When Pop’s Safari opened in the West Seventh-area 30 years ago, there was no West Seventh-area — no Rodeo Goat, no Varsity Tavern, no gourmet gelato, no dragstrip of bars, no parking garages, no condos and no silly, drunk college kids stumbling their ways through all of the above.
“The only thing here was Fred’s Texas Café and Pop’s,” says Wende Blake, a longtime employee of the cigar lounge and hideaway. “It was a lot of small businesses and warehouses and abandoned buildings, sort of the last place you’d think would turn into a hot area.”
Time has swept away the area’s near-desolate landscape and replaced it with progress: condos, nice restaurants, retail shops, hair salons and bar after bar after bar. The owners of Pop’s Safari, Perry Tong and his wife, Pat, and their loyal patrons have stood on the sidelines while cranes and construction swirl around them, surrounding their home away from home with one piece of urban development after another. “Hot area” – that’s an understatement.
But just like the long-running Fred’s, Pop’s has endured. Not only that, but it may just find itself a brand-new audience. The city recently banned smoking at bars and most restaurants — yet you can puff away at Pop’s. Smoking is still allowed in lounges that produce at least 30 percent of their annual incomes from on-site consumption of tobacco products.
Which makes Pop’s an anomaly of sorts. It’s one of the last remaining businesses in Fort Worth where you can have a drink and a smoke without abiding by certain stipulations, like sitting on a patio.
“We offer people a refuge,” Perry says. “If they want to smoke, they’re welcome here. If they want that freedom of yesteryear, there will be a seat here for them.”
Smoke isn’t the only thing that has kept Pop’s open for three decades. Take a peek inside, and you’ll see things you won’t see anywhere else in Fort Worth, from African art, to exquisite antiques, to old pictures of Fort Worth, to walls of exotic taxidermy. It’s like Angelo’s, the Kimbell Art Museum and Montgomery Street Antique Mall collided on Morton Street.
Many of the items come from Perry and Pat’s personal collection of artifacts and knickknacks they picked up during their many work trips around the world. Before opening Pop’s, the two were television producers who specialized in underwater filming.
“No one in the industry was doing that kind of filming, so whenever a company wanted or needed underwater filming, they commissioned us,” Perry says. “We did a lot of hunting and fishing shows and about 250 episodes of our own ‘Scuba World’ television series. We pretty much had the market to ourselves.”
They dabbled in other types of production work as well, including filming for the USA Network, Travel Channel and Playboy Channel.
From every country they visited, they brought something back. “Every single piece in here has a story,” says Blake.
After their interest in television waned, they turned to cigars. “We always wanted to open a place like this,” says the 79-year-old Perry, who grew up in the Handley area of Fort Worth. “We were already in the building, using it for our production work. So it wasn’t like we had to look for a place. We already had it.”
Built in 1949, the building originally housed Wortham Electric. “This building is as old as the owners,” Perry laughs. Pop’s opened in 1996 as a cigar lounge and restaurant. Food was of the exotic game variety, and for years, the restaurant thrived; the Tongs discontinued the menu five years ago.
“Construction around here was brutal,” Perry says. “People couldn’t get to us. The roads were all torn up; there were detours and potholes everywhere. And then all of a sudden, we have 80 burger joints next to us, so we decided to shut down the restaurant side of things.”
They have enough to keep them busy. Pop’s stocks more than 3,000 bottles of wine and a virtually uncountable number of cigars. “I’d say there’s 37,000 sticks in here right now,” Perry says. “All kinds for all tastes — strong, not so strong, common and more unusual sticks.”
The Tongs, who have been married 54 years, still work at the lounge nearly every day — her in the morning, him in the afternoon and evening. In their spare time, they spit-shine their collection of classic cars and occasionally take a plane trip — with their own plane.
“We both have our pilot’s licenses,” says Pat, 74, who was born in Dallas and raised in West Texas. “He taught me how to fly.”
The two also own the gun store next to Pop’s.
“Tobacco, firearms and alcohol,” Perry says. “We do it all.”