(Updated at 6:35 p.m.) When Cowboy Cafe’s beloved regular Jerome Williams passed away earlier this year, he didn’t have any immediate family to mourn him — but he had his friends at “the Cowboy,” and the bar’s memorial service was packed out the door.
“Working at the Cowboy, the customers aren’t just customers,” said current general manager Amanda Wellborn. “They’re family, and I mean it. I’ve never experienced anything else like it.”
There aren’t many dive bars left in Arlington — Cowboy Cafe (4792 Lee Highway) and the Forest Inn in Westover are two notable exceptions. As time goes on there’s concern for what’s left: Cowboy Cafe, for instance, once made a Preservation Arlington “endangered places” list.
But the current owners are confident it’s not going anywhere, and actively want its customers to call it a dive. (Nearby, the shuttered greasy spoon Linda’s Cafe is still waiting to reopen as a new Bob and Edith’s Diner.)
“Yeah, we’ve made improvements, but we make an effort to not change a lot and keep it the way it is,” said owner Mike Barnes, who bought the place in 2011 with his brother James and two of their friends from Yorktown High School. They also own several Lost Dog Café franchises together.
Before the bar was founded, it was a smokey, old-school American restaurant called Clam House, built in 1948.
In 1991, Cowboy Cafe founder Charlie Campbell took over Clam House and transformed it into the rough-and-out, Southwestern biker bar. Mementos from the mid-90s still remain, such as a Native American statue and a wall lined with various license plates — plus the much-adored, half-priced burger specials.
Then in 2007, it was purchased by Zac and Matt Culbertson, who also work with the Lost Dog franchise.
“When I heard the Culbertsons were thinking about selling [in 2011], I immediately offered,” said Barnes.
Barnes and his team got right to work on giving the place some much needed TLC, including remodeling the “scary” bathroom, installing a 14-tap beer system, and promoting its family-friendly brunch.
But aside from those improvements, they’ve kept it largely the same — including keeping the mural on the back wall that depicts Campbell, the Culbertsons, and Williams, a testament to its rich history and the customers who’ve kept it going.
Regulars say it’s still the Cowboy Cafe they know and love, complete with quirks and a convivial sense of community.
“I love the nachos, the authenticity, the wait staff that gets to know you, and the fact that almost nothing inside has changed in 20 years,” said Jeremy Flantzer, a long-time Arlington resident and effusive Cowboy Cafe fan.
Like many others who frequent the restaurant, he has a particular Cowboy Cafe story that helps cement its local legend.
“I once saw someone eat The Barnyard” — a $15 burger consisting of two half-pound beef patties, barbeque pork, two slices of cheddar, a fried egg and bacon — “after a full order of wings,” he said, still in amazement.
“It’s my ‘Cheers’ bar,” said another longtime regular, who asked ARLnow not to include her name. “I’ve seen it all here — once a man came in without wearing pants. And it’s no secret that the parking is tight, everyone’s [had a fender-bender] at least once.”
But, she continued, when it happened to her, there was a note on the windshield and everything was taken care of.
“People who go to the Cowboy — they care — they know to leave a note,” she said. “Not quite sure if I could say that about everyone else in Arlington.”