Playing Chicken

Come boom or bust Dallasites gotta eat--out, that is

Will it slump or bump? Will we be dining on caviar and burping through silk hankies, or chewing Velveeta sandwiches and picking our incisors with plastic straws?

The pessimists are getting delirious. The heralds are all there. Alan Greenspan failed to cut interest rates. Gas costs more than a pound of chicken gizzards, yet is still less than bottled water. Corporate profits are slimming. Stocks are tanking. The Olds 98 will soon be history. Dot.com now stands for DOA instead of IPO. The world's leading economies all seem to be grinding in concert from a jitterbug to a drowsy cheek-to-cheek shuffle, a vision that is giving some economists sweaty palms.

But Dallas restaurant consultant Matthew Mabel thinks it's nonsense to worry. He offers former Labor Secretary Robert Riech's insight that economic forecasters exist to make astrologers look good. Well, some of us think astrologers look pretty spectacular without the help of economists, thank you.

Matthew Mabel sees nothing but blue skies ahead for Dallas' restaurant industry.
Judy Walgren
Matthew Mabel sees nothing but blue skies ahead for Dallas' restaurant industry.

Yet the question remains: Will there be a downturn in 2001, and if there is, will it rake the dazzle out of Dallas' restaurant boom?

The Texas Restaurant Association doesn't think so. The trade group projects Dallas eating and drinking establishment sales will surge to $5.6 billion in 2001, a whopping 10.9 percent increase over this year. The group gave Dallas just a 7 percent projected growth rate for 2000. Why the optimism in the face of such economic uncertainty?

According to the TRA, "Most employment and income indicators show that Texas' economy is hot enough to withstand slower growth in some sectors." As evidence, they site the six short-term interest rate increases that the Federal Reserve has served up since 1998, all of which had little to no impact on the state's economy.

Yet such assumptions can be foolhardy. "The economic boom produced an abnormally large number of new restaurant openings," says Cuba Libre founder Tristan Simon. "That has resulted in a market glut and incredibly fierce competition, which in turn will force operators to find ever greater ways to deliver a more conspicuous value. In 2001 there will be a conspicuous reorientation toward value."

Which means you may have to tighten your wallet and step down a few dining rungs if you frequent some of Dallas' more upscale and energetically innovative venues. Maybe.

Still, Mabel says there's no reason for rattled nerves. Sure, places with a heavy reliance on expense-account eating (namely, steak) will feel an annoying pinch, but that could be about the extent of the pain. Plus, steakhouses generally have enough padding built in to absorb such shocks.

"The harbingers of bad news about the economy are just emerging now and that could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, or that could just be one bad quarter," he says. "And one bad quarter does not a recession make."

Yet it'll be hard for the current Dallas restaurant market to stand impervious to economic shocks, no matter how thick its fried batter coating might be. That's why many of the city's restaurant watchers predict a move to fast-casual restaurants, those less expensive but high-quality venues with counter service that include everything from Southwestern and Mexican to Asian noodles and sushi. And all without tipping.

How the Stomach TurnsPerhaps the best way to determine where the Dallas restaurant market is going in 2001 is to see where it's been in the year 2000. And the answer to that is "all over the map."

"I'm amazed that restaurants still just keep poppin' up all over the place," says Michael Costa of DMC Hospitality. "And there's no sign of it slowing down. The low and moderate ends of the market have widened the whole market. If there used to be one Riviera to every 10 decent restaurants, now there's one Riviera to every 25 restaurants."

A pair of upscale masterpieces arrived in late 1999, early 2000: Abacus and Voltaire, but there really haven't been that many exquisite upscale entries in 2000, with the exception of Phil and Janet Cobb's Salve! Ristorante, Lola in the former Barclay's space, and Jeroboam in the Kirby Building downtown. The latter is significant for a number of reasons that go way beyond the delicious food and remarkably entertaining wine list. Jeroboam is one of those few restaurants that shrewdly exploit the see-and-be-seen flitting--a Dallas narcotic--by creating a few strategically placed sight lines, while it eschews the concomitant cheesy flash by patching together an interior with materials (woods, granite, glass) from various Dallas historic buildings. Jeroboam has a lot of soul, but it's still horny.

Other significant openings include Monica Greene's exquisite Ciudad D.F., a foray into Mexico City cuisine; the flashy but inconsistent Venus Steakhouse & Supper Club; and the opening in Plano of the Stephan Pyles/Michael Cox Mexican invention Taqueria Canonita, the taqueria that was test driven in Las Vegas for more than a year before it hit this region.

Perhaps one of the most bizarre restaurant openings of the year was Phil Romano's We Oui, the quasi-French casual brasserie serving marginal food and big, bright red lips as a decorative focal point, French language tapes vocalizing pickup lines in the bathrooms, and an apparently aborted gimmick of distributing mint-flavored condoms for your "wee wee" at closing time. There's no better way to say We Oui care.

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