A Look Back At The Lower Greenville Institution’s First Decade.
When I moved to Lower Greenville in January of 2008, I think it took me all of two days to discover The Libertine. Pretty much immediately, I fell for the spot’s warm interior and its staff’s somehow warmer demeanors.
Over the next few years, the pub was a regular stop in my tours of that neighborhood bars. And even after I moved out of that part of town and into another, it’s managed to keep its dear position near my
liver heart. I just really dig the place. Always have — and sure, I’ll concede that personal, nostalgic reasons play a big role in that sentiment.
I forged many a friendship at The Libertine, so many of them fortified by a group of new acquaintances squeezing around a table for the spot’s legendary half-priced food dinners on Tuesday nights, back when those were still a thing. It was also there, my belly up against the bar, that these new friends helped me develop a taste (and later disgust) for Tuaca. And it was in the left-hand corner of the room where I held down my first-ever regular DJ night after having been drunkenly dared into doing it by owner Simon McDonald — a fact made all the more ridiculous since The Libertine, and I say this with love, is basically not at all conducive to any sort of DJ night. And yet my monthly somehow trucked on for close to two years there, go figure.
Thing is, personal as my own affections for The Lib may be, I’d venture to say that they mirror the reasons that most people have an affinity for the spot. It’s always been a welcoming environment — and owners Simon McDonald and Michael Smith deserve a lot of credit for cultivating that sense.
This week, as The Libertine is celebrating its 10-year anniversary, those two deserve some serious props. For one thing, just keeping a bar or restaurant open for a decade is alone a major accomplishment. But these guys have done it in the face of a fast-changing Dallas and an even faster-evolving Lower Greenville, putting up with massive construction and, for a spell there, neighborhood crime woes as they did. Longtime bar veterans who met while working at the Barley House and Muddy Waters in the ’90s, The Libertine actually represents the second bar that the two launched together, with its opening coming after the two successfully opened the Meridian Room (which they’d later sell) in Expo Park.
“The idea was to kind of replicate the feel of the Meridian Room but with better food,” McDonald said of The Libertine’s concept earlier this week when asked to reflect on its 10 years in operation. “We wanted it a little heightened, but to have the feel of a neighborhood pub.”
Before McDonald and Smith took it over, the spot had operated as Big Mike’s Sports Lounge, a bar decorated in Dallas Cowboys silver and blue. After their landlord recruited them into taking the space over, the partners spent the whole summer of 2006 remodeling the place themselves, building out all the wood elements that remain to this day. Beyond the decor, the spot was further bolstered by being a little ahead of the craft beer boom and setting itself up as a proper pub with a deep selection served in the appropriate corresponding glassware. Better still, The Libertine was able to develop its reputation for higher-minded beer service without much of the stuffiness that such a direction often implies. An openness to ideas like hosting an annual Fourth of July corn dog-eating competition and holding an annual concert/toy drive for area kids around Christmastime probably went a long way toward striking that balance.
“We were able to create a nice environment and we had a great opportunity to get to know some awesome people,” says Smith, reminiscing on the past 10 years in business. “What’s great is how those relationships have been lasting.”
Those relationships are what carried the spot through the leaner times when just driving anywhere near the stretch of Greenville Avenue upon which the bar sits was a total nightmare. That’s also what’s kept the crowds coming as the rest of the neighborhood has seemingly caught up to The Libertine’s model of serving up more than just major domestic brews and Jagermeisters, along with having a kitchen capable of plating more than just greasy burgers.
“Quality is everywhere these days,” Smith says. “We’re just trying to keep doing what we do and tweaking it little by little.”
Asked directly what’s kept them going, though, and neither Smith nor McDonald is altogether sure. Or, if they are, they’re keeping mum about it.
“I don’t really know what reaching 10 years means,” McDonald says.
“I guess it means we’re doing something right,” adds Smith.
Well, they do a lot of things right, actually. And if the owners can’t pinpoint those things, then their staff, past and present, sure can. In advance of tonight’s celebration at the bar — a milestone that follows a week of mini-celebrations, a night that comes on the exact 10-year anniversary date, and one which will feature live music as well as an auction for various goods (with all proceeds going to Foundation 45) — we reached out to staffers past and present to find out what they think has kept The Libertine going strong for the past decade.
Here are their answers.
Máté Hartai. I was at The Libertine from ’09 to ’14, starting off as a barback before working my way up to bartender and then bar manager. When I think about my time there, I immediately think of my hiring manager, who was sweeping the front steps as I pulled up for my interview. It was both humble and personal to see — a small but very important first impression. Most of my memories from The Libertine are tactile and sensory. The glow of the orange lights as October rolls around that then turn pale and bright in December is hard to forget. The wood everywhere is a sounding board for much more than laughter, heated debate and whispered ill-colored humor. The soundtrack is as unique and unpredictable as the clientele. You never know when you’ll be greeted by Wesley Willis screaming about Batman and then look over and see two hand-drawn pieces by the late-Chicago-artist-turned-hip-hop-cult-icon. The bar has a very hands-on private and genuine identity that can be felt from the furniture up, most of which was built by the owners themselves. The hand-blown, rewired chandeliers create a hard-to-duplicate intimacy that seems to echo down every inch of wood, supporting the drinks and hearts of many a regular. The draft system, specially brought over from Belgium for the the task of pouring quality since that was cool, is easily the best dispense system I’ve ever had the pleasure of handling. What makes the Libertine different and so long-lived is the commitment and openness of the owners. Most people that create something so personal insist on a level of control that dooms whatever it is to eventual cultural irrelevance. Simon and Mike genuinely have open minds and allow the bar to use the chemistry, creativity and drive of its ever-changing team to be its fuel for evolution. The Libertine saw things in me I couldn’t. It saw character where there was struggle and failure. It recognized uncompromising hardheadedness as passion, and somehow held to any wild path I pointed out with vision and support. All of my missteps and failures, it kept close to the chest while celebrating my small successes with disproportionate pride. It taught me a loyalty that I see it holding still, protecting its people the best it can. The Libertine is a place that transcends basic definition with grace. It continues to grow and evolve while staying firmly stitched into a collective fabric that is much greater than any of us individually.
Roe DiLeo. I was the general manager for one year, and the head chef for five years. The years were 2009 to 2014, most likely. I started as the general manager, and had kitchen experience, and when the chef at the time moved on, I asked Simon and Mike to give me a chance to do it. Within six months we were winning awards and selling out beer dinners! When I think about my time there all I think about is family. We all have remained friends, but it’s more than that. When you’ve had a bad day, got fired, got arrested, had a death in the family, had a birth in the family or just feel alone, The Libertine is where you go. There will always be someone you know there, and someone that will take you in and pick your spirits up. As a family, we have endured tragedy together, losing Scott Lastowski and David Rell, but we try everyday to remember them and support each other. Choosing a favorite memory is hard — there’s so many and mine aren’t quite for public consumption. The Libertine has been a huge part of my success as a chef. They supported me and rooted for me through Hell’s Kitchen — the regulars, the staff (present and past), Mike Smith and most definitely Simon. Simon may have his crazy ways, but he cares so much about all of us, and he really deserves a medal or statue or something. Bailing people out of jail, countless second and third chances to people who just needed a break, generous beyond belief, and just a good fucking time. He is the glue that holds all of us together, and I see this anniversary as a real testament to how hard Mike and Simon care about their staff and their business.They deserve all of the success in the world! Here’s to 10 more years!
Tim Jackson. I was at The Libertine from April 2010 to April 2014 — a perfect four years. I started as a barback, then bartender, then ended as a manager. Honestly, when I think about that place, it feels like one big extended family, from ownership to co-workers to regulars. I also learned so much about the business of a bar while I was there. Máté was a huge help, as well as Mike and Simon. It never felt like they were trying to hide the business aspects of the bar from their employees. I know it’s cheesy, but I met and got to know my wife because of that place. I could give you the full story, but suffice it to say it involved a rainy St. Paddy’s parade day, a trip to R.L.’s Blues Palace II, a bottle of Jameson, a limo ride back to the bar, and culminated with the first time i kissed my now-wife. As to what it means and this anniversary represents, I feel like this bar is pretty damn special. The 10 years it’s been on Greenville Avenue have seen a lot of changes, a lot of bar closings and openings, a lot of people moving in and out of the neighborhood — and the bar and bar staff have been able to adapt and remain relevant for all of it.
Michele Stanton. I started in August 2008 as general manager and was tasked with keeping Gavin Mulloy from getting into trouble. There was a lot of that; the late Frankie Campagna and Adam Carter from Spector 45 frequented the bar often. My favorite memory at The Libertine is that we held my wedding reception there. There were other life celebrations that we got to share with regulars who have now become close friends, too. The feelings I have for the Lib revolve around how great the people and staff who have come in over the years are. You know you can walk in and see a friend — or make one. The staff has been an amazing crew over the years. Of course, there were always some periods of chaos, but it’s usually been a good, tight and steady crew — people who are proud to say that they worked here, as shown by the guest bartenders who have have come back to work shifts this week.
Jeff Fryman. I was at The Libertine for a year and some change, from 2012 to 13. I was a bartender. Nothing fancy. I immediately think of fun when I think of those times, though. I know that sounds dumb, but what else could you want from your staff and guests? Everyone is getting their job done and making people smile on both sides. I can still hear Máté calling me “a fucking dickhead” and that always makes me laugh. I remember one time when a regular, Casey Williams, made a little figure of each bartender and she presented me with mine. I almost cried day. I hadn’t been there long, and they accepted me — faults and all. OK, fuck, now I am crying. To me, The Libertine represents the cliched home-away-from-home. The anniversary is a celebration of what everyone in that neighborhood already knows — just business as usual. The anniversary is just The Libertine saying “Hey, we’re here for you now, and we’ll be there for you later.” It’s the sort of unconditional love that comes from a healthy, loving relationship. Mike and Simon should be fucking proud of themselves. I love The Libertine.
Tavy Um. I worked and bartended at The Libertine for four years, beginning in 2007. When I think of working there, I think of friendships and relationships with people that will stay with me for the rest of my life. My favorite memories were from our Christmas parties — WhirlyBall, party buses, and drinking will always add up to craziness. Working New Year’s Eve, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Halloween were my favorites. Pretty much whenever the city was celebrating, we got together and helped them celebrate. With all the changes on Lower Greenville over the past 10 years, I think The Libertine has stood as an example of how to adapt to your changing neighborhood without losing your identity.
Emily Cain. I worked at The Lib for almost six years, from 2005 to 2011. When I think about my time there, all that really comes to mind is all the ridiculous fun I had while working there. I met some really amazing people there — and my best friend. I once leg-wrestled Dana Schumm in the middle of the bar. Her legs are so strong that she flipped me over and I got a splinter in my eye. I had to call in the next day because I looked like sloth from The Goonies. It was my first bar job, which made it possible for me to do what I do now. I am forever grateful to them for that. I consider everyone I’ve worked with there my friends and my family. I am so proud of Simon and Mike for what they have built. I love the place so much, and I still hang out there all the time. I am and will always be a huge fan of that bar.