For David’s Barbecue owner Jimmy Bryan Harris, smoke runs through his veins. A fourth generation member of Dallas’ most famous barbecue family, Harris is a second cousin of the man himself, Sonny Bryan. Based in Pantego, Harris has been working in a barbecue restaurant since he was 8. Now 50, he still eats cue for breakfast and lunch, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
"This is my home," Harris says, eating barbecue in the dining room of his restaurant after the lunch rush. "I love it," he says, of his work. "My generation was taught to be astronauts or president of the United States. Then in your mid-twenties or thirties you’re thinking, Well, am I successful? We all go in different directions. My business has never been better and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I don’t think I could work for somebody else."
Stepping in the front door can feel like passing through a wrinkle in time. Some of David’s plates and tables have been around since the 1960s. Essentially, Harris is making the same barbecue his family has made for nearly seven decades. He likely has customers who have been eating this food for just as long. A picture from 1910, a menu and postcards from the 1940s, and countless autographed photos from athletes hang from the walls.
The beef sandwich is the favorite here for good reason. The brisket is sliced thick and portioned generously. The ribs are very popular and Harris talks about turkey and sausage like they are items that diners have just recently started wanting. He does not carefully measure the quantity. The sandwich is a mere $4.95. This amount of quality meat elsewhere would likely cost you at least twice as much.
Back in 1910, Harris’ great grandfather, Elias Bryan, opened Bryan’s Barbecue in Oak Cliff on Jefferson and Beckley. There was no barbecue sauce and they used navel plate instead of brisket. Elias had four children, including William Jennings "Red" Bryan. After his father passed away, Red Bryan’s Smokehouse opened in 1947 in Oak Cliff. "That was the place to be back then," Harris says. Red had architect Charles Dilbeck design a huge building that is now El Ranchito.
Elias’ son, Fred, moved west and opened a barbeque stand, Bryan’s Pit Barbecue, in the Los Angeles Farmers Market in 1951. Fred passed away in 2011; the family no longer owns the business, but it is still open today.
Meanwhile back in Oak Cliff, William Jennings Bryan Jr., also known as "Sonny," was working with his dad at Red Bryan’s Barbecue. "In 1956, Red moved out of Oak Cliff because the Baptists and the Methodists got together and voted it dry," Harris says. "You had to have beer with barbecue."
In 1958, Sonny opened Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse on Inwood and Harry Hines, the first and only location until he sold the business in 1989. "His first day open he didn’t even have electricity," Harris says. "He used to open at 7 in the morning. And he would close later that night, so he would get third shift. But the ’70s were his heyday; he’d be sold-out by 1 or 2. Open at 10:30 or 11, be out by 2."
In the 1960s, Red got back into the barbecue business and opened a few different Red Bryan’s Barbecue locations in North Texas. In 1965, Red’s nephew, David Bryan Harris, decided he had had enough of being a Dallas County deputy sheriff. "It was just getting too dangerous," Harris says, about his father’s career in law enforcement. "He bought the one in Arlington from his Uncle Red."
After a spectacular 20-year run, David Harris sold the building in 1985; it is now a parking lot for the Dallas Cowboys. In 1988, he changed the name and opened David’s Barbeque. Jimmy Harris bought David’s Barbeque from his dad in 1992.
Harris started working with his dad in Arlington during summertime when he was 8. His first job was cutting a 50-pound sack of onions. "It took me about 2 hours back then," Harris says. "Now I can do it in 20 minutes. I made my first social security payment in 1977 when I was 12 years old. I’ve always been doing this. But I look back and my dad making me work was one of the best things that ever happened to me."
"You’re probably looking at the worst marketing guy there is," Harris says. He doesn’t bother with advertisements; he checks his flip up phone once a week. "I’ve got customers who have been eating with me since the forties with my great uncle. I’m not in this for quick profit. I’m in this for the long-term." A few customers, including A.E. Petsche, say goodbye to Harris on their way out—they are clearly dear friends.
"I’ve heard negative comments about going into a barbecue place and they are weighing their damn sandwiches," Harris says. "Sonny did it, my dad did it, I do it, Red did it too: We’re up there cutting meat and we know our customers. We know how they like their meats. We don’t have some kid up there that’s never been cutting meat."
"The barbecue business is very tough," Harris says. "You ever see the movie Groundhog Day? That’s my life. It’s good and bad; you just have to learn from the movie. The one thing my dad always told me: ‘Never quit.’"