Clear skies ahead

Fog City Diner endures a few rocky opening weeks, but promises great things to come

Deadlines can have a disastrous effect.
I speak from experience, of course. I'm sure all writers think deadlines are disastrous; certainly they feel like impending doom. (Why do you think they're called deadlines?)

Deadlines put an artificial end to the creative process and can force you to sacrifice quality for timeliness. (Editors, are you listening?) I have to admit it's also true that if I had time to refine and polish my writing as much as I'd like, you might just now be reading about the opening of Baby Routh.

It's not only my own looming deadline that's causing me to ruminate about them. The recent news about the refurbished QE2 un-maidenly voyage comes to mind. The Queen sailed without functioning electricity or adequate plumbing, without necessities, much less the extra amenities that were supposed to make this the world's most luxurious cruise. Butthere was a deadline to meet, major press, passengers booked...

Closer to home, the much-anticipated Dallas outpost of Fog City Diner opened before it was quite ready, while it was still under construction. (Three days later the opening chef, Russ Hodges, quit, so it's also been a ship without a captain.) In both cases, I suppose, the show had to go on, but with unfortunate ramifications. After all the highly publicized opening parties and invitation-only practice nights for the kitchen and service staff to get broken in, things at Fog City still seemed pretty rocky two and a half weeks after the doors were opened to the public.

Dallas has been looking forward to the opening of Fog City Diner for many months, almost a year. In the eyes of Dallas, the place has two big things going for it. One, it's an import. Fog City Diner is a San Francisco favorite, and Dallas is always impressed with itself whenever a business from one of the sophisticated cities on the coast decides we're a good market. (We seem to have a lot less respect for home-grown ventures. It's that old Groucho Marx line about the club--who wants to belong to a club that would have you for a member?)

Two, Troy Aikman. (In case you've spent the last six months trekking in Tibet, his Troyness is one of Fog City's investors, along with Will Clark and several others whose names are less important but whose money is equally at risk.) We'll go anywhere to see Troy. (When we ate at Fog City, my mother was sure she saw him at a table at the other end of the Diner.)

Anyway, excited as we all were, we might have been willing to wait a couple more weeks for them to get it right.

Our first visit was aborted by total confusion. Two different phone calls gave me two different answers about the reservations policy, so the first time I planned to go to Fog City, I ended up at Beau Nash. As it turns out, in San Francisco, the Diner doesn't take reservations; here, it does. (And don't try to go without them, at least for a while.)

We weren't the only ones: I have some friends who called and made a lunch reservation for late December. When they showed up for their Christmas lunch and saw the workmen outside, they felt a little insecure, and sure enough, the restaurant wasn't open for lunch yet. "We were sure we called everyone" was the only apology offered. (The friends ended up at Beau Nash.)

So the neighbors are having a bit of a windfall, but in the end, Fog City will win those customers back. Because Dallas doesn't have any place quite like this, and we need it. The food is fine, well-conceived, well-prepared, unpretentious, not expensive. It's time Dallas knew that good food can be this easythat casual food can be this good.

The sleek chrome and neon exterior is as eye-catching as a Christmas tree on the corner of Maple and McKinney. Inside, lots of booths and the chopped-up space seem to offer intimacy, but even in a comfy high-backed booth, it was hard for us to carry on a conversation across from the open kitchen and right by the door to the restroom. The old-fashioned tile floor, walls of windows, and low diner-like ceiling guaranteed noise. There is also a long counter, great for quick stops or for dining alone.

The menu--which doesn't take itself seriously (you can order an "unintimidating mixed green salad" or a "big piece of meat")--ranges from light ("several salads on a plate") to hearty (pot roast with potato pancakes), plain (chili dogs) to almost fancy (roast quail with cornbread stuffing). You could go to Fog City almost anytime, in any mood, and find something appealing. Entrees (here called "large plates") stay under $16; the most expensive thing on the menu is the "famous Don't Worry wristwatch" for $29.95.

This is, after all, a diner, not a fancy restaurant, so I took three generations of family to eat there with me. We asked that my daughter's food be brought first, while we were still eating appetizers, and I think she had more fun at Fog City than any of us because she used the Diner the way it was meant to be used. She ordered precisely what she felt like eating: a Caesar saladbig crisp leaves of ribby romaine in a creamy dressing; a plate of steaming hot mashed potatoes dusted with fresh chives and perfumed with garlic; and a creamy, not-too-thick milkshake. ("Pulp Fiction" raised a lot of interesting questionsfor instance, for $2 more, how much better than this could Uma Thurman's $5 shake have been?)

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