Over the past two or three decades, as Fort Worth has grown into the nation’s thirteenth-largest city, its art museums have debuted snazzy buildings, downtown and the Near Southside have been transformed by development, and sports fans have flocked to new arenas. Through all that, the city’s best-known tourist draw, the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District, stayed largely stuck in time, and maybe that made sense. It was a place to step into mythic Texas—wear your Western duds, be near some cattle, hear music by guys named Wade.
It’s still that, but new forces are transforming the neighborhood. They’re not so much changing its character as enhancing and extending it, giving locals and travelers more reasons to return again and again. There’s a sense now that the Stockyards has a vibrant present and an intriguing future, and not just one hell of a past.
Mule Alley, a $175 million redevelopment of long-abandoned mule barns right in the heart of things, opened in stages during the coronavirus pandemic. Behind its low-slung red-brick facades are shops, restaurants, and trendy drinking spots. Mule Alley’s hip aesthetics and cannily chosen businesses are social media catnip, helping to make the complex a bridge between the neighborhood’s dusty, authentic past and the Yellowstone- and yeehaw agenda–obsessed present. The development’s anchor, the year-old Hotel Drover, is a modern luxury property that leans hard into that cowboy chic while nailing Fort Worth’s relaxed vibe.
Another new influence is Yellowstone’s prequel series 1883, which filmed in the Stockyards. The production turned West Exchange Avenue into the main backdrop for its hair-raising depiction of wild and woolly late-nineteenth-century Fort Worth. Hooker’s Grill owner Ruth Hooker, for one, kept the Hollywood alterations to her front deck, now part of a rustic two-story structure clad in scruffy-looking wooden planks and set back from the street behind a sign reading “The Texas House of Liquor & Sport.” She says it’s drawing new customers to this less-visited side of the Stockyards. A member of the Choctaw Nation, Hooker sells Oklahoma-style fried onion burgers and fry-bread tacos, and is among those championing the growing diversity of the district and its visitors. “The crowds have changed. The Stockyards appeals to a wider selection of people,” she says. “This is no longer just cowboy central.”
See + Do
From Main Street, walk two to three blocks uphill along West Exchange Avenue to see the bones of 1883’s Fort Worth—the city’s tourism bureau has put together a guide. A few steps away, on Rodeo Plaza, a genial exhibit explores the life of John Wayne, an honorary Texan if there ever was one. Nearby, you can go two-stepping at Billy Bob’s Texas, which bills itself as the world’s largest honky-tonk (though our chief honky-tonk correspondent has an argument with that).
The 1936 New Isis Theater (Fort Worth–raised Ginger Rogers was on hand for its grand opening) was long a boarded-up eyesore near the main Stockyards intersection. It’s been restored to its art deco glory and reopened last year as Downtown Cowtown at the Isis, hosting films and concerts. Should your tastes run more to the supernatural, Cowtown Winery offers ghost tours and true-crime tours—they happen on the early side (starting 7 to 8 p.m.), so it’s unlikely you’ll meet many scary characters, but who’s to say?
For families, the unabashedly touristy pleasures along East Exchange Avenue are still the big draw—all the things that remind us that four million cattle passed through these streets between 1866 and 1890. You can catch a rodeo almost any Friday or Saturday night. In the twice-daily cattle drives, at 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., seventeen longhorns emerge from their pens and parade through a canyon of gawkers holding up smartphones. An authentically diverse staff of professional drovers, cowgirls and cowboys of color prominently included, leads the mighty animals as they mosey down Exchange, hang a right near the new Shake Shack (!), then circle back to their enclosure—it’s like the world’s most lugubrious cuckoo clock. Stroll along a wooden catwalk (as Sam Elliott did in episode one of 1883) for an overhead view into the pens where the Fort Worth Herd is cared for. The cattle pen maze and the gently bucking mechanical bull are kid-friendly. Here, you also can rent horses and ride out along the Trinity River, with not much shade in sight. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of places nearby to buy a good hat.
TikTokers are leading the stampede to Mule Alley’s new location of the Dallas-based Flea Style and its “hat bar,” where stylists help customers trick out their caps with ribbons, feathers, and more. At the new King Ranch Saddle Shop, you might choose a wild rag printed with a hand-drawn map of the ranch or a set of luggage trimmed in leather sourced from there. On opposite corners of the main crossroads, venerable outfitters Maverick Fine Western Wear and M. L. Leddy’s, which is celebrating its centennial this year, are going strong. But there’s more here than Western wear. Near the back of Stockyards Station, a shaded outdoor mall that’s home mainly to tourist shops (whimsical socks, whimsical jerkies) and family eateries, Chief Records is the rare woman-owned indie record shop. Laura Underwood bought out the longtime previous resident, Ernest Tubb Record Shop, where she had apprenticed in the trade. The remaining location of the store Tubb founded in 1947 is closing this spring in Nashville—it’s nice that Chief has a little of its DNA.
Dine + Drink
One of the first arrivals in Mule Alley was chef Marcus Paslay’s Provender Hall, whose grilled trout over hoppin’ John was among Texas Monthly’s favorite dishes of 2021. Two new Tim Love restaurants have joined the celebrity chef’s longtime Stockyards ventures (which include the fine-dining Lonesome Dove Western Bistro). The rooftop spot Ático, which debuted in 2020, offers Spanish tapas, good cocktails, and a lofty skyline view. And at the newly opened Paloma Suerte, Love’s first Tex-Mex restaurant, choose from five frozen margaritas on tap, plus a queso that can be personalized table-side with your choice of twelve additions.
An outdoor meal amid the lush flora at Joe T. Garcia’s remains a classic Fort Worth experience. The Tex-Mex is proudly old school and the margaritas are strong—make like a local and order a pitcher while you’re standing in line for seating. The Stockyards has quite a few places to dine on proper steaks, chicken-fried steaks, and/or calf fries—the latter have been a restaurant staple here for almost one hundred years. Hotel Drover’s 97 West also highlights the carnivore hits, but it’s a kick to order its smoky cauliflower steak while dining just down the block from the site of the old Swift and Armour meatpacking plants.
This hearty-drinking neighborhood offers ever more places to imbibe. Second Rodeo Brewing, a 14,000-square-foot beer garden from Jason Boso of Truck Yard fame, opened in Mule Alley last year, as did the elegant Sidesaddle Saloon, with high ceilings, cozy banquettes, and stylish cocktails named after women of the West.
Locally owned businesses from hipper parts of Fort Worth are now opening outlets in the Stockyards. Melt Ice Creams (with seasonal flavors such as Texas Lavender Honey Crunch) arrived in April, joining Avoca Coffee Roasters and Taco Heads. Fancy coffee is suddenly a thing too. The sight of students and remote workers peering into laptop screens was totally alien here until recently, but no longer, thanks to Avoca and Railcar Coffee and Spirits, whose offerings include the Doc Holliday, two shots of espresso over Dr Pepper.
The luxe Hotel Drover embodies the new Stockyards with modern ranch-y decor, custom bootjacks in the rooms, and the only Lucchese shop in the world that’s entirely devoted to custom-made items. The spacious backyard, including an outdoor bar and ample seating along a verdant creek-side walkway, are worth a visit even if you’re not a guest. The Stockyards Hotel opened in 1907 and has a time-warp Western feel—no hipsterism here. It shares its building with an atmospheric saloon called Booger Red’s, where if you belly up to the bar you’ll find yourself staring at the taxidermied rear end of a bison. That’s the Fort Worth we’ll never quit.
This story originally published online on May 4, 2022, and has since been updated. An abbreviated version of it appeared in the August 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Cattle Drives and Craft Cocktails.” Subscribe today.