Billy McDonald threatened to close his family’s 66-year-old Dallas barbecue joint, Mac’s Bar-B-Que, a handful of times in the past decade.
In late July 2021, he finally will.
McDonald might miss the company that his dad, Bill Hubert McDonald, started in 1955 — a place that served no-nonsense smoked meat decades before craft barbecue was cool.
But rather than wax nostalgic, McDonald seems relieved to lease the restaurant space to someone else. A decade or two ago, most of Mac’s blue-collar customers left the Deep Ellum area, replaced by younger tenants who live in high-rises.
“You have to understand, you have everybody who wants to tell you how great their brisket was that they cooked over the weekend,” McDonald says. He seems tired of defending a style of barbecue he knows has been good for six decades or more.
“I say, ‘If you really think you’re that good, why don’t you open up a restaurant?’”
McDonald has put in the time: He’s been full time at Mac’s Bar-B-Que since 1978 or 1979, when he quit looking for a job in engineering and decided to work in the family restaurant, against his will. Over the next 40-some years, McDonald has shuffled hot coals in the restaurant until 1 a.m., when the briskets are done. Then he’s back early the next day.
He’s watched three or four generations of families grow up at Mac’s. But now he’s tired. He leased the building to a company called Tortas Revolución, and they get the keys Aug. 15, when McDonald will become a landlord instead of a pitmaster.
“That’s the first day I don’t have to worry about this place,” he says.
Mac’s last days
Mac’s Bar-B-Que will remain open until at least July 26, 2021, McDonald says.
If they have enough meat, they’ll smoke it and serve it July 27. And depending on what’s left on July 27, perhaps they’ll sell the rest of it July 28.
[Update on July 27, 2021: The restaurant is now permanently closed. Its last day in business was July 26, 2021. The interest was very high: Some people waited two hours for their lunch.]
On its last days, McDonald will be in the dining room, chatting with regulars like Dallas resident Herschel Wilonsky, who has been eating Mac’s barbecue since he was a teenager learning to drive in the late ‘50s.
“I’ve probably eaten everything he has,” says Wilonsky, whose son Robert Wilonsky is a former Dallas Morning News city columnist.
He’s visited all of the restaurant’s locations — at 3600 Main St. from 1955 to 1967; at 408 Exposition Ave. from 1967 to 1982; and at its present-day spot at 3933 Main St. — all on or near the edge of Deep Ellum.
Wilonsky’s earliest memories at Mac’s are of eating barbecue with his dad, on a midday lunch break when they were both working in the auto parts business. Wilonsky liked Mac’s so much, he hired the McDonald family to cater both of his sons’ bar mitzvahs. Wilonsky still makes Mac’s a regular lunch stop with his wife, Margaret.
“Billy was the guy who could slice the barbecue sandwich, make it look good and make it taste good,” Wilonsky says. It was that simple.
The barbecue of yesterday
Mac’s closure was inevitable: McDonald was operating a business on the fringes of Deep Ellum, where his customers no longer lived, serving old-school barbecue.
“I have people who come in here who actually want to taste the meat,” he says of what he describes as his East Texas style barbecue, which is not heavily salted.
Although Mac’s serves brisket by the pound, the chopped beef sandwiches with a side of fresh-cut fries are more popular.
For the briskets, McDonald starts his fire around 300 degrees — hotter than most new-age pitmasters like Austin chef-celebrity Aaron Franklin cook. The result is that Mac’s beef is cooked more by fire than by smoke, which means it doesn’t resemble the supple, moist, salty slabs of brisket that have become so popular in the past two decades.
McDonald doesn’t think that’s the way it should be done. “I’ve been in this business all my life,” he says. “Some people don’t like what I do. I’ve had criticism from the internet. They don’t think my meat is smoked enough for them.”
But what he’s serving has become a dying breed — a style of barbecue we won’t see much of anymore if six-decades-old barbecue joints like Mac’s keep closing.
“I’m not trying to present smoked meat,” he says. “I’m trying to present barbecue.”
The $1.85 million restaurant
McDonald will retain ownership of the building while a new tenant moves in, but he’d still like to sell the building. It’s been for sale for more than four years.
The latest listing had it marked at $1.85 million for a 1,584-square-foot building built in 1982.
“Everybody says that’s a lot of money,” he says.
But he points to the “major change” coming to that section of Dallas. He thinks the edge of Deep Ellum, near Exposition Park and Fair Park, will someday “look like Lower Greenville Avenue.”
McDonald knew his business would be in flux as far back as 1992 or 1993, when McDonald says Deep Ellum was attracting investors from all over the United States. Soon, the manufacturing companies moved out of the neighborhood — taking McDonald’s customers with them.
Since the 2000s, Mac has been concerned about the future of his restaurant. And when the coronavirus pandemic landed in spring 2020, he let go of all of his staff and ran the barbecue business alone.
The end of Mac’s feels like an event McDonald has already thought about for decades.
“This is a business going out of business that’s been in business for six decades,” he says. “How many people can say they’re still operating a business like that?”
Mac’s Bar-B-Que is at 3933 Main St., Dallas. It remained open until July 26, 2021.