Art for the masses

Deep Ellum transplants can't make Addison hip

Maybe I'm being supersensitive about this--after all, I'm still terrified by that chapter in Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles where the earthmen climb out of their rockets on Mars and everything and everyone looks precisely as it did back home in Sioux City, Iowa.

Only, of course, they're not...they're really Martians.
So the seemingly never-ending cloning of Dallas really bugs me. Downtown's march to the north seems unstoppable--the way it stands now, you don't need to go to Deep Ellum to go to Deep Ellum. It's been recreated for you in Addison. There's a Sambuca in Addison, even a Deep Ellum Cafe in Addison.

Why do we have to homogenize everything? Why does Addison have to be like Deep Ellum? Why can't we go to Addison for some things and downtown for different things? Why can't neighborhoods develop their own personalities? Does everything have to be duplicated?

Am I sounding shrill?
Well, I can only imagine that Deep Ellum's manifest destiny lies somewhere in Kansas. Now, Jeff Swaney and Jeff Yarbrough, Deep Ellum's primary entrepreneurs, have branched out and opened a complex of four concepts--downtown they were only restaurants--one literally opening out of the other.

I know I've gone on at droning length about restaurants duplicating themselves, but this does take the cake: two Deep Ellum hangouts, the Art Bar and Blind Lemon, plus two more bright ideas, a so-called healthful diner and, just to be safe, a Mexican cantina--all connected. Once you enter one of these restaurants, any restaurant, you can promenade from place to place without going outside again. They've actually taken the sidewalk-strolling, bar-hopping experience of Deep Ellum and put it indoors.

Well, you can take the restaurant out of Deep Ellum, and they've certainly taken Deep Ellum out of the restaurant. Instead, imagine Mr. Eisner's idea of cool--perhaps another area of Disneyland, somewhere between, say, Tomorrowland and Never-Never Land: welcome to Deep Ellum Land. It's clean, it's neat, it has lots of clever sayings and slogans reminding you just how hip this is, some souvenir merchandise for sale and, of course, plenty of young Deep Ellumketeers, dressed for the part in black leather and sheer leopard skin, in crushed velvet and short skirts. (Or--are they Martians?)

This Downtown Land is an invented bohemia in a strip mall. The only trick is, don't look outside. Yes, that is hard to do in the summertime when deadly daylight saving time kills all illusion until 9 p.m. But when it's dark, you don't notice how odd the juxtaposition of suburban outside and urban indoors is--like a cockeyed Tim Burton surreality.

In broad daylight, the view of the car wash and discount store is glaringly obvious through the walls and walls of plate glass. Nevertheless, some incorrigibly unimaginative people were eating al fresco--make that al fluoresco--out on the sidewalk-wide terrace overlooking the Steinmart parking lot.

These are the concepts: Lavaca Cantina, a Southwest-Mexican "concept," Blind Lemon, a blues bar "concept," the Art Bar, with a real live curator to legitimize the "art" idea. (Brent Gaither, erstwhile vice president of the elusive Vary magazine, had put together a good show of David McCullough's fingerpaint-like paintings and mache sculpture when we were there.) And "Your Mother's Hip," a strange Sixties diner with a pseudo-healthful menu and open-mike poetry readings on the weekends.

Are you wondering about the food yet? Well, it took us a while--in fact, it took us a drink or two at the bar (where they prefer you sit if you're not ordering dinner; it's not quite a "bar") in the Art Bar (corner site, arty mosaics, stark--I think they prefer the word "graphic"--black furnishings) before we felt sufficiently oriented in Deep Ellum Land and decided our M.O. for this review would be to eat at one clone and one new concept.

While at the bar, we studied menus for all four restaurants, all overseen by executive chef Jill Alcott, and all executed from a single kitchen with a special area for the Southwest-Mexican food, which is the only significantly distinct cuisine. So we backtracked to Blind Lemon (loud blues, old photos, navy blue velvet over the office-park plate glass) and were shown by the leopardskin hostess to a booth.

Okay, here's the critic's karma at work: four people go out to dinner. One of them slides into the booth on top of a puddle of spilled coffee left by the previous tenant.

For 10 points, which one is it?
The critic, of course.
I dabbed away at my clothes with the napkin from my set-up and snagged the passing hostess, showing her the coffee-stained napkin and requesting a new one, which she promptly brought without taking the soiled one (not in her job description).

Oh, well. Talking to our waiter was like communicating with a computer, or a teenager--he only answered the question immediately before him.

First he gave us menus, then asked if we'd like to order drinks.
"Yes," we said, "and we heard you serve microbrewery beers."
"Oh, yes."
"May we have a beer menu, then?"
It took a separate and distinct point-by-point interview to get a wine list.

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