Two hours ago, when I stepped foot inside Restaurant Vagabond, the building still had a huge J. Pepe’s sign hanging over its front door, dusty floors, and a messy interior that will magically transform into a music venue/restaurant/bar within the next 24 hours. Why? Tomorrow, the restaurant—set to open officially by the end of January—is hosting legendary Texas singers Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Terry Allen for two shows. (They’re only selling tickets to the second show at 10 p.m., though.) These are all friends of the owner John Kenyon, a man who’s been in the food business on Greenville Avenue since 1980. Think of him what you will, but he is undoubtedly the King of Restaurant Reinvention.
Stewart Jameson, the executive chef and general manager of Restaurant Vagabond at 3619 Greenville Ave., the old J. Pepe’s space, has drummed up a menu to match the restaurant’s name. There will be make-your-own burgers with your choice of bun types (brioche, sourdough, etc.), meat types (beef blend, chicken, and maybe even ostrich or bison), pickles, and a lot of sauces. Jameson, who was once the kitchen manager for Mot Hai Ba, has also said there will be “chicken liver mousse bread to chimichurri… all kinds of fun different things to put on a burger.”
For tomorrow night’s music gig, Jameson is actually cooking up a simple Vagabond burger with tomato, onion, and pickles. This neighborhood restaurant and bar will have art installed on its walls by the time show starts. Plan to see murals done by Frank Campagna, an artist who has work displayed throughout Deep Ellum. On the fence, behind the pool area, there’s already the beginnings of a mural that gives glory to the Lubbock skyline. Kenyon, who hails from Lubbock, is excited about his most recent Greenville venture and has a handful of things to accomplish before the party Wednesday evening. For tickets, you can reach him at 214-207-3061. (Ever since the Dallas Morning News’ piece about the show was published, he says he’s received 20 calls in 45 minutes.)
Carol Shih: Tell me about your history with Greenville Avenue.
John Kenyon: I was the fifth food and beverage business on Lower Greenville when it started [in 1980]. There were only Pat Snuffer’s, San Francisco Rose, Greenville Bar and Grill, and this was the Greenville Country Club.
CS: This place?
JK: Yeah. It was called the Greenvile Country Club from 1978 to ’89. Then I leased it and opened up Stubb’s BBQ. He’s deceased now, but we used to be good friends. I came when Lower Greenville was in its infancy. I opened Nick’s Uptown (’80-’85), Fast and Cool (’85-’90), Fish Dance (’90-’95)… then I opened a real popular dance club called Red Jacket (’96 to ’03 or ’04). I had four concepts over there from ’82 to 2003. That building is now what’s called OT Tavern.
CS: Out of the original five, you’re one of the last men still standing?
JK: Yeah, I am actually.
CS: So you haven’t really stopped since 1980?
CS: Why the name Restaurant Vagabond?
JK: I researched the history of this building because I’m curious about that stuff, and this was originally, in the late ’40s, it opened up as Dallas’ first driving range. That’s why there’s a pool back there. I thought that was a great name, so I wanted to update the concept and incorporate current trends in food and beverage, so we’re doing craft beers and craft cocktails. Eddie “Lucky” Campbell is one of our partners and doing the mixology program. Stewart is the executive chef and GM. and Jon Badouin [Driftwood, Casa Rubia] is our Consulting Director of Operations.
CS: What kind of atmosphere are you hoping to achieve with Restaurant Vagabond?
JK: The Vagabond is a neighborhood bar with great food. Or a restaurant with great drinks, depending on who you ask. I brought in some legendary Texas songwriter friends that I started in the business with back in the early ’70s in Lubbock, TX. And that’s the guys that are playing tomorrow at the grand opening. That’s Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Terry Allen. They’re kinda prominent in the Americana genre of music. The Robert Earl Keens and Pat Greens are the follow-ups to Joe, Butch, and Terry’s generation. And they’re all visual artists, so I kinda got inspired to do a neighborhood bar… to take their visual art, copy it, and use it as decor. And have this Texas songwriter’s theme, even though that’s not what we’re going to be playing all the time.
We’re going to have an acoustic show every Wednesday. Once we get rolling, we’ll start our live music every Wednesday.
CS: And this place is opening tomorrow?
JK: We’re just having a hard-hat construction party. This combination of these guys playing is so rare that I decided to open up a second show. Restaurant Vagabond’s going to have a really unique interior with visual art from three Texas songwriters. It’s the first true neighborhood bar for the M Streets, with a lot of special conceptual stuff that makes it different.