World of difference

"Gay-friendly" businesses carve a comfortable niche in North Oak Cliff

The eatery is packed, with a line that presses against the glass windows and threatens to go outside. It's Thursday night at Vitto's Italian Restaurant in North Oak Cliff, and that means family night.

A quick look around the room shows that "family" takes on all its hues of meaning here. There are traditional family units, with mother, father, and children sitting at tables. Then there are more unusual menages: same-sex couples--some with children, some without.

The atmosphere is congenial, and no one looks uncomfortable or hurried--except perhaps the waiters, who walk briskly through the dining room lofting fresh-from-the-stone-oven designer pizzas. All in all, the scene looks normal.

That's because it is, says Mark Serrao, 33, who owns Vitto's.
Although he's been in the restaurant business for most of his life, this is the first eatery he's owned himself. He started it because he had to--after getting fired from his job of three years at Spasso, another designer pizza joint. He created Vitto's to tap into his vision of the perfect restaurant--and to provide a place that would accommodate his own social ethos.

"This is such a diversified area," he says of Oak Cliff. "If we had drag queens running around, it wouldn't be the same. I look at it like this: I don't care what your color is, or your sexual preference. You are a guest in my home, and you need to be taken care of."

What Serrao, who is gay, has created at Vitto's and, in the Bishop Arts District, the Oak Cliff Coffee House that he recently bought and renovated, is an atmosphere of tolerance and comfort. And he isn't the only one.

A small commercial boomlet started in North Oak Cliff in February with the opening of Dream Cafe's second location, on Zang Boulevard. On its heels came Urban Gardener, Vitto's, The Bishop Street Market, the newly revamped Oak Cliff Coffee House, and, just last month, City Harvest, a gourmet grocery store.

These new, mostly upscale businesses have one trait in common: They are gay-run or "gay-friendly" establishments. Their apparent success says a bit about both the area's economic potential and its social tolerance.

That gay and lesbian people live in Oak Cliff is nothing new. For some 15 years, gay couples steadily have been moving into the area. They have been drawn by Oak Cliff's principal advantages: proximity to downtown and great housing prices. Dabney Tompkins, a real-estate agent with Uptown Realty, which caters to a mostly gay clientele, says this migration has increased over the years, especially in the last two or three. Crosstown migrants include many families buying homes, and when couples buy homes, they want appealing shops and restaurants in their neighborhoods.

"I wouldn't say that this is a flash in the pan," Tompkins says of the gay migration. "More and more people are moving here, and they want to be able to get business services in Oak Cliff."

Tompkins says the increase in gay business ownership can be traced directly to gays' growing presence in Oak Cliff. They have become community leaders, Tompkins says.

"There is a community spirit here," he adds. "I can't describe it. We often say that there are only 18 people in Oak Cliff because all our lives are so intertwined."

Oak Cliff has long been seen by North Dallasites as a community apart. The Trinity River is both a physical and psychological dividing line between it and much of the rest of Dallas. Oak Cliff was once its own city, but since its annexation by Dallas in 1903, it has fancied itself the forgotten stepchild. Outsiders say it is dangerous and dilapidated. And while several parts of Oak Cliff are run down--particularly some East Oak Cliff neighborhoods--Oak Cliff residents reject the area's bad reputation.

While others see urban decay, they see hills, large trees, and houses that rival some of North Dallas' finer residences. Like a shadow monster that disappears with the flick of a light switch, Oak Cliff's dangerous reputation doesn't truck with reality, residents say.

"Oak Cliff's population has been evolving steadily since the 1950s," says Jan Fite Miller, co-owner of Judge Fite Realty, an agency that has been selling homes in the Oak Cliff area for 60 years. "It has embraced all cultures and all everything."

Mary O'Brien, co-owner of Dream Cafe, has lived in Oak Cliff for 12 years, yet her business had always been located north of the Trinity. When she and her brother Grady decided to open a second location, they looked hard for a suitable space in Oak Cliff. The opening of their new eatery on Zang fulfilled a dream--to establish a bakery alongside the restaurant.

Mary O'Brien isn't gay, but Oak Cliff's Dream Cafe is gay-friendly. She set up a special night to cater to gay couples, although the restaurant draws both gays and straights. There haven't been any clashes when the two groups come in contact, she says.

"A lot of people live next door to a gay couple and they get to know them and realize that they are just like you and I," she says. "The whole community has changed, and the acceptance is higher because of that."

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