Forget the latest culinary craze — here’s what keep the regulars coming back, and back, and back

Ray Johnston at Original Pancake House. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Ray Johnston at Original Pancake House. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

It’s a challenge to keep up with the trendy and innovative restaurant landscape in Dallas. Every day, it seems, brings the announcement of a new upscale taco joint or slow-food gastropub or microbrewery.

Amid the blur of media clamoring to cover the city’s latest and greatest foodie hotspots, it’s easy to forget the neighborhood restaurants that have stuck with us over the long haul.

But the regulars don’t forget.

They patronize their favorites week in and week out, sometimes daily. Their allegiance isn’t just about the food. They tend to be loyalists and creatures of habit, in contrast to those of us who have restaurant attention deficit disorder.

The neighborhood eateries with established regulars aren’t typically the ones enjoying Twitter and blogger buzz. If we lost them, however, they would leave gaping holes in the fabric of our community.

While most of us play the restaurant field, we salute the regulars who make sure our neighborhood’s dining staples will be around when we crave them.

The pilots-only club

Rich Russell, Russell Moehle, Chuck Martin and Denny Kelly enjoy lunch at Kel’s every Monday. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Rich Russell, Russell Moehle, Chuck Martin and Denny Kelly enjoy lunch at Kel’s every Monday. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Every Monday right around 11:30 a.m., a group of retired Braniff pilots make their way to Kel’s for lunch.

Well, one is a retired American Airlines pilot. But they try not to hold it against him.

Lunch at Kel’s has been a tradition for three or four years, they say, but they’ve known each other since their flying days.

“At our age, it’s hard to remember how long,” Don Maynard says.

el’s waiter Ralphie Hernandez gives the retired pilots plenty of attention each week. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Kel’s waiter Ralphie Hernandez gives the retired pilots plenty of attention each week. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Maynard says he’s the oldest of the bunch, and claims he showed the others the ropes.

“I raised these from pups,” he says. “I taught ’em layovers — good places to eat and drink.”

These days, “we try not to get more than 2-3 feet off the ground,” Russell Moehle says, so they hunt down good eats in Dallas. The men come together every weekday for lunch, and sometimes for breakfast on Saturday. Rich Russell is the organizer, calling everyone to let them know where to meet.

But on Monday, they know where to go. It’s always Kel’s.

“Food’s good,” explains Chuck Martin.

“And Ralphie even has the table set up for us when we come in,” Russell says.

Waiter Ralphie Hernandez reserves a table in the back of the restaurant for the men, keeps close tabs on their drinks, and brings out their orders quickly.

“You’re a mind reader, Ralphie,” someone says when Hernandez sets extra bowls of gravy on the table for the chicken-fried chicken orders.

“We tip a little heavier,” Russell says.

The group is a couple short today, and among the missing is Denny Kelly, who has been a Kel’s customer longer than any of them.

“I started going to Kel’s in 1972 — 40 years ago,” Kelly says later in a phone interview. “I lived in an apartment at LBJ and Montfort, and at the time, they were up on the corner of Forest and Preston. After about four or five years, it burned, and so they were closed for about five months and reopened where they are now [at Forest and Inwood],” he says. “I’ve been going there ever since. I couldn’t break away from it.”

He wasn’t an original member of the group, but ran into them at Kel’s and, being a retired Braniff pilot himself, began joining them for lunch.

“I knew all of them by name, knew who they were at Braniff, but I really didn’t know any of them. We weren’t running buddies or anything,” Kelly says. “But since then, we’ve developed friendships. One guy, our wives and us go out to dinner.”

The group calls Kelly “the chief” and ribs him for being the “resident aviation expert.” He often appears on TV and radio reports dealing with aviation topics — sometimes live in front of Kel’s.

“I think I’m the only one of the bunch that still works. The rest are all wealthy,” Kelly quips in response.

Around the table, much of the discussion is pilot talk. This week it’s a plane that landed in the water instead of on the runway in Bali. The men debate the technicalities of the landing, using language that sounds foreign to anyone outside the aviation realm.

It’s not the only topic of discussion, but they try to keep it civil. As one of the men begins talking politics, Russell cautions him.

“You don’t want to start that,” he says.

Kel’s Kitchen
5337 Forest

Order like a regular

The men vary in their orders, but the chicken-fried chicken is popular. This is Maynard’s order today. “If I’m going out in the evening, I just eat a salad,” he says, “but tonight I’m staying home and watching TV.” Kelly orders breakfast the vast majority of the time. “One of the things I like about Kel’s is that anytime they’re open, you can eat breakfast,” he says. His typical order is oatmeal or egg-white omelets. “I try to watch my weight,” he explains, “but I watch it go up and up.”

The starving artist

Ray Johnston at Original Pancake House at Northwest Highway and Midway. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Ray Johnston at Original Pancake House at Northwest Highway and Midway.
Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Country musician Ray Johnston writes roughly 25 percent of his songs while eating at the Original Pancake House at Northwest Highway and Midway.

He’s on the road 180 days a year, but when he’s in town, “I’m here four days a week,” Johnston says. “These are kind of my friends between 7 and 2.”

Johnston lives “about three par fives” from the restaurant, and found the place soon after moving to Dallas in 2003. The son of a cattle rancher, he hails from Montgomery, Ala., and the pancake house seemed down-home.

“One thing about Dallas that gets on my nerves is the velvet-rope action with your name on a list,” he says.

Back when he moved here, he wasn’t a musician. His first gig was as a waiter at Houston’s (which is one reason Johnston double- and triple-tips when he claims a booth for long periods of time). Then he spent about a year and a half as a mortgage banker before joining the Mavericks during open tryouts in 2004, “the same year Steve Nash was traded,” he says.

His professional basketball career ended three months after it began, however, when Johnston was diagnosed with leukemia.

In the past decade, Johnston has battled leukemia five separate times. These days, he’s winning.

“I’m thankful to parents who don’t let me sulk too much,” he says.

He spent a couple of months in a coma, underwent amputations and experienced stretches where he could eat at Original Pancake House only in a booth because his skin and bones had no other cushion.

Somewhere along the way, he decided to become a musician. He likens his September ’09 debut album to the music of Jack Johnson, John Mayer or Dave Matthews.

Ray Johnston is working on a song inspired by the pancake house called “The Pancake Show.” Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Ray Johnston is working on a song inspired by the pancake house called “The Pancake Show.” Photo by Danny Fulgencio

“At first I was insecure about my songwriting and my voice,” Johnston says. His band, however, was incredibly talented — the saxophonist now plays for Prince, he says, and the drummer also plays with Snoop Dogg (or Lion). Instead of the Ray Johnston Band, “it should have been called the band featuring Ray,” he quips.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban decided to turn Johnston’s story into a show for his cable channel HDNet (now AXS TV). “Ray Johnston Band: Road Diaries” was “half the band trying to make it, and half me trying to make it,” Johnston says. His leukemia relapsed during filming.

Once again, he fought and won. In September 2012, he came out with a second album, “Against the Grain.” This time, the music had a decidedly more country sound.

“Not many rock guys go duck hunting out of Winnie, Texas,” he says, explaining the genre switch.

Despite what Johnston has been through, his lyrics are “all happy,” he says. He’s actually working on a song inspired by the pancake house called “The Pancake Show.” No solid lines yet, but “the adjectives I think of are relaxed, comfortable, convenient, happy, good food, reliable, so that would be in the song.”

A note from Johnston hangs in the entryway of the restaurant, thanking the staff for the “great hospitality, huevos and Wi-Fi.” He knows the names of most employees and calls manager Abraham Rodriguez “El Padrone,” the boss. Dining there so often provides “pseudo Spanish lessons,” he says. He has learned, for example, “that [his] Spanish is pretty bad.”

In fact, one of the songs on his new album, “Mucho Gusto,” includes Spanish lyrics. It’s the story of a girl in Argentina who took Johnston tango dancing and was “slap-dad gorgeous,” he says. The first half of the chorus is in English, and the second half echoes the first in Spanish.

“I thought, my friends at the pancake house are going to say, ‘Good job!’ ”

They were pleased, but one particular line cracked them up. In English, it’s, “My heart is with the hot girl,” and Johnston translated “hot girl” to “chica caliente.” His Spanish-speaking friends had to explain that “chica caliente” actually translates as “horny girl.”

“The song was already mixed and mastered and out on iTunes, so what are you gonna do?” Johnston shakes his head and laughs.

Original Pancake House
4343 W. Northwest Hwy #375

Order like a regular

Johnston holds out a bowl of his unique concoction. “This is straight grits and bacon,” he says. “I call it the Alabama breakfast. I’m bugging Abraham to put it on the menu.” He is also partial to the blueberry pancakes, and requests refill after refill of “café con crema.”

The ‘board meeting’

Rafa’s regular Steve Cameron and owner Raphael Carreon have become such good friends over the years that the two have spent holidays together. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Rafa’s regular Steve Cameron and owner Raphael Carreon have become such good friends over the years that the two have spent holidays together. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

On Friday nights, the regulars descend on the bar at Rafa’s Café Mexicano.

It’s a tradition that started a few years back when Steve Cameron, who works in land investment, began holding “board meetings” in the bar on Fridays right after work hours.

Rafa’s Café Mexicano. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Rafa’s Café Mexicano. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

“Real estate was slow,” Cameron explains.

Five to 10 people usually showed up, and owner Raphael Carreon acted as the honorary chairman of the board, Cameron says.

“Rafa would be behind the bar — and he’s never behind the bar — serving drinks and having fun with us,” he says.

Cameron added some artwork he has purchased to the restaurant’s bar and installed speakers to crank out blues and country music. After a while, people start dancing.

“We’ll end up closing it down,” Cameron says with a grin.

These days business is better, but the Friday-night tradition continues. Everyone who comes is “like family,” Cameron says, and Carreon is “the touch point,” says Ross Murphy, another regular.

Cameron met Carreon simply by dining at his restaurant, and now he is “one of my very best friends,” Cameron says. They have even spent Christmas together.

Carreon isn’t at the restaurant many evenings, but he makes a point to be there on Fridays. On this particular Friday night, the weather is beautiful, so the crowd typically gathered in Rafa’s bar has taken over the patio. Carreon spends much of the night seated in the patio with his customers and friends.

“He is the nicest guy,” says regular Robbie Patman. “Everyone knows who Rafa is. How many restaurants do you not even know the owner? But Rafa’s out on the floor.”

Plus, Cameron says, Rafa’s serves “the best Tex-Mex in town, no question.” Most of the time, instead of ordering off the menu, Cameron asks his server to bring out whatever’s good. Rafa’s specializes in the specials, he says — ceviche on Fridays in the spring and summer, pasole during the colder months. The restaurant isn’t afraid to experiment, either.

“Felix, the guy in the kitchen, he’s been with Rafa for 35 years. Every now and then, I’ll mention something I had somewhere that was really good, and next thing you know, Rafa’s serving it,” Cameron says.

Once he mentioned fried olives he tried in Napa, “and the next Friday, Felix was serving it,” Cameron says.

“It’s the only Tex-Mex restaurant I know that does that. Most are chains and stick to their menus,” Cameron says. For a lot of people who frequent the restaurant, “it’s about Rafa and his food. They remember him from the ’70s and ’80s down on McKinney.”

That was Carreon’s first restaurant, Raphael’s. It was located where the West Village now stands, and closed in the late ’90s to make way for the development. After that, many customers migrated over to Rafa’s, which had opened in 1994.

Included in this migration were John and Wanda Thompson, who are eating in the main dining room this Friday night.

“You won’t find anybody who has come here as long as I have,” John Thompson says.

The Thompsons began dining at Raphael’s on McKinney the year it opened, 1975.

“It started by us wanting a good steak,” he says.

Before that restaurant became Raphael’s, it was a longtime steakhouse, Arthur’s. The Thompsons didn’t realize they would be dining at a Tex-Mex restaurant, but they have “been going to Raphael’s ever since,” he says.

“It was not unusual to wait an hour and a half to be seated because it was such a popular place,” Wanda Thompson says. “And we’re not the only ones. We talk to people here often who have been coming here forever.”

She rattles off a list of local celebrities they have spotted at Rafa’s: former first lady Laura Bush; Dallas Cowboys greats Daryl Johnston and Roger Staubach; WFAA veteran Brad Watson; former Dallas mayor Laura Miller; and the list goes on.

“The point I’m making is that nobody bothers them. They’re customers here,” Wanda Thompson says. “It’s a place everyone enjoys, from children to senior citizens.”

The Thompsons are retired educators who live in Mesquite, and they usually dine at Rafa’s twice a week. Tonight they’re joined by their daughter, Sherri Mayes, and granddaughter, Breann. Mayes began eating with her parents at Raphael’s when she was a little girl, and the Thompsons now take Breann to Rafa’s when she spends the night at their house.

The Thompsons already have succeeded in passing down the family dining tradition.

“What’s your favorite Mexican restaurant, Breann?” Wanda Thompson asks.

Breann points to the table and says, “Rafa’s.”

Rafa’s Café Mexicano
5617 W. Lovers

Order like a regular

Steve Cameron orders the short ribs when they are offered as a special, as well as the lollipop lamb chops. Ross Murphy prefers the chicken Milanesa. “It’s one you won’t find very often at a Mexican cuisine restaurant, but if you do find it, it doesn’t compare,” Murphy says of the pounded, lightly breaded and grilled chicken dish. “I don’t know how he does it.”

Wanda Thompson usually orders the Puerto Vallarta or Jalisco dishes — the latter has the pan-fried tacos she likes. John Thompson doesn’t have a favorite, but highlights the chili relleno and breakfast migas. “We just can’t pin it down to anything,” Wanda Thompson says. “It’s all really good.” Mayes and her daughter stick with a usual. For Breann it’s chicken fajita quesadillas and French fries, and for Mayes it’s the Mayan dish. She says her parents tell her, “Don’t get the same thing.” But, she says, “That’s what I like.”

The barflies

Celebration Restaurant. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Celebration Restaurant. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

It’s 7:30 on a Thursday night, and the bar at Celebration Restaurant is packed.

Customers line the perimeter of the large square, and in the middle is bartender Jon Radke, pouring wine, refilling bowls of okra and greeting most everyone by name.

Radke, 51, has bartended at Celebration for 27 years, but he bounds around with the energy of a teenager.

“When you come here, you’re on ‘John time,’ ” says Tommy Kohler.

“He’s blowin’ and goin’ the entire time,” says C.J. Freeman, Kohler’s stepson.

“But he takes care of everybody like you’re the only person in the restaurant,” Kohler says.

The two have been meeting on Thursday nights for the last 15 years to watch a ballgame, share a bottle of wine and enjoy a good meal, they say. Kohler knows Celebration owner Ed Lowe because they attended Jesuit together, with Lowe a couple of years ahead of Kohler.

When Celebration opened in 1971, Kohler patronized the adjoining leather shop “to buy hippie wear, mainly belts,” he says. Later on, the restaurant took off and the hand-tooled leather half of Celebration closed. The meatloaf and pot roast that were part of Celebration’s original menu are still two of Kohler’s favorites, he says.

Joe Adams is another customer who came to Celebration for the leather in the early ’70s and stayed for the food.

“Kind of like any institution that lasts, it changes, too, but it still remembers what it’s here for,” Adams says.

Adams and his partner, Jimmy Lancaster, are “fixtures” at the restaurant, they say.

“There was a time it was three nights a week,” Lancaster says.

“It’s seldom that we go a week without at least one trip,” Adams says.

They sat in the dining room tonight, but stopped by the bar to say hello to Radke. Before Adams met Lancaster, he was a regular at the bar.

“It’s a hackneyed phrase, but it’s a ‘Cheers’ of sorts,” Adams says.

The bar is where the Shepherds met the Persons. Teresa and Ken Person live nearby on Pomona and have “come here for years, even before we moved to the neighborhood,” she says.

Jolie Holliday-Shepherd “was raised in this restaurant,” she says. Her father, a farmer, owns the Kiepersol Estates winery. She gestures toward a bottle of the winery’s Texas syrah, which Celebration has on its menu.

Her husband, Andrew, is from New Zealand and unaccustomed to Texas delicacies. “I couldn’t find a place I could get him to eat chicken-fried steak and fried catfish” when they were dating, she says.

Andrew Shepherd swore he would never eat catfish, but Holliday convinced him to give her one more chance and took him to Celebration.

“I was like, ‘This is gonna suck,’ ” he says.

He was wrong.

“We’ve been here once a week ever since, and we order chicken-fried steak and fried catfish every week,” Holliday-Shepherd says.

They usually come on Tuesday or Thursday nights, when Radke and Marco Chavez man the bar, and that’s how they met the Persons, who often come the same nights.

“People keep coming back because they establish these relationships that turn into friendships, and that’s what it’s all about,” Holliday-Shepherd says.

Not to mention, says Ken Person, “Jon pours a full glass of wine.”

Celebration isn’t just a place to meet friends — “It’s the hottest pick-up joint in the Metroplex,” says George Fryman.

He’s been coming since the second or third week the restaurant was open, and used to buy the leather products. (At the 25th anniversary party, Fryman showed off a coin purse he bought from the Celebration leather shop.) He dined at Celebration six nights a week before he met his girlfriend, Mandy McGill.

The night he met her, he was sitting in the dining room, but Radke, whom Fryman considers “one of my very dear friends,” made trips from the bar to personally deliver Fryman’s martinis. McGill was dining with a man at a nearby table, and told Fryman she was impressed with the great service he was receiving.

“My brother and I are here once a month,” she told him.

After hearing that, Fryman swooped in, and soon they were dating.

“You just can’t beat the atmosphere,” he says.

Celebration Restaurant
4503 W. Lovers

Order like a regular

The chicken St. Caroline is a personal favorite of Tommy Kohler’s. It can be ordered grilled or fried, and “if you’re going to get it the real way, get it fried,” Kohler instructs. Freeman likes spicy dishes, and “the Jamaican jerk chicken is hotter than hell,” he says. He also enjoys the tomatillo redfish that’s sometimes served as a special. Both men enjoy Radke’s spicy margaritas, made with a jar of his own jalapeño-infused tequila that he keeps behind the bar. “They’re not as spicy as the jerk chicken,” Freeman notes.

The family that dines together

Ken Nelson and his daughter, Keely Douglas, have been Balls Hamburgers regulars since Douglas was 3. Now Keely is introducing her son, James, to the Balls tradition. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Ken Nelson and his daughter, Keely Douglas, have been Balls Hamburgers regulars since Douglas was 3. Now Keely is introducing her son, James, to the Balls tradition. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Teresa Person orders the meatloaf in the winter and the salmon salad in the summer. Joe Adams and Jimmy Lancaster also are fans of the salmon salad.

The family that dines together

Ken Nelson started eating at Balls Hamburgers when his daughter was 3. She’s now 30.

The original Snider Plaza location “was kind of a hangout for little kids because they had a couple of pinball machines,” Nelson says.

When his daughter played elementary and junior high soccer, and later joined the drill team, Balls was the place to celebrate and hold award ceremonies.

“We’d put a lot of tables together and have a banquet,” Nelson says.

The Snider Plaza location has closed, but Nelson still eats at the Northwest Highway-Midway location two or three times a week. He heads there after working out at the Town North YMCA, usually when the lunch rush has died down.

Sometimes Nelson’s wife joins him. They have a special drink — a Diet Coke with a splash of Dr Pepper. They like Diet Dr Pepper, but the soda fountain has a limited number of options, and the rare Mello Yello beats out the more mainstream Diet Dr Pepper.

The staff knows their preferred drink; Nelson and his wife don’t have to ask for it. He wondered whether it might be a common request.

“I said, ‘Oh, are there a lot of us people like that?’ And they said, ‘No.’ ”

Balls doesn’t have much employee turnover, Nelson says. He knew owner Barry Hobrecht, who died suddenly in 2009, and knows most of the current staff, too.

“It’s kind of like ‘Cheers,’ when you walk in and they say, ‘Norm!’ he says. “I find a place I like and just don’t try others because I’m not one to try a lot a new stuff. I kind of like to go where I like to go.”

Customers like Nelson are not unusual, says employee Christopher Ornelas. A lot of professionals dine at Balls two or three times a week. A guy named Larry comes in for lunch then brings his family for dinner, Ornelas says. Another guy, Mike, routinely calls in an order for two chocolate milkshakes.

“He always has exact change” when he pays, Ornelas says.

Ornelas, 26, was a regular before he was an employee. His grandparents began bringing him to Balls when he was 6.

“For as long as I can remember, this is what I think about when I think about burgers,” Ornelas says.

They would come on Sundays after church and order a burger for $3.95. (Now it’s $5.95.) His grandfather has since died, and his grandmother still dines at Balls once or twice a month, but not nearly as often as she used to “because it reminds her of him,” Ornelas says.

The W.T. White graduate began working part-time at the restaurant when he was 16. He joined the military after high school, and then started working at Balls again when he came home.

“Those cooks haven’t changed since I was a kid,” he says. Neither has the sports memorabilia along the walls or the chalkboards that advertise the menu items. Ornelas points to the “new” chalkboard, the one posted a couple of years ago that displays more recent menu additions — sweet potato fries, tater tots, shrimp tacos and cherry limeades.

But most people, including him, stick with the classic that has kept Balls in business since 1987 — their hamburgers.

That’s the reason people come back, Ornelas says. That, and because “it feels like home.”

Balls Hamburgers
4343 W. Northwest Hwy #300

Order like a regular

When Nelson wants something healthy, he orders the chicken sandwich or the ace plate — a salad with lettuce, tomato, onion and grilled chicken breast. “That way you don’t have the bun,” he says. When his wife is traveling on business, Nelson will stop in for lunch to order a burger with sweet potato fries, eat half, and then take the rest home for dinner.

Ornelas’ usual order is a burger with mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, tomatoes, pickles, jalapeños and pepper jack cheese. “Sometimes I put bacon on it,” he says. He chooses between the cheese fries, tater tots and onion rings as a side.

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