A Delicious Tribute to a Fort Worth Legend
When he opened Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine, Chef Jon Bonnell made cowboy cuisine a white tablecloth affair. When he teamed up with Ed McOwen to open the first Buffalo Bros., he let it be known he can do fast casual as well as upscale, date-night fare. With the opening of Waters, he proved that he could do more than beef and game.
Now Bonnell has opened Jon’s Grille, a burger and barbecue joint that he hopes will prove that the farm-to-table culture of Bonnell’s and Waters can translate to the fast casual, neighborhood joint.
I recently sat down with Bonnell at Jon’s Grille. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the patio doors across the front of the restaurant were open to the sidewalk. Bonnell waved at friends as they came in to eat lunch. As a fourth generation Fort Worthian, he knows or is related to everyone in town.
“You know how they say everyone is separated by only six degrees? Well, in Fort Worth, it’s two degrees of separation.” And, it seems, everyone in Fort Worth is coming to Jon’s Grille.
During the late ‘80s and throughout the ‘90s, the original Jon’s Grille on University was THE place to get a burger and a beer in Fort Worth. A generation of Fort Worthians carved their names into the walls of what Bonnell fondly recalls as “a great burger dive.” Bonnell recalls coming into for a burger and getting to know the eponymous Jon Meyerson who worked the counter. “He had a really infectious personality,” Bonnell said with a smile. “He loved to hang out in front and talked to everybody who came in. We just kind of hit it off – talked about food and cooking. When I came back from culinary school and said I was thinking about opening a restaurant, he was like, ‘Don’t do it, man! Don’t do it!’”
And then in 2001, Jon Meyerson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, sending shockwaves throughout the community he built. While his sister tried to run the restaurant for a while, she ultimately let it go. “She finally said that running a burger joint was not for her,” Bonnell said.
Fast forward 21 years, and there’s a new Jon’s Grille by TCU.
The idea for a burger and barbecue place came about because of Bonnell’s brother, Ric. Ric is a physician, a professor at TCU’s medical school, and a rancher. Bonnell grinned, “In high school, Ric worked as a ranch hand to make money for his first car. I worked in a clothing shop.” Ric lives with his family on a ranch in Tolar, and he posed a very interesting question to Bonnell.
“What if we raised our own cattle for beef at your restaurants?”
Bonnell said that got him thinking. “Let’s face it. Everybody in Texas is born knowing how to cook a good steak. It’s in the genes.” To make his steaks truly unique, what if he and his brother raised their own beef, beef that you can’t buy in the store? And thus the Bonnell Beef Company was born.
After a lot of research, the brothers have hit on a winning formula for their cattle. The Bonnells breed Akaushi bulls (one of four Japanese cattle breeds known as “waygu”) to Angus heifers. This produces beef that is heart healthy but also delicious.
“Ric wanted the beef to be heart healthy. I just wanted them to taste good,” Bonnell laughed. “The physician versus the chef, I guess.”
The Bonnells control every aspect of the production, from the grazing to the very specific finishing feed which ensures beautiful marbling to the processing. The cattle go from the ranch to a small processor to the restaurants.
Most people know about what are called “glory cuts” – the filet mignons, ribeyes, and strips. Bonnell said, “Those are easy to sell, but that’s only 11% of a cow. We had to think, ‘If we’re really going to raise our own cattle for the restaurants, what are we going to do with the rest of the cow?’”
The answer was obvious. “We make the finest hamburgers ever. All the brisket and short ribs and flavorful cuts get ground into our burger meat.”
Bonnell said that opening Jon’s Grille was something of a no-brainer. “I don’t have a lot of fine dining left in me. Fine dining is tough. It’s involved. But this? This is fun.”
Jon’s Grille opened in September of 2022, two years after the pandemic pushed back the planned opening. Bonnell had found the location on West Berry right before the world shut down; once things opened up again, the work started on transforming what had been the Aardvark back into a restaurant.
“It needed a complete re-do,” Bonnell said. “We had to take the roof off!” Because the building had been empty for a few years, nothing was up to code. “We took it down to the studs and built it back to our specifications.”
Because of the delay, Bonnell and McOwen had to scrap some of their plans, including a rooftop bar that would have looked out over TCU. However, they left that possibility for later. When it came to naming the new restaurant, Bonnell remembered his old friend.
“First of all, he spelled his name the right way,” Bonnell joked. “But it just seemed right. I talked to his sister who said she would be honored if we dedicated the place to Jon. She had a portrait of him playing his guitar that she gave to us. Jon was a guitar player and instructor, and he played at the Aardvark all the time. It felt right to come full circle, and now we have that picture of Jon hanging on the wall.”
The Meyerson family came to the opening of the new Jon’s Grille. “Everybody loved it. His parents, his siblings… His nephew is working for us now. Jon’s brother showed up wearing the old Jon’s Grille tee shirt, and he pulled me aside to give me Jon’s original business card.”
While the new Jon’s Grille is dedicated to Jon Meyerson’s memory, it is not a faithful recreation of the original. Bonnell didn’t even want to try to recreate it.
“First of all, we didn’t want it to be a dive bar. While I love a good dive, I wanted this to be a place for everybody – families coming in after soccer games, college students, faculty… And really, trying to recreate everything wouldn’t have worked anyway. No matter how perfectly we did it, the burgers wouldn’t be the same as you remember them because you aren’t the same.”
So the new Jon’s Grille is all Bonnell. From partnering with local producers like Best Maid Pickles to meticulously curating the menu, Jon’s Grille is fast casual as seen through Bonnell’s fine dining eyes. And it’s truly delicious tribute to a Fort Worth legend.