“Are you from here?” I asked my Uber driver.
I’d just been scooped up from the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, a solo passenger in the mini-van on my way to Fort Worth. Dallas seems to be on the tips of everyone’s tongues lately––the food scene, the culture, the boom––but I felt drawn to Fort Worth, the slightly smaller, slightly quieter, far less traffic-y sister city.
“I’ve lived here my whole life,” my driver replied, diving into a story about her family history. Her family came from Mexico, settled in Fort Worth, and never thought about leaving.
We talked all the way to my hotel, The Worthington Renaissance, right in the middle of downtown. The lobby was bustling with visitors, some chatting on couches and others sipping cocktails at the bar. After spending a couple hours in a cramped plane seat, I was ready to start exploring, so I quickly dropped off my bags and headed back outside.
When I mentioned to some friends that I was visiting Fort Worth, all of them said the same thing––”You have to try Panther City BBQ.” The restaurant was a short distance from my hotel, and my favorite way to learn about a place is by foot, so I started walking. As I made my way past restaurants and shops, I noticed a quiet. There were plenty of people around, but there weren’t many cars. Sidewalks lined every street, making the area super pedestrian-friendly, even as I left the downtown core. I thought about how nice this must be for the families out and about.
I could smell Panther City BBQ before I could see it. Woodsmoke and barbecue caught the breeze, so I wasn’t surprised to see a line down the street. I was more than happy to wait in line, watching other folks’ orders come out of the kitchen to help me decide what to order. When I got to the window, I’d settled on the Brisket Elote Cup and Banana Pudding.
My food came out shortly after I ordered. Creamy corn piled high with brisket pieces, salty and savory with coveted crispy bits and banana pudding just like the kind at a backyard cookout. It was the kind of good that makes you eat until your stomach hurts––the kind of good that made me glad I walked.
Looking for a place to get some work done, I stumbled upon Arcadia Coffee. It’s a long time Fort Worth coffee shop and roaster, loved by locals for its “old Fort Worth” vibe––artsy, laid-back, and welcoming. I nestled into a corner with a latte expecting to get to work, but it wasn’t long until I was chatting with a table neighbor. “I’ve always lived here,” she said. “I love how this place is growing. There are so many places you’ve got to visit, but make sure you eat dinner at Cannon.”
I scrawled Cannon Chinese Kitchen into my notebook, thanking her as I ran out the door to head for a 5 o’clock Friday drink. Destination: Shipping and Receiving, a warehouse bar named for exactly what it used to be. The garage door was open when I arrived, and that night’s band was tuning guitars and setting up a drum kit. I grabbed a seat at the bar, and was soon joined by Josh Block, former member of the band White Denim and current owner of Niles City Sound. His recording studio shared a building with the bar, which he considered a serious perk.
“I met the owner of this place because he liked my band,” said Josh. “Eddie lived in New York during a culturally significant time, and he brought that here. This place is like Cheers.”
Josh and two friends opened Niles City Sound in 2014, in large part because of his experience as a young musician. “I recorded myself, and that was the reality,” he told me. “I wanted to offer production here that you used to have to travel elsewhere to get. Big name artists aren’t coming out of the big name music cities, they’re coming from places like this.”
It’s something Josh knows all too well. His studio got put on the map quickly with the 2015 release of Leon Bridges’ Debut Album Coming Home. He asked if I wanted to see where the magic happened, so we walked out the backdoor and across the hall to the studio, joined by his wife Lauren and daughter Birdie.
The studio was one big room, rugs layered over each other and vintage equipment scattered around, the not-so-secret secret to their recordings’ warmth. Lauren and I sat down upstairs in the loft while Josh chatted downstairs with a couple of studio friends.
“The museum district is fantastic for a town our size,” she said. “They just redid the Amon Carter Museum, and I was blown away. Having my daughter, I love that these museums are at our fingertips.”
She told me about growing up going to the famed Stockyards, and how much the city has grown and changed over the years. “You can still get anywhere in about 10 minutes though,” she said. “And the community is so supportive of the growth. I started my children’s clothing line here.”
Her line, Hey Gang, is manufactured locally right by the original Dickies factory. Fort Worth has a history of garment manufacturing, which has resulted in a thriving industry of small batch, locally made leather goods and clothing––perhaps none more famous than M.L. Leddy’s, home to hand-tooled belts, hand-shaped hats, and custom boots.
After a couple of hours hanging out in the studio, my notebook was full of recommendations, but my stomach was empty. Thankfully Cannon Chinese Kitchen was a short walk away.
The restaurant is in a 1930’s home, carefully renovated. Each room has been wallpapered with colorful florals and decorated with vintage furniture, like walking into a very chic grandmother’s house. I sat at the bar and ordered several small plates––scallion pancakes and red oil dumplings and wok-seared green beans. Needless to say, I was full and happy when I curled up in bed back at the Worthington Renaissance.
The next morning, I walked a block over for light breakfast at Vaquero Coffee. Small, cozy, and stocked with kolaches, it was my kind of place. I took a horchata latte and jalepeño sausage kolache to go, and took a Saturday morning stroll toward the Water Gardens.
If you’ve never heard of the Fort Worth Water Gardens, Google it now. It’s a stunning, meditative spot right in the middle of the city, and feature of Solange Knowles Almeda music video. There are three main features, the aerating pool, the quiet pool, and the active pool. I sat on a stair set overlooking the active pool while I ate my breakfast and planned the rest of my day, calmed by the sound of rushing water.
I Ubered to the Cultural District for a museum day. On my list: The Kimbell Art Museum, The Modern Art Museum of American Art, The National Cowgirl Museum & Hall of Fame, and Lauren’s recommendation, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. I spent hours enthralled by Eliot Porter’s Birds, the history of cowgirl turned Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and Renoirs. Before I knew it, the day was almost done.
I Ubered back downtown for dinner at Sundance Square. The weather was nice, so I sat outside at the plaza with lots of other people who had the same idea. The plaza is also home to one of Fort Worth’s most famous attractions, the three story tall Chisholm Trail Mural––a nod to the area’s historic cattle drives.
As all good millennials do, I was Instagramming most of my trip. A friend replied to one of my Stories, “Go to Melt Ice Cream! My good friend is the amazing entrepreneur behind the company.”
When it comes to ice cream, I don’t need to be convinced. Plus, Melt had several locations in Fort Worth, and one of them was right by Sundance Square. The shop was stocked with unique flavors like roasted banana ice cream with ribbons of whiskey caramel sauce. I opted for a scoop or chocolate chocolate, and I wasn’t disappointed. Day two was a wrap, and I went to bed wishing I didn’t have to go back home the next day.
I chose to have my last breakfast at Hot Box Biscuit Club, and I couldn’t resist ordering the Dolly Parton, a chicken biscuit with cheddar and sausage gravy. I resisted coffee at breakfast, instead stopping at Sons of Liberty to grab a cup on my way to the cattle drive. I liked their drip coffee so much that I bought a bag of beans to bring home.
There’s a reason that Fort Worth is called “Cowtown,” and I couldn’t leave without witnessing one of the twice-daily cattle drives. As much as Fort Worth has changed, it hasn’t forgotten its past––and it doesn’t want to. Watching the herd go by felt like being back in time just for a moment, a reminder that what Fort Worth used to be still pulses through what the city is today.
On the way back to pack up my hotel room, I caught myself looking longingly at apartments, wondering ...what if?
How do you know you love a place? Just like the locals, you never want to leave.