Fans of the Dallas institution Mac’s Bar-B-Que have just a few days left to visit before Billy McDonald flips the sign to “Closed” one last time.
“It’s time to go,” says McDonald. The 67-year-old has operated the restaurant, which his father Bill “Mac” McDonald opened in 1955, for his entire adult life. The joint’s last day might be Monday, July 26. “Depending on what’s left then, we’ll be here on the twenty-seventh. From there, it’s iffy,” says McDonald, taking another bite of his chopped-brisket sandwich with Tabasco and black pepper. On a recent morning, he sat at a table with Deb Schultz, who has worked with him since 2006. She checked the door for customers, but only had to get up three times in an hour.
On some level, McDonald has been itching to get out of the barbecue business for decades. He went to architecture school at Texas A&M in 1982, but the restaurant drew him back in when he couldn’t find a job after graduation. Ten years later, his father retired, and McDonald took over. He was free to implement innovations to a menu that had remained unchanged for decades, and he did: barbecue-stuffed baked potatoes in 1995, pork ribs in 1998. He didn’t season the briskets with anything but hickory smoke until few years ago, when he began adding a little salt.
Mac’s is old-school, and not just because it’s old. When Mac first got into the barbecue business, Shoemaker’s Barbecue was dominant in Dallas, and its barbecue style was influential. Sandwiches were the focus. The meat wasn’t seasoned before cooking, but rather via the barbecue sauce that was liberally applied to every sandwich, along with pickles, raw onion, sweet relish, and pickled peppers. Mac’s was built in that image, with a focused barbecue menu, along with its barbecue peers like Sonny Bryan’s in Dallas, Ernie’s Pit Barbeque in Greenville, and Tom & Bingo’s in Lubbock. Those have all moved on to producing what I’d consider modern barbecue, and all three restaurants are thriving because of it. McDonald has refused to join their ranks, on principle. “I grew up in a generation where you took the majority of the fat off that you could, and you didn’t serve it. People today serve the fat, and the skin, and everything,” he says. To him, serving the customer anything but well-trimmed lean beef is unfair.
The impending closure of Mac’s shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone paying attention. He told me in an interview seven years ago, “I’ll be glad when I leave. If I won the lottery I’d be closed the next day. I’ll let somebody else carry the torch for Dallas barbecue. We’ve been here for over thirty-one years. I just turned sixty, so I’ve spent half my life here in this building.” When he put the building up for sale in 2015, he hoped a buyer would be that lottery ticket. But a buyer never materialized, and earlier this year McDonald decided the best option was to find someone to lease the space from him. Next month, a Mexican restaurant will take over the space. (McDonald didn’t have more information about the restaurant to come.)
He’s relieved to be finished searching for the hickory wood that’s been in short supply recently, and to sleep in past 4 a.m. every weekday morning. McDonald also won’t have to worry about staying in the black, which has been a struggle since pandemic restrictions first hit the restaurant industry last March. Mac’s was bringing in two thousand dollars in sales per day before COVID-19. The day after the restrictions hit, “we did fifty-eight bucks.” Business stayed that way for four months.
“I just want to take a little time off,” says McDonald. He’s dreamed of seeing Venice, and visiting England to “get my picture taken with one of the Buckingham guards.” I got the feeling he felt it was the restaurant’s fault that he’d never fulfilled those dreams. “When you’re here every day, you can dream about it, and you can watch YouTube videos about it, but you can’t do it. You have a commitment,” he says. “When you own one of these places, you’re married to it.” It hasn’t been all bad, but, he says, it’s been “fifty-fifty.” McDonald, like his father before him, expended so much effort into making Christmas great for other families, he’s never enjoyed the holiday in his life. This year, he’s looking forward to December.
Schultz says they’ve been telling customers for a couple weeks of their plans to close, and most have been sad, but also happy for them to get some much-deserved time off. She plans to continue her second job as a grocery-store cashier. “I might work twenty-five hours a week instead of sixty hours, and I can sleep in,” she laughs. McDonald will keep his side business of repairing small electronics after he gets back from his visit with Her Majesty the Queen.
Even if McDonald is looking forward to his long-overdue retirement, he admits “walking out of here is going to be a bad day.” He plans to be the first paying customer at the new restaurant. “The first dollar I hand them will be in a picture frame.”
I’ll be losing my favorite local joint to stop in for a chopped-brisket sandwich and a side of the best French fries in town. But like many other customers, I’ll miss McDonald’s quick wit behind the counter almost as much as the barbecue. He reminded me about one of my first visits, when I got nosy about his cooking methods. I asked what kind of wood he used in the smoker, and he whispered, “Don’t tell anybody, but I’ve been stealing railroad ties.” When you come in for that final visit to Mac’s, be sure to tell McDonald why the place was special to you, and try to make him laugh. Just don’t tell him you wish they’d keep the place open. He and Schultz don’t deserve that. As McDonald puts it, “Getting out of here gives me that little bit of time I need in my life to do what I’d like to try to get done before I leave this earth.”