Gray and blue

Interesting dining can be the victim in Larry North's fitness jihad

The hostess headed the parade of women through the restaurant to the corner table, a string of groomed, polished (need I say blonde?) trophies trying to preserve their prize, their cheekbones high, their skin tanned and tight, their outfits as unnaturally stylized and contrived as only couture can be. One's a vision in faux leopard, from flowing scarf to high heels, another balances a black matador hat on a shiny chignon, and another is roped entirely in chain mail Chanel--she jingled seasonally as she walked.

They used to be one of our main exports, but you don't see women like this in Dallas anymore--I felt nearly nostalgic at the sight. Sartorially, Dallas has gotten a little less idiosyncratic. People are getting so damned tasteful--appearance is so much less about decoration--and this burnished and blepharoplastied bunch clashed with the thigh-high Lycra style that was seated at most of the tables. Chic is not just about big hair anymore--it's about hard bodies, too. It's hard to imagine that these women ever sweated it out on a Stairmaster--I mean why perspire when you have a perfectly good plastic surgeon, for God's sake? But even though their fitness was mostly financial, they still had the style sense to see and be seen in the latest, coolest place in town. Fashion, not fitness, impelled them to schedule a lunch at Larry's place, NorthSouth.

Larry North, of course, is more than a fitness trainer, more than the owner of a successful chain of gyms, more even than a personality. He's as close to a celebrity as Dallas ever produces, and he's become a phenomenon, which we produce more of. The Northing of Dallas has been thorough; there are more North Total Fitness Centers than drive-through banks, there's a North plate on the menu of practically every restaurant in town, and recently his food philosophy has even infiltrated the common man's land of convenience stores with "Larry North's Better Choices," a selection of low-fat fast food, sure to be a big hit with the after-school set and whoever else eats meals from 7-Eleven. It's almost too easy to take a shot at Larry North--you can't miss a target this big and obvious. Like Susan Powter's before him, Larry's message sounds evangelical. It's a tone we respond to especially brainlessly in Dallas, a city of mega-churches, the buckle of the Bible belt. Larry wants to see that belt taken in a few notches.

Larry's latest pulpit--now that he's got a TV show, a couple of books, and radio talk shows spreading his word--is NorthSouth, the 7,200-square-foot restaurant in the space formerly occupied by everything else in the Quadrangle. (This has to be the largest restaurant without brewing equipment in the city.) But Larry's disciples are legion and lunch (with the ladies) nearly filled the place, while a weekend dinner reservation request brought the Star Canyonesque response, "You can come at six or ten." The place is pleasantly warm-looking and steers clear of any spa-like references in its decor. It's simple in a nineties Tuscan, not eighties minimalist, way, and though this look is firmly dated, it does promise ease and comfort. Just remember, though, that this is the restaurant of a man who recommends that you purchase bulk frozen, boneless chicken breasts and grill them all, so that when you're hungry for a little something, you can just gnaw on a chicken breast. (Are we really ready to accept boneless chicken as a viable replacement for Doritos?)

The name, reminiscent of gray and blue to Civil War buffs, has to do with the war on fat, which is referred to in Larry's newspeak as the "North program," and is a kind of un-philosophy that loftily refuses to prescribe and instead can be summed up as "making choices." Here are the choices at NorthSouth: You can be "body conscious" and order your food "North," that is, low-fat, or you can order it indulgently "South," the traditional way. See, Larry doesn't want to tell you to eat the North way, he just wants you to want to eat the North way. The menu says, in a philosophical essay printed on its cover, that "Larry doesn't care what you choose to eat; he just wants you to know what you are eating." There's a whole chapter in Larry's new book about how to be assertive about ordering low-fat food in restaurants. His menu is meant to simplify things for low-fat eaters and to prove that low-fat cooking doesn't have to sacrifice flavor. (Of course, the exact opposite can be easily and more cheaply proven simply by comparing a baked tostado with a fried one.) But the menu's subtext is a mom-worthy guilt trip for "carefree" diners, who "feel like splurging," who aren't "body conscious." Like me. Not that I don't work out. Like everyone else, I go to the Larry's place nearest me. However, I don't consider eating a form of discipline.

"You want me to take that 'North'?" our waiter asked when I ordered the turkey meatloaf.

"What does that mean, exactly?" I wanted to know.
"Oh, I don't know, they take the fat out, make the mashed potatoes with Butter Buds..." Never mind. Spare us the sordid specifics.

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