One recent afternoon, a few dozen people gathered on the south side of East Exchange Avenue to watch several cattle languidly walk to their dusty pens near the Cowtown Coliseum. Known as the Fort Worth Herd, the miniature cattle drive has been a staple attraction of the Stockyards for more than 20 years. Over those two decades, individual restaurants and bars have come and gone, but the landscape of the historic district has remained largely unchanged –– until recently.
Nearby, the once unused horse and mule barns that formed Mule Alley have been gutted, refurbished, and finished out to house more than a dozen spaces for retail, dining, drinks, and offices as part of a partnership between Majestic Realty Co. and Fort Worth’s Hickman Investments. After years of planning and construction, much of the massive development project is now open or opening soon. Texas-based Lucchese Bootmaker and retail emporium MB Mercantile & Supply are already popular destinations, and local celebrity chef Marcus Paslay said his third restaurant, Provender Hall, is scheduled to open in Mule Alley early next month.
Public perception about the project has changed since early 2016, when news of California-based Majestic Realty’s role in revitalizing the historic Stockyards was met with skepticism by many Fort Worthians (“ To Save the Stockyards’ Living History,” January 2016). At the urging of preservationists, local business owners, and concerned locals, Fort Worth city councilmembers voted to create a historic district that April. The district put safeguards in place that prevented demolitions and set the groundwork for the construction that followed.
Designing the look and feel of Mule Alley fell on Linda Berman, Majestic Realty’s chief creative officer. When directors with Stockyards Heritage Development Company, the entity that owns and manages Mule Alley, called on Berman to head up the project, she said the opportunity to work in Fort Worth’s Stockyards was “refreshing.”
There was, she said, “something authentic at the base of the project. There was a history that was real. The ethos of the cowboy and cowgirl coming up the Chisholm Trail, those things are very lyrical and, in some ways, cinematic. We saw the beauty and majesty in the horse and mule barns.”
Berman and her team began by putting together a “wish list” of shops, restaurants, and other attractions that would make Mule Alley a destination for tourists and locals. Berman knew Fort Worthians would not tolerate a hokey caricature of Cowtown’s cowboy culture.
“We wanted to bring a group of stores that had bona fide heritage in the West,” she said. “We thought it was really important that we got to know the market. Who were the great chefs, artisans, and entrepreneurs? If we could convince them that the [Stockyards offered them opportunities], we would be able to honor our surroundings and attract a local audience.”
Early on, Mule Alley project leaders reached out to Paslay, who also owns Piattello Italian Kitchen and Clay Pigeon.
“We were excited about it from the beginning,” he said. “To be a part of the Stockyards is pretty cool. It’s not often you get to be a part of that kind of history.”
As we chatted inside his restaurant, staffers bustled about, putting the finishing touches on what Paslay describes as an American grille concept that has “Texas’ greatest hits.”
The menu, he added, includes dishes like chicken-fried steak, grilled trout, oysters on the half shell, pimento cheese, smoked meats, and other Texas favorites.
Paslay said he wanted to honor the historic roots of the Stockyards by working with established dishes and traditional cooking techniques. His restaurant will use a wood-fire grill and oven that does not use natural gas or electricity, he said.
Behind Provender Hall, a small crew was working on Sidesaddle Saloon, the wine bar that pays homage to the historic cowgirl and her modern incarnations. Co-owner Sarah Castillo (the restaurateur behind Taco Heads and Tinie’s Mexican Cuisine) said her years of working in the service industry during the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo taught her that cowboys and cowgirls enjoy a fine glass of wine as much as they do Coors Light. Modern cowgirls, she said, are the hardworking moms and female business owners who share the tireless defiance and resilience of their 19th-century counterparts.
Just south of Sidesaddle Saloon, a sprawling barn with a retractable glass roof will soon be home to Second Rodeo Brewing Company, the brewpub concept of chef/restaurateur Jason Boso. Brewer Justin Meyers, who heads By the Horns Brewing in Mansfield (also owned by Boso), is slated to oversee brewing operations at Second Rodeo. Last year, Meyers said the Stockyards brewery will feature beers and styles that pay tribute to the American breweries that paved the way for the current craft beer movement.
Nearby MB Mercantile & Supply was a treat. The store offers old-timey candies, antique cameras, cookbooks, and a wide range of knickknacks. Berman said she wanted to offer visitors a fun, entertainment-based retail experience that covered a wide range of price points. The hundreds of items found in MB Mercantile & Supply were hand-picked or created specifically for Fort Worth’s customers, she added.
At the southernmost end of Mule Alley is Hotel Drover, which will feature 200 rooms and suites, a signature restaurant, meeting spaces, and a wedding barn starting this October. As I made the rounds of the various businesses in Mule Alley, I asked the employees how many tourists they saw. Upwards of half of all visitors were from out of state that day, the employees said. I was surprised, given the ongoing economic downturn and bottomed-out tourism industry. Many tourists were visiting Fort Worth for the first time, I was told, by increasingly antsy Americans who are looking for a break and hear that Fort Worth’s Stockyards offers something different from typical U.S. tourist destinations.