Monument to an ego

Why is multimillionaire Scott Ginsburg building one of the world's most expensive restaurants in Dallas? Because he can.

Scott Ginsburg leans forward in the booth and tears a piece from the crisp white butcher paper covering the table. He has left his wallet in the car, he explains to the waiter, so he asks whether it's OK if he just writes out his American Express card number to take care of the check. The waiter nods.

This is Lombardi Mare in Addison, one of Ginsburg's favorite restaurants. And everyone here seems to know him. They treat him like a celebrity, which, in some rarefied business circles, he is. Or at least he was, when he was the boy wonder of Dallas-based Evergreen Media Corp. and owned dozens of radio stations across the country in major media markets. Ginsburg also became notorious when he drew on-air invective from shock jock Howard Stern after one of Evergreen's Chicago stations dumped Stern's show in 1993 following a dismal ratings period.

At Lombardi's, Ginsburg picks up a purple crayon from a small glass on the table and scrawls his charge card number across the paper. With narrow eyes, sandy blond receding hair, and a face that hints at boyishness, Ginsburg can charm with an affable, disarming demeanor. But it isn't long before his roiling intensity peeks through. He paces and fidgets, delivering his speech in rapid, staccato bursts. Hastily, he adds the expiration date to his artwork and hands it to the waiter.

Judy Walgren
Former radio mogul Scott Ginsburg may not have any experience in the culinary arts, but he believes his new restaurant, Voltaire, will be a huge success because of his business acumen. His unlimited ability to throw money at any problem should also help.
Judy Walgren
Former radio mogul Scott Ginsburg may not have any experience in the culinary arts, but he believes his new restaurant, Voltaire, will be a huge success because of his business acumen. His unlimited ability to throw money at any problem should also help.

Minutes later, the waiter returns with the card voucher for his signature. Ginsburg seems to relish the transaction. "You know me," he jokes, swatting away a question about the volume of cash flowing through his latest venture. "I'm not very good with numbers."

Maybe he isn't. Still, he somehow kept his American Express card number straight in his head. And he somehow managed to amass a personal fortune that Securities and Exchange Commission filings peg at somewhere around $375 million.

The road to his riches is no secret. Ginsburg, 46, heaped his wealth by building from scratch -- deal by shrewdly negotiated deal -- what was perhaps the most successful radio empire in the history of the medium. His historic run was cut short, however, after he combined his media holdings with those of Dallas business titan Tom Hicks under the name Chancellor Media Corp. The business culture that emerged from their marriage proved too stifling for two vigorously distended egos.

Yet recent history seems to have vindicated Ginsburg when Chancellor Media stock plummeted after his departure. "I left because I thought it was the appropriate time for me to step out and let somebody else try to create a vision," he says, a wry smile drawing up his face. "And the results speak for themselves."

Ginsburg is on to creating new visions, ones he's certain will speak with the same authority as those left to mumble in his wake. He hopes to become an impresario of sorts, a showman a la P.T. Barnum. And he has unleashed his instincts and considerable loot in a language the city can easily understand: a restaurant.

But Ginsburg's goal isn't simply to rival the best of the city's 6,000-plus eateries, such as The Mansion, The French Room, and The Riviera. Ginsburg wants to elbow his way into the cadre of the most renowned establishments in the country, even in the world. He calls his creation Voltaire, named for the 18th-century French writer and philosopher. "He was a change agent," says Ginsburg. "He questioned the status quo." Ginsburg rattles off a few of his favorite Voltaire quotes: "Common sense is not so common." "The best is the enemy of the good." His plans call for rendering these bons mots in oil at the base of Voltaire's 28-foot bar. And it seems Ginsburg is sparing no expense to ensure that these pearls afflict the hearts of Dallas' see-and-be-seen set before they creep across the national landscape like culinary sound bites.

"Voltaire will be the most expensive restaurant built in Dallas. Probably in the top five in the country," says Khanh Dao, who once described herself as Ginsburg's "significant other," while her business card describes her as managing partner. But what does this brash boasting mean? Six, eight, 10 million dollars? "I'll let you fill in the blank," she says.

Ginsburg isn't interested in filling in blanks either. "I have no interest in talking about money," he says. Yet money is all some in Dallas seem interested in talking about as rumors of the restaurant's ruinously high cost seep out. In March 1998, Ginsburg acquired the Harper's Restaurant spot on Keller Springs Road and the Dallas North Tollway and began gutting the 18-month-old structure under a veil of secrecy. This prime patch of land alone has a market value of $3.5 million.

"I want to be judged for something other than how much money was put in," Ginsburg says. "I want to be judged by the feel it gives off...not that it was a multimillion-dollar restaurant that somebody had a wild hair and decided to put up."

But on the surface, Ginsburg's lofty ambition seems to be little more than a personal icon spawned by a wild hair. And like some modern-day Candide, the naive title character in Voltaire's famous tale, Ginsburg seems to want only the best possible restaurant in the best of all possible worlds. Until you delve deeper.

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