murders, and fires. The opulent restaurant opened in 1915 and operated under four different owners in four locations until it burned to the ground in 1964 and left four firemen dead. The last location was in the grassy lot which now sits next to the valet stand at the Magnolia Hotel. The fountain behind the hotel is a silent memorial of what was, even to this day, the worst loss in the history of the Dallas Fire Department.
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Very little is known about Mr. and Mrs. William Levey, the original owners who moved the restaurant from the first location on Ervay Street to 1404 ½ Main Street. Sometime around 1924, the Golden Pheasant moved to its third location at 1509 Commerce (now part of valet lot beside Neiman Marcus.). In 1928, the Golden Pheasant was sold to Paul Bathias, a popular maitre’d at The Adolphus and manager of The City Club. Nobody knows how he did it, but somehow Bathias produced $10,000 during the Depression and moved The Golden Pheasant to its final location, a two-story building at 1417 Commerce Street. Bathias opened the doors on December 31, 1931.
The interior was grand. There were heavy metal trimmed doors inlaid with bright stained glass pheasants. The vivid yellow awnings in front could be seen from far away and a sign above the doors advertised the restaurant had “a new cooling system to keep them comfortable.” Two large stuffed pheasants mounted atop tall pillars greeted guests in the foyer. Inside, the restaurant was long and narrow with small private alcoves on the side. A staircase in the back for the room led up to a mezzanine.
In 1940, Bathias sold the restaurant to Al Badger who was once the manager of the Dallas Country Club. Badger and his wife Bessie oversaw the day-to-day operations. Eventually they brought their son Al Jr. and his family back to Dallas to help them. Their grandson Al Badger, III has lived in Dallas almost all his life and is now an attorney here. His family lived on Bryn Mawr and Al III remembers going downtown to visit his grandparents’ restaurant. “I considered myself the head of quality control there,” he chuckled as he remembered his childhood. “We would ride the bus downtown as kids, and then catch the trolley across to the movies. Back then they had four theaters. Other than that there was no other place to go except for a couple of grocery stores and a few restaurants like Youngblood’s.”
Al III remembers a few of the waiters: “Uncle” John, Clarence Jones, and Willie Jackson. Many of the servers spent their entire careers working at the Golden Pheasant. “There was a woman cook named Nannie Bell who made a cottage cheese pie,” Al III said, “It was made of cottage cheese and pecans, and it was sweet tasting.” Grocers like Hunt’s sold the restaurant’s salad dressing used in the “famed” Golden Pheasant salad which included hearts of lettuce, hard boiled eggs, and Roquefort cheese. “The dressing was like a French dressing,” Al III said.
By the early ‘60s, the dining climate had changed downtown. New swanky hotels such as the Statler-Hilton offered Dallas a sleek version of the Las Vegas rat pack scene. To keep up, other downtown hotels renovated their dining rooms to keep their guests from wandering off the property. Retail and movie theaters began moving out of downtown and up to Preston Center and NorthPark. The Golden Pheasant changed hands once more in 1962. New owner Charles Darrell Bryant didn’t do so well with the business. When he experienced a dip in sales, he changed the name to the Pheasant Café.
The first alarm alerted the fire station at 2:33 in the morning of February 16, 1964. Within two hours, the blaze was five alarms and over 750 firemen fought the two-story flames. Four Dallas firefighters lost their lives when they were crushed when the basement of the Golden Pheasant collapsed. It took rescue workers over nine hours to dig the bodies out and when it was all over, only a sooty yellow awning remained.
The loss of The Golden Pheasant occurred less than three months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by club owner Jack Ruby. Rumors of a dark Dallas underworld filled mob connections and shady nightclub owners became international news. The city decided to get tough on crime and they looked into the suspicious fire at The Golden Pheasant. They were well aware of the fact Mr. Bryant was the owner of the Copper Cow, another restaurant which had burned to the ground in 1960.
Henry Wade, Dallas District Attorney, tried to charge Charles Bryant with “murder by malice” in the deaths of the fire fighters. It was a new, risky, and hard-to-prove accusation. Ultimately the DA’s office reduced the Bryant charge to arson. The prosecution failed to make their case even with compelling evidence: a fiscal business loss with an awaiting $70,000 insurance policy; a mysterious identical fire found by an early arriving employee the day before; and testimony by a cook that Mr. Bryant offered him $1,000 a month before to burn the restaurant down. The jury was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.
However, trouble plagued Mr. Bryant after the trial. The insurance company refused to pay the policy due to suspicious circumstances. Bryant sued but he lost the case. He was also part of state probe into his involvement in vending company and liquor-license financing. Bryant was also a suspect in the car bombing of Phil Hodges, owner of the Best Place Café, a man the Dallas Morning News reported as a “known gambling figure.” The police told the paper the case was closed a few years later when a witness came forward and confirmed Bryant’s involvement.
The last evening anyone saw Bryant alive he was with Bobby Wayne Vandiver, a suspected mob hit man who’d skipped bail in Houston a month where he was arrested for murder. The next morning Bryant was found in his car in east Dallas with two bullets in his head. During the trial, a witness confirmed Bobby Wayne had killed Bryant while the two were fighting over a case of dynamite. Two months later, Bobby Wayne would die in a shoot-out with Longview police while dining in a restaurant.
Many people like Caroline Rose Hunt have fond memories of dining at The Golden Pheasant. And many more mourned the loss of the the fallen heroes of the Dallas Fire Department: James Gresham (age 25), Ronald Manley (27), Jerry Henderson (29), and James Bingham (36).
[Ed note: Many thanks to Al Badger III for his help in telling this story.]