Eat these words

The Dallas scene was everywhere -- and nowhere -- in 1999

I'm swearing off restaurant prognostication. Other than accurately predicting that Chuck Norris' stogie lounge, Lone Wolf, symbolized the death knell of the cigar craze, every other prediction has been a bust. Last year, I confidently predicted (though, of course, not on the record) that the restaurant business in Dallas would nose-dive by the end of the third quarter of 1999, and most certainly by the fourth. My faulty reasoning was that it would take a mere leveling off in the stock market (which was due, no?) to dent the nation's 401k/IRA crop, dramatically tossing the current personal financial euphoria into despairing circumspection. In dining terms, this means ordering fries instead of foie gras.

When industry watchers speculated in late spring that the summer of 1999 would be a merciless Bataan death march that would hobble into September, with high-profile carcasses strewn across the landscape, I nodded knowingly. But now that the end is near, it's obvious there were no dramatic Dallas dining-room evacuations or high-profile restaurant fatalities -- other than those nursing self-inflicted wounds, or those that were nothing but open sores to begin with. The death toll wasn't really that dramatic at all. Places with promise, but with either poor execution or market readings, closed quickly: Bon Vivant Market, Plano's me-too Eatzi's incarnation; Zeitgeist Café in Turtle Creek Village, a place that didn't understand that a new-age-sounding moniker doesn't make bad food taste any better; Angels in the Park, a kind of Mini-Me Rainforest Café designed as a 1940s-style city park with fake trees, fiber-optic stars, and tinkling fountain water; Ararat Middle East Restaurant in Deep Ellum; and Moonshine Café, the Creole restaurant parked in the spleen of the defunct Palace nightclub, itself a former church. The only high-profile exception that comes to mind was Mel Hollen's Bar & Fine Dining, which expired after more than two years in its Addison location.

Then there was FoodStar, the company that operated Mediterraneo, Mediterraneo at the Quadrangle, Toscana, and PoPoLos, which it had hoped to expand in clusters to other cities across the country. The company's vitals started unraveling early in the year with the departures of founders Franco Bertolasi and David Holben, followed by director of operations Michael Costa and lauded chefs David Woodward and Gilbert Garza. Mediterraneo at the Quadrangle was transformed into a PoPoLos, a move akin to chicken-frying a prime filet for mass appeal. It was shuttered in late summer. PoPoLos faltered and closed shortly after that. Now, Mediterraneo and Toscana are in the hands of a court-appointed trustee and will either be shut down or sold off in early January. Other closures included Shannon Wynne's 8.0 and Barclays, which was purchased by Van Roberts, the owner of Point West Volvo in Irving.

High-dollar dish: Scott Ginsburg's multimillion-dollar Voltaire was aong 1999's notable opening.
Judy Walgren
High-dollar dish: Scott Ginsburg's multimillion-dollar Voltaire was aong 1999's notable opening.

But this list belies a year of robust frothiness, despite a dip in the growth trends of the recent past. According to the Texas Restaurant Association, this year our food and beverage receipts are projected to reach $4.39 billion, ranking Dallas second (again) in the state to Houston. That's a 5.6 percent increase over '98, which had an 8.9 percent increase over '97. Clearly, there's a bit of slippage. But the TRA expects a 7 percent uptick in 2000, based on projected personal income, population growth, and, no doubt, the desire of most Americans to spend as little time as possible at home with George W. Bush, Al Gore, and The Donald.

Yet these recent growth surges don't mean restaurateurs are growing fat and happy. Despite surging sales, the market is still a gut-wrenching, blood-spilling, gladiator-glutton clash in Dallas.

"The flip side of people eating out a whole lot more is that people are much smarter consumers when they eat out now, more price-conscious," says James Scurlock, publisher of the newsletter Restaurant Investor. "You've basically gone from eating out being a real treat and a differentiated experience with few choices to this commodity experience where you drive past 20 restaurants all selling chicken breast with a baked potato for the same price."

Scurlock says the current market is causing fits among the big chains because demographics show people are eating out a whole lot more than they were 10 years ago. In addition, industry sales are exploding, and restaurants are grabbing a greater share of the entertainment dollar. All of which spells a whole lot of volume -- and not much return. "Restaurants are having a hell of a time making any money," Scurlock insists.

Are there any graspable trends or dining-habit complexion shifts to jerk us from this fiscal turmoil with a silver lining? Doesn't seem so. At least, not like last year, which could be summarized in one word: steak. (Or two words, if you stir in a martini.) Such an easily defined trend in 1998 prompted some industry watchers to confidently peg the next big market fads: the upscale taqueria and the Asian noodle house. Yet the only evidence of a highly stylized taco tremor after the M Crowd's Taco Diner struck in the summer of 1998 is the ongoing Stephan Pyles-Michael Cox quest for a Dallas Taqueria Cañonita, and Monica Greene's Ciudad D.F., an upscale restaurant serving "Mexico City" food slated to go into Turtle Creek Village in the former Zeitgeist space sometime next year. (At least, these are among the most stimulating projects on the radar screen.)

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