Down-home goodness

baby back ribs

Dale’s BBQ, which has been serving locals for 55 years, added baby back ribs to its menu recently after customers had requested them. This platter, served with coleslaw and the restaurant’s famous barbecued beans, also comes with a slice of toasted garlic bread. ANTHONY INSWASTY PHOTO

A meal at Dale’s BBQ is like being invited to a family dinner


Some say it’s the special sauce, others argue it is the fire-grilled taste of the meat, and for others still it is the sweet, sweet taste of the tea.

Whichever side you are on, the staff of Dale’s BBQ welcomes you to the table just as it has done for the past 55 years. The restaurant’s success is partly due to its friendly wait and service staff, one of which can always be found walking the aisles with pitchers of sweet and unsweet tea looking for glasses that need a refill. Going through about 150 gallons of tea each day, it’s just a taste of Southern hospitality.

The history of this down-home comfort place to eat began in 1972 when Dale “Big Dale” Ernsberger moved his barbecue restaurant from its 10-year location on the east side of North U.S. 1 at Highway A1A to South U.S. 1. Back then, the restaurant was “outside” of town, but drew barbecue lovers from all over the county. “Little Dale,” R. Dale Ernsberger, returned from a stint in the Navy in 1974 and took over the restaurant business from his father, who retired to his ancestral home of Palatka.

In 1975, he met fellow veteran Danny Kinser a multigeneration Florida Cracker also with roots in the Palatka area who managed a local McDonald’s franchise and the two forged a partnership. A few years later, Ernsberger wanted to open a Stuart store and this expansion led to the addition of current partner, Cindy Webster.

Service and quality are key words for the restaurant with a comfortable country décor. Sadly, the 10-point elk shot by local businessman Billy Sapp in 1972 on Doug Mullins’ Red River Ranch in Elk City, Idaho, has disappeared from its place near the east entrance to the dining room. It started deteriorating due to its age, Webster says, and was retired in 2016. Many diners had their pictures taken with the elk over the years. A wagon wheel hangs on the wall in its place.

For years the restaurant owners have purchased hogs and steers from youth through the St. Lucie County Fair as a part of their community involvement. Although the meat cannot be used in the restaurant due to government regulations, the poundage would have been just a drop in the bucket as Kinser says the restaurant goes through a quarter-million pounds of meat per year.

The super-trimmed eye of round and the Boston butt that are the makings of the popular sandwich specials and evening platters are dipped in sauce and cooked in a smoker before being finished off in the open pit. Dale’s also serves St. Louis ribs and steak dinners and recently added baby back ribs and chicken tenders to the menu.

“There are a lot of trendy things restaurants go through,” Webster says. “We watch for how things go, then we do our research. There was a demand for chicken tenders. We tried a lot of them before we added them to our menu.

“The quality needs to be the same as the homemade things we make. We added baby backs after a few requests. We never did those before, but we have had a lot of good feedback.”

In the late ’70s, Danny and Cheryl Adkins joined the partnership, opening up Dale’s BBQ West on Okeechobee Road (now operated by their son, Danny Adkins Jr., as Moonswiner’s BBQ). After training the Dale’s West owners, Webster and Kinser moved to Casper, Wyo., where Ernsberger had entered into a partnership with some people to start a similar restaurant.

“The people in Wyoming hated our barbecue sauce,” Webster says. “Ours is a mustard-based sauce and they just did not like it. Danny had to create a sweet sauce for them. We brought the recipe back and added it to our menu. It has become popular here, too.”

Dale’s BBQ is home to one of the best lunch offers in town, the sandwich special: sliced pork or beef served with steak fries and a helping of either coleslaw or Dale’s beans. Sandwich special offerings now include sliced smoked turkey, hamburger, fried fish, fried chicken or mesquite chicken, in addition to the standard beef or pork. Once offered only from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., the specials are now offered all day long.

“We had people stopping by for food after work,” Webster says, “asking if the special price could be offered after 5, so we extended it. We have tried to keep our prices down for the families.”

The after-five carryout crowd puts an added pressure on the evening kitchen staff, which works hard to get the food out quickly both to the diners in the booths and the harried moms stopping to pick up dinner for the family on the way home from work. Those waiting for food orders, mix in the waiting area with those waiting for tables. At the end of the alcove sits a sign that has been there since the start of the business: “Through these portals pass the most critical Bar-B-Q eaters on Earth. May the Lord have mercy on our competitors.”

“I respect that people come here to spend their hard-earned dollar,” Webster says, “and my crew does as well.”

Since the restaurant has been in business for so long and Webster has gotten to know many people over the years, it is a generational thing. As a family of grandmother, mother and two young daughters leaves the restaurant, the older of the women stops to wish Webster well and give her a hug.

“This is what it’s about” Webster says, then adds, “A woman stopped me one evening as she and her husband were seated at table three. They had been married 30 years but had moved to Tennessee. When they came home, they came here. She said they had been seated at table three all those years ago when her husband proposed to her. Then there are the college students who return to Fort Pierce on breaks and come here before they even go home to see Mom and Dad.

“These are the kind of stories that we have. Like a dad stopping in to get food for mom who is in the hospital. The stories are endless.”

Community involvement with youth baseball and the St. Lucie County Fair helped to cement those ties with the town. Even now, the business is involved with a young boy, Demetrius Gollett, who was severely burned in a house fire that killed his grandfather about 5 years ago. Webster said they have followed his progress and helped raise funds for his care and the series of surgeries he has had over the years. Sometimes he needs to go the Cincinnati Burn Center in Ohio, and other times to a burn center in Miami. The restaurant staff has taken his family under its wing and has worked tirelessly to help support Gollett in his recovery process, she says.

“We still do a lot with the Fort Pierce Police Department,” Webster adds, ”Danny is still a reserve officer there and we are always here for the families.”

In addition to feeding hungry customers at the restaurant, Dale’s also does catering for events. Its famous sauces are available by the pint, quart or gallon and its meats are sold mostly by the pound. People also come in to buy quarts and half-gallons of the tasty coleslaw or Dale’s BBQ beans to add to their dinner at home.

As Americans began watching their waistlines, the restaurant had requests for large salads, something bigger than the tossed salad offered with their dinners. The menu now has large tossed salads topped with beef, pork, chicken or smoked turkey. It also expanded its selection of sides, which had stood at steak fries, baked potato, coleslaw and beans for many years, to include green beans, applesauce and macaroni and cheese.

“We want to serve what I would cook if I invited you to my home for dinner,” Webster says. “The quality has to be there.”