It’s hard to tell what time it is in the small, dark interior of Ten Bells Tavern, a welcome reprieve from the bright, hard light that always seems to shine down on Dallas. The first time I went, the air outside was triple digits, and we were in the thick of that late-summer heat that keeps used tire companies in steady business.
I was helping my new boyfriend pack up his things to move East with me, and we needed a break. When we pulled into the gravel lot and up to the small, corrugated metal building, I wasn’t sure what to expect. That was before I sat down at the bar and was presented with a cast iron skillet of the most perfect poblano mac ‘n’ cheese known to man.
As we sucked down cold craft beers and tucked into the food, a flyer caught my eye reading “Save Ten Bells Tavern!” This was three years ago and already this beloved bar was operating on borrowed time. As of this writing, the place has just four years left, the land purchased by developers and hemmed in on all sides by unfurling construction. It doesn’t matter that the owners have worked hard to cultivate community, both human and feline, that they serve up stiff drinks, or that their food is low-key amazing. The place is unpretentious and unassuming, offering all the working class chill of your favorite dive, only with immaculate bathrooms and a menu that stands up to that of the bar’s fancier neighbors.
Ten Bells sits on the far edge of Bishop Arts, tucked behind the wine bars and boulangeries that have been steadily cropping up since developer Jim Lake made a land grab in the late ‘80s. When founders Meri Dahlke, Michael Hickey, and Greg Matthews got the idea to start their own bar in 2012, neighboring Oak Cliff was still bone dry. That’s how this Texas beer garden cum British pub ended up in the right place at the wrong time, in a tiny building that may or may not have once hosted Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, on a lot that might eventually turn into condos.
The whole vibe is one of liminal space. It’s not just that the land was bought and the lease is on countdown, or the way it sits right in between a pocket of successful gentrification and a blue collar, Baptist holdout. Ten Bells seems to exist in and out of time, at once easygoing and a little Southern Gothic—the sort descended from English pub songs and the occasional murder ballad. The craft cocktails are all modern, as are the seasonal specials. Still, the joint has a little lingering flavor from the old, ‘70s era of Oak Cliff that produced blues savant Stevie Ray Vaughan. It’s also named for the infamous Ten Bells Tavern in London made famous by Jack the Ripper a century ago.
“My legendary moment was wearing my Ten Bells shirt at THE Ten Bells in London and having the staff freak out,” said co-founder Meri Dahlke. “I guess they hadn’t heard of us.”
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She and her co-founders aren’t Dallas natives, but somehow they still managed to create not only a gathering place that tells a certain story about this city. “I just came back from the U.K. and think this town could learn a lot from cities over there as far as public transport and influx of population,” Dahlke explains. “I think Dallas has a lot of aspiration and big dreams, but is short-sighted and in the pocket of some wealthy folks. But what city isn’t?”
In that regard, Ten Bells also sets an example of what Dallas could be if it focused less on the bottom line and an affection for concrete and more on fostering the sense of community that locally owned holdouts provide. “The best asset is the people,” says Dahlke. “There are some amazing citizens here and when I say ‘I’m from Dallas’ when I travel, people know where that is.”
That generosity of spirit, the way Dahlke’s approach seems to embody that old hymn “Brighten the Corner Where You Are,” makes it all the more sad the way encroaching development is already affecting the community Ten Bells has created. The best example of this might be the sad tale of the bar’s brood beloved cats. Despite Dahlke doting on them, their numbers have been steadily dwindling.
The mysterious disappearance of the Ten Bells feline tribe has been a point of contention and sorrow for Dahlke, who is proud to have raised $20,000 for animal charities and is active in animal rescue work. “The construction around us has eliminated some [of the bar cats],” she said. “I’d rather not talk about that because it makes me very, very sad.”
Still, for the next four years, Ten Bells can keep on keeping on, doing simple stuff that remains super memorable. “We are one of the few locally owned and operated places left in Bishop Arts,” said Dahlke. “We make good food. We hire local. We are about making the location we have better and serving the folks that support us. We love cats and take care of our own. Come see us.” The hard part isn’t finding a reason to go. It’s knowing that whatever replaces Ten Bells four years from now won’t have nearly as much heart.
Header image courtesy of You Stay Hoppy Dallas.