No questions

Ignoring food trends, Arthur's does it like it always has--with a flourish

If you don't believe Faith Popcorn is always right, take a drive down Lovers Lane. This was once Dallas' own fashion row--anchored by fabulous Lou Lattimore at one end and exclusive Marie Leavell at the other, with the razor's edge Gazebo in between. In the '70s this was destination shopping, where the ladies dropped bundles of money on the big-name designers. These were stores you were scared to enter without a gold Visa. The window displays at Marie Leavell were so outrageous they were an attraction themselves. That was when who you wore was almost as important as who you were, and where you went was just as important, because what's the point of dressing up if you're not going out? The scene was to be seen.

Not this decade. According to trend guru Popcorn, we're all cocooning now--staying home, watching the birds and the babies, wearing generic khaki, driving utility vehicles. That's why Wild Birds Unlimited, the Taj Mahal of sunflower seed, now dominates the corner where Dallas chicks used to find their fine feathers.

It follows that the biggest food story of the year has been about dining in, not out. After all, Eatzi's is nothing more than a glorified grocery store. The dress code there is cutting-edge khaki, the latest in backpacks. It's cool to be seen there, but everyone you see knows you're nesting.

Even in Dallas, where not much is allowed to get old, there remain a few untouched pockets from the past. Arthur's, once a trend setter, has become an institution, a landmark, as far as Dallas goes. It has been around for 45 years. There aren't many Dallasites who can remember that far back, because most of us have moved here since. Its location was hot when Upper Greenville was still swinging, when everyone was butterflying, not cocooning. Now it's just another difficult exit off the hell that is I-75. The gold-tiled building itself is a relic, predating postmodernism, one of the first mirrored monuments in a skyline whose hallmark is self-reflection. The awning at Arthur's snakes out from the double front doors and down two flights of shallow steps all the way to the curb; the logo "A" is emblazoned in the aggregate sidewalk (the suburban medium itself a signature of its era). This is not a place where the valet will be impressed by your minivan. (There was actually a limo idling out front when we left--and this isn't even prom season.)

But this is living history, because Arthur's still pulls a crowd by doing what it has always done, and with a flourish. We were greeted warmly and ushered into the overstuffed dining room, its windows heavily swagged and draped, its walls lined with curtained alcoves, the whole place barely lit by flickering oil lights and a crystal chandelier the size of a hot tub. Big, cushioned chairs were pulled out for us, napkins fluttered into our laps, and the red rose was removed from the center of the table so sight lines could follow conversation.

Naturally, we ordered a cocktail. In fact, a martini. And the carafe of gin arrived at our table cradled in a nest of crushed ice, so thoroughly chilled that the oily spirit was almost thickened. The accompanying frosted, stemmed glass was filled only with two fat olives awaiting anointment. This is a properly reverent presentation for the most elemental and potent of cocktails. And the traditional, expensive-looking surroundings and the big steaks to follow are exactly what you'd expect of a place that gives so much respect to the king of cocktails.

Arthur's menu itself is simple. The waiter's standard query--"Any questions?"--is a formality here. There are no questions. You've heard of all these preparations and you're even familiar with all these ingredients--everyone's a gourmet: steak tartare; lobster bisque; veal piccata; chicken Florentine; roast duck; sole meuniere. Steak is what the place used to be known for, and the menu lists filet mignon, T-bone, rib eye, and sirloin--even an upscale surf 'n' turf plate of lobster and filet.

Corny, yes. This cuisine is what was known as "continental" food, a style of cooking now reviled by every newly knowledgeable foodie. Like iceberg lettuce and ketchup, "continental" food has been shelved by connoisseurs who demand not just taste, but authenticity and provenance for their palates. ("Which continent?" they sneer.)

Our dining companions had enjoyed Arthur's in its heyday, and they still loved it, from martinis to bisque to beef. You might take into consideration that they had just flown in from Cleveland, but actually, after days and nights of gimmicky, glitzy food--of plates that require road maps to find the ingredients and whose menu descriptions are as complicated as a paragraph of Proust's--it is relaxing to be able to order something called simply "tournedos Arthur" and leave it at that. Continental food is actually noncontinental. It's professional hotel cuisine, food without a country; dishes like "tournedos Arthur" (beef topped with crab meat and Bearnaise sauce) were once as reliably predictable as a McDonald's meal and could be ordered in any dining room in any big city almost anywhere in the world.

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