New Twists on an Old Classic
By Joy Donovan
Photography by Mike Lewis
Roanoke’s Classic Cafe moves into its 31st year with gusto, fresh ideas
In 1993, grunge fashion was all the rage, mobile phones featured an antenna, and the Dallas Cowboys won Super Bowl XXVII.
Also notable was a blue building, part of which had been a World War I Army barracks, that gained a new identity in Roanoke. Formerly a home, a dress shop and a prime rib and pizza shop, it transitioned to what it is today — The Classic Cafe at Roanoke.
Now celebrating 30 years, the restaurant still stands at 504 N. Oak St. with the same proprietors, brothers Chris and Curtis Wells.
The brothers, who grew up as Eagle Scouts in Irving, decided as adults they wanted to be business partners. With Chris’ business background, Curtis’ experience as a manager at the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas in Irving, and a family legacy of cooking for fun, the siblings saw a restaurant in their future.
“It’s interesting we didn’t get into the restaurant business sooner,” Chris says over a cup of coffee with his brother in the restaurant’s cozy dining room. “My mother flawlessly entertained my dad’s business guests.”
The family’s Sunday afternoons were for cooking and experimenting with exotic ingredients from their father’s business travels. So the brothers’ choice of livelihood seemed to make sense as they explored options.
Roanoke, then a sleepy little town equidistant from Dallas, Fort Worth and Denton, was chosen, and the brothers rolled up their sleeves and went to work. Not wanting to fight big-city red tape, the pair saw developing something in a town with a population of barely 1,800 as a bonus.
The previous restaurant’s wagon wheels came down, making way for white tablecloths and new flooring. The concept was fine dining with perfectly paired wines, without the coat and tie.
“We didn’t want to have people get dressed up for quality food,” Curtis says. The menu consisted of four entrees, two salads and six rotating specialty items; the specialty items were 90 percent of what they sold.
The Wells brothers get some of the credit for Roanoke’s growth, said Mike Groomer, a former Fort Worth assistant city manager and retired economic development consultant who worked with Chris and Curtis during planning for the now-thriving Alliance corridor.
“I would go so far as to say that all the efforts that the city staff put into it and the community put into it would not have happened if Curtis and Chris had not been so supportive,” Groomer said. “When things got tough, they focused on the long vision. I don’t think it would have happened without Curtis’ and Chris’ involvement.
“I admire that they took an opportunity in an old house to put in the equity and convert it to The Classic Cafe before it would have been time to do that. Their vision, their entrepreneurship and their commitment before it was really fashionable are really admirable and have greatly contributed to the success of Oak Street.”
And just as the 1993 versions of phones and the Dallas Cowboys have changed, The Classic Cafe has evolved, too.
The restaurant’s initial popularity led to a short-lived experiment with a second location in booming Southlake. The brothers shut it down.
“The truth is, we just weren’t having any fun,” Chris says.
The inviting blue Roanoke restaurant — and its surroundings — became their sole focus, but the brothers tweaked the concept.
The Classic became one of the first local restaurants to choose a farm-to-table concept. In 2005, the brothers planted a garden near the restaurant and began using its produce in seasonal menus. Growing their food in the lush garden just steps away from the kitchen proved a concept worth sticking with. The 2023 menu still includes the garden’s vegetables and herbs, which are used in entrees, salads and a signature shrimp-and-okra fritter side dish for steaks that a gushing customer dubbed an “okra doughnut.”
Basil is used for the in-house pesto, for example, and the vegetables determine the seasonal pasta and pop up in The Classic’s signature gazpacho. Pecans, figs and peaches accent desserts, and the fruits put a local stamp on simple syrup for signature cocktails and mocktails.
But their forward thinking was challenged in 2020, with the arrival of the pandemic. With many restaurants closing, the brothers again made a strategic pivot, designing a successful to-go business.
The brothers determined which menu items reheated well, found suitable packaging and wrote reheating instructions. That switch, plus random $50 bills left lying under rocks at the restaurant from loyal customers, kept the business afloat.
The Wells brothers still are grateful for the support they received and proud of making the transition.
“I hope never to do it again,” Chris says. The brothers lock eyes, acknowledging their work and their collaboration under difficulty.
“The only reason we’re here is because of the people who came and picked up meals in their cars,” Curtis says. “It was a huge love fest.”
They resolved to continue.
“We met weekly and asked, ‘Do you still want to do this?’’’ Curtis says. “The answer was yes, but not this way, which made us better.”
So as COVID lifted, the restaurateurs made deliberate choices. They stopped catering and ended lunch service; they determined the future was in-house dining and to-go orders.
“We focused on what we know and what we do best,” Chris says.
What others might see as a major strength, the brothers only speak about reluctantly. Their philanthropic support for the community is well-known. For more than two decades, Metroport Meals on Wheels has been a major recipient of the Wells family’s charitable giving. An annual gourmet wine dinner benefits the meal-delivery nonprofit, and the list of other charities the brothers have championed has included GRACE, Community Storehouse, Northwest ISD Education Foundation, Denton Benefit League, Mid-Cities Alumnae Chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta and several other women’s clubs.
Kelly Bradley, founder of Metroport Meals on Wheels, remembers sitting in her office when Curtis, who she knew, paid her a surprise visit. He asked if he and his brother could do something for the community through Metroport.
“I was just shocked,” Bradley said, remembering the day. “I’m supposed to be asking them, but he comes to me. That’s the kind of guys they are. They come from a family like that. Their mom and their dad were very much like that, too. These guys are very community minded, always giving and loving people.”
Like cooking, helping others is a family tradition. “Mom made us do it,” Curtis says with a grin. “She taught us that’s what you do.”
Now entering their 31st year as partners, the brothers still love the business they’ve built together. “It’s all about the people, the people we work with and the people we serve,” Curtis says.
Over the decades, some of The Classic’s assets have remained constant. Chris’ wife, Karen, Curtis’ wife, Joan, and general manager Francis Silmon still provide constant support.
The art of Carolyn Riegelman, the brothers’ aunt, still adorns the walls, ready for customers to purchase. Couples still enjoy first dates, engagement rings still get plopped into champagne glasses, and babies still get doted on to allow parents to enjoy their dinners.
The restaurant endures.
“The agreement we had in 1993 was that if work ever came between us, we would leave it immediately,” Curtis says with a smile.
Chris looks at his brother. “I can’t imagine working without him.”