Well done

In a business where being good often isn't enough, who will survive 1997?

"She was a good cook, as cooks go, and as cooks go, she went." Occasionally a cliche loses all relevance--this line (supposedly of S. J. Perelman's) makes absolutely no sense at all now that nobody has a personal cook and there's only one place that even claims to want to do it your way. (Of course, you can interpret Perelman's aphorism to mean that Mom's still the cook for most of us and sure enough, the divorce rate continues to skyrocket, as moms get fed up and go.) But--only slightly paraphrased--it does hold true for the cook's work place. The number of annual restaurant closings nearly equals the number of openings. (A good proportion if it were just confined to brewpubs.) In other words, there are lots of good restaurants out there, as restaurants go, and most restaurants go.

The new year is as much a time to rest against proven wisdom (or cliches) as to form hopeful new resolutions; remember, the old Roman Janus had one face looking forward and one backward. Out of this year's crop of new restaurants, I certainly have my own favorites, but rather than set forth my personal top ten (relying again on an adage, "de gustibus non est disputandum," meaning my favorites very likely won't be yours anyway, or one man's food is another man's dog food), it may be more interesting to indulge in some New Year's soothsaying and make an educated prediction as to which restaurants will still be here next year.

The first thing to remember about restaurants is that, basically, they're just real estate. So, "location, location, location" becomes the relevant cliche. Some supposedly jinxed spaces see half a dozen restaurant tenants come and go in a single year; some seem to thrive inexplicably just because of where they are. But the main reason most restaurants fail is shortage of capital. You have to have enough money to float the thing until the slow and stupid public gets to your door and proves it will come back. Keeping these truths in mind, it seems that Seventeen Seventeen at the Dallas Museum of Art has it hands-down in a bid for continued success--it's certainly had a full house ever since it opened. With the considerable expertise of the high society catering firm, dani Foods, behind it (along with the considerable financial support of dani's owner, Robert Hoffman, Jr.), the star quality of executive chef Kent Rathbun, and the hands-on talents of chefs George and Katie Brown, it's hard to see how Seventeen Seventeen could not be a winner. And though you may (and I have) deride a city that wants to make its art museum a mall, you have to grant that Seventeen Seventeen will have done us all a favor if it attracts even one person to the museum for dinner who would not go there for, say, an exhibit of underlit but unusual objects from the Momoyama period of Japan. Who knows? Perhaps that one person will see something neat on his way up the barrel vault to the restaurant and return to the Museum for the actual art. Seventeen Seventeen, by being the center of Dallas' social whirl this season, has actually transformed a possibly terrible location (cultural institution) by Dallas standards, into a desirable one (chic restaurant). Truthfully, the elegant interior design by Paul Draper and the imaginative food would probably make Seventeen Seventeen a success even without its pretty classy but unnecessary appendage of an art museum.

Seventeen Seventeen may have garnered the most attention in the Dallas society columns in 1996, but nationally, Eatzi's got all the ink. The restaurant world is watching Brinker International's new concept closely to see if it works; if it does, that world will be filled with variations on this home meal replacement palace, designed for the formerly invisible niche between grocery stores and restaurants. In other words, Eatzi's is specifically for those previously umarketed-to and conflicted individuals who don't want to cook but don't want to eat out. (What to do?!) Rumors abound, as they say. Some assert that Eatzi's gigantic overhead is killing any profits, and that's why the roll-out of new units has been taking so long; others maintain that Brinker is just fine-tuning a business that has turned out to be successful beyond any Chili's-inspired dream. Even if Brinker can't groom it into the kind of cash cow he likes in his stable, the Eatzi's concept has carved a niche in Dallas that will be filled by other opera-blaring grocery stores masquerading as boutiques. Already there are other gourmet shops opening in its wake (City Harvest, for instance, operated by a trio of refugees from Marty's, the erstwhile queen of Dallas gourmet shops) and one, Sigel's in Addison, has enough money (see above) behind it to make it a real contender. In the same way that first La Madeleine and then Empire Baking Company raised our yeast expectations, Eatzi's has raised our grocery consciousness; Dallas pantries will never be the same, whether Eatzi's goes or not.

Experience does not invariably result in good judgment, but it generally helps a little. So backing a veteran hedges your bet. One crazy thing about the restaurant business is that, once someone has established a place (by working 18 hours a day, seven days a week), for some inexplicable reason, they're impelled to go out and open another one. A number of such fanatical old Dallas hands opened restaurants this year: Jack Chaplin opened his Wood Grill in Deep Ellum (in the best location in Deep Ellum, I might point out), and his ex-partner in Daddy Jack's, Kenny Bower, cloned the original and called it Lefty's. Thanks to these pros, I expect we'll be eating Ritz-cracker-stuffed fish well into the next millennium.

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