Loyalty to an old friend is one reason Southwest Airlines (LUV ) Chairman Herb Kelleher puts Al Biernat's at the top of his list of favorite restaurants. But tasty steaks and seafood and warm service -- not to mention the ability to sneak a smoke at a table near the bar -- bring him back every two or three weeks. "Al's a great person, very hospitable. He doesn't think [customers] are a burden -- not like a United (UALAQ ) flight attendant," laughs Kelleher, whose low-fare airline is famous for its friendly service.
Biernat's place has become something of a celebrity hangout, attracting the likes of football star Troy Aikman and singer Julio Iglesias. The owner graciously greets all his customers, famous and not so famous. He is especially fond of Kelleher, whom Biernat first met when he was general manager of the Palm restaurant in Dallas. It was legendary entrepreneur Kelleher who encouraged him to start his own restaurant. Biernat has even hunted quail and deer on Kelleher's West Texas ranch. "He's successful, but he wants everyone around him to be successful," says Biernat, who opened his sunny-yellow, Mediterranean-style establishment in Dallas' Oak Lawn neighborhood in 1998.
On a recent day, Kelleher occupies his usual spot in a booth near the front. Ignoring the city's anti-smoking law, he puts an ashtray on the seat and sneaks some puffs of his Merit Ultima cigarettes. The only time he's interrupted is when a local anchorman stops by to say hello.
Kelleher starts his lunch with his usual Bloody Bull, a Bloody Mary with bouillon. Then it's on to a $6.95 cup of hearty tortilla soup, followed by peppered beef tenderloin with cognac glaze and garlic mashed potatoes for $18.95. He orders his tenderloin rare and jokes that even if he gets mad cow disease, "with my behavior, nobody will even know I have it." There's no low-carb dieting at Kelleher's table. For dessert, he gulps down the warm chocolate cake with molten center ($7.95). After thanking his waiters and kissing the hand of the hostess, Kelleher heads back to work.
Al Biernat's, 4217 Oak Lawn Ave., Dallas, Tex. (214 219-2201)
By Wendy Zellner