Joey's 15 minutes

The son of a famous Houston restaurateur gets ground up in the hype machine

Joey Vallone and his self-named Dallas restaurant have been the darling of the society columns ever since the restaurant, Joey's, was but a gleam in young Joey's eye.

We've read all about the Signing of the Lease, the Pre-Opening Party (with accompanying Wet Concrete and Martini Incidents), the Convenience Store Feud, and its sequel, Making Up with 7-Eleven. That PR machine is really working overtime. Well, everyone knows you can paint yourself into a corner, and Joey has used buckets of printer's ink.

I confess I must have missed a moment of the media's Joey-fest because I did not realize that the restaurant with the Oak Lawn address (which used to be the Wine Press') actually presents its rear to that street, opening instead onto a parking lot next to the infamous convenience store which, of course, you've read about. So I made a distinctly unfabulous entrance to Joey's, having parked next door, walked up to the apparent front of the building, then hiked up an alley and crashed through some bushes. (I don't think the valet saw me scrambling over the shrubbery to those signature door pulls--thank God. You hate to make a bad impression on a valet.)

To preserve a piece of my own dignity, I have to point out that I was not the only one making the alley entrance, but I do feel this is the first thing you need to know about Joey's. It's the kind of place you want to make a good impression--otherwise, they might never serve you lunch.

When I asked friends who had visited Joey's what it was like, they started waving their hands around a lot. Now I see what they meant. You enter to a bar of polished, mahogany-colored wood, cozy, and almost men's-clubby, but beyond that, in the dining room, all hell breaks loose. The colonnades that divide the restaurant into nave and aisles are covered with pique-assiette, a wild mosaic of broken tiles and plates. The carpet is a pattern only Bridget Riley could appreciate. (Don't look down as you cross the room, or you'll succumb to vertigo.) Above the columns, the vaulted ceiling is covered with a grotesque mural of party animals by an illustrator inspired to paint the Sistine cartoon. Even the copper hoods on the pizza ovens are burnished in a scalloped design. The whole place is crawling with pattern--it seems to move all by itself. It's bearable in the daytime or when no one is there, but at night, when the light flickers and the restaurant is full of people, the effect inspires you to duck and cover. Sometimes designers seem to forget that there are going to be real live people in the spaces they dream up.

And lots of them. Joey's is packed; from the minute it opens to the minute it closes, those tables, too close together for comfort, are full of Dallas' most beautiful, important, and surgically enhanced people. The result is crisis management, and every minute we spent at Joey's felt like an emergency. A number of head waiter-types in civilian clothes rushed around wringing napkins in their hands. Waiters clustered in twos and threes for intense conversations with lots of gesturing. There was plenty of purposeful striding in starched khakis from one end of the dining room to another. Sometimes one of the overseers or expediters cleared a dirty plate; usually they didn't. The whole impression was one of tension and anxiety--something is happening here, and we don't know exactly how to handle it. (No one prepared us for customers! What next?) And the sense of emergency is so palpable you find yourself paying as much attention to the service dramas as your plate.

Well, the kitchen couldn't be having a good time, either. We asked our waiter who the chef was, and he answered, "Oh, I forget his last name--the first one quit last week." That's the same waiter who answered our only menu question by exclaiming, "I don't know what "golden" salmon is! That's the only thing I don't know about this menu--ask me something else!"

Joey himself, all 23 years of him, is a captain all at sea. He seems completely perplexed, and stands in the middle of the room, arms folded, chewing on his thumb. Is he wondering whether he should have waited a little longer, racked up a few more years in the family's Houston restaurants before setting out on his own? After a couple of meals at Joey's, I think I can answer that question. The scene is breathless, the guests are fabulous, the surroundings are, as I said, drop-dead. Still, service and food remain the foundation of any restaurant, and at Joey's, the foundation is mostly just good intentions.

For instance, remember those guys at Il Sorrento who walk around with bread boxes around their necks offering you hot rolls? They have guys just like that at Joey's, only they're offering you heads of roast garlic as a preprandial snack. Almost a great idea. But the garlic was cold--and who wants to spread cold garlic on anything, even Empire bread, unless Dracula's actually knocking? Secondly, our friendly garlic man neglected to mention that the stuff was $6 an order, so without even knowing it, we racked up a $12 charge for garlic.

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