Party's Over

Dallas restaurateurs weather a year of many valleys, few peaks

If there was ever a year that bulged with ups and downs, ebb and flow, mood swings and yin-yang fluxes, 2001 is that year. Only instead of a series of peaks and valleys, 2001 was more like a time line of troughs with the summits sheared off, leaving depressions that rose only to mind-numbing neutrality.

That 2001 was going to be a tough year in the Dallas hospitality industry was a painful given before it even happened. The dot-com bubble had burst, splattering the gory remains of disposable income and expense accounts across the landscape. Add to that the tragicomedy of a presidential election settled by nine old men and women in robes, and 2001 was destined not only to be dejected but just plain weird. And it was.

More than that, 2001 was a strange time of recovery from a long, drunken binge of prosperity and its concomitant bizarre notions that we all kept repeating with a straight face. The absurdity of it all slapped us right in the gizzard. "A lot of people don't know about economic cycles," says Matthew Mabel, president of Surrender Inc., a management and hospitality consulting firm. "I mean, who's got the stack of remaindered books about the new paradigm and the Dow hitting 30,000? That was folly."

Restaurant consultant Matthew Mabel says economic cycles finally caught up with irrational exuberance in 2001.
Judy Walgren
Restaurant consultant Matthew Mabel says economic cycles finally caught up with irrational exuberance in 2001.

But even if irrational exuberance was tracking firmly in its downward spiral when 2001 struck, many of us pretended it wasn't. The thing is, the trend line wasn't a simple crash. There was no bloodbath at the upper end of the market as many had predicted, or reams of shelved restaurant openings. It was more like a leech slowly sucking the vitality out of a hospitality artery, leaving the industry feverish and disoriented, wondering if things had bottomed out or were just getting started.

Perhaps the most significant blow was the plunge in conventions. This year illustrated just how important the business traveler is to the Dallas dining cash flow.

And Dallas not only lost at least one major convention, a lot of smaller business meetings and conventions went down the drain as well. According to Greg Elam of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, Dallas suffered its first dip in convention bustle in more than a decade. "We got sort of spoiled, actually," he explains. "Every year we had increases." Add convention-center construction and expansion to this mix, and you have a potent recipe for boiled malaise.

"It was kind of a lackluster year," says Paul Pinnell, general manager of the newly refurbished Nana restaurant atop the Wyndham Anatole. "I'm amazed at how many restaurateurs did not realize how much of their business came from citywide conventions."

Yet the gut punch to the industry was the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"During the week of the attack, the restaurants were empty because we were all home in shock, watching TV," Mabel says. But a week later, Dallas restaurants and bars started to fill again as people hungered to get out and break bread with friends after a week of endlessly viewing and reviewing the death and destruction. That event, which triggered huge layoffs and virtually halted Dallas convention and meeting business, turned a dour year morose.

Yet amazingly, the depths of that depression were short-lived. "Normalness is now occurring in our convention business," Elam says. "It's climbing its way back. It isn't the same as the year 2000, but it's coming back."

The rush to a sort of normalcy is not without casualties. Many Dallas restaurants and caterers felt the September 11 attacks ripple through their holiday party business, which, according to Dean McSherry, vice president of Preferred Restaurant Services, is way off 2000 levels. He says many businesses didn't want to be seen partying during these sober times, putting a painful pinch on the industry. "The ones that were smart and watched the fat throughout the year are going to be able to weather this storm," he says.

Ironically, that sober posturing may help Dallas convention business in 2002. Pinnell reports that several business meetings originally slated for places of frivolity such as Orlando and Las Vegas have been canceled and rebooked for Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas. And restaurant operators, once asphyxiated by a tight labor pool driving them to shell out high salaries and signing bonuses, once again can take their pick of available talent. The squeeze may have other benefits to those operators with steely discipline. "Good companies know that if they work on improving during down times and give guests a memorable experience, when the good times come back they will be way far ahead of those that cut too much," Mabel says.

Stork Droppings

While there were no obvious trends in the 2001 Dallas restaurant scene, there was a significant number of births. The Dallas trend that will not stop--steak--widened its reach across the landscape, come hell or high prices. This year saw the birth of Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, Timpano Italian Chophouse (Carlson Restaurants Worldwide), Perry's Restaurant and Silver Fox, the joint venture between former III Forks owner Dale Wamstad and Gene Street, chairman of Consolidated Restaurant Cos., Inc.

Not to be outdone by cattle, seafood also plunged ahead, though at a slower pace. Chris Svalesen is dishing out his seafood expertise in the half-finished 36 Degrees, where he serves fresh fish on tables surrounding a figment-of-the-imagination dining room. Richard Chamberlain also took a step away from meat intensity and opened Chamberlain's Fish Market Grill.

Italian also displayed resilience with eccolo Ristorante and enoteca opening in the former Toscana spot and Patrick Colombo's Ferré opening in the new West Village. Down the street on McKinney Avenue, Espartaco Borga opened La Duni Latin Café.

Extensions also dotted the landscape, more so than new openings. Mico Rodriguez's restaurant machine opened a dazzling new Mercury in the Shops of Willow Bend in Plano. Jeanie Terrilli expanded her Greenville Avenue namesake to Frisco with Terrilli's Sauce. Joel Lebovitz, founder of the Thomas Avenue Beverage Company, opened a more upscale operation called 2900 Thomas Avenue across the street from TABC. Franki's Lil' Europe founders Franki and Gabriela Kovacic launched Cafe Lago, while Rock Fish Seafood Grill founder Bill Bayne left that company and opened Half Shells Seafood Grill in Grapevine.

Perhaps the most significant opening this past year was also one of the smallest and least dramatic--at least on the outside. Longtime Dallas chef Sharon Hage purchased the aging York St. and infused it not only with fresh blood but soulful elegance.

Food Flux

Transitions were also numerous, perhaps the most interesting involving former We Oui chef Nick Badovinus, who left an opportunity to open his own place with Phil Romano to join Tristan Simon in crafting menus for Cuba Libre and his Las Colinas restaurant Blue Fire, which is still on the drawing board. Thai Soon was shuttered on Greenville Avenue after roughly 14 years and reopened in Richardson, while the Greenville location became Moosh, a lounge opened by Teiichi Sakurai, who operates Teppo next door. Also on Greenville Avenue, Basha Middle Eastern restaurant was shuttered and reopened as Tabouli's.

But the most significant transitions involved people. Michael Cox, who with Stephan Pyles created Star Canyon, AquaKnox and Taqueria Cañonita, left the restaurant business after a short stint with Carlson Restaurants Worldwide to become manager of H.E. Butt Grocery Company's Central Market in Plano. Former AquaKnox Executive Chef Lisa Balliet left the cramped kitchen at the Cock & Bull Wine Bar and Restaurant and the restaurant business to spend time with her family. Brian Luscher, notable crafter of Hill Country cuisine at the defunct Routh Street Brewery, is now at The Grape. George Papadopoulos left Scott Ginsburg's multimillion-dollarVoltaire restaurant and headed back to New York before he signed on with a country club in Philadelphia with plans to come to Dallas someday to start his own restaurant. Papadopoulos was replaced by Joseph Gutierriz.

Salve! Ristorante, Phil and Janet Cobb's Italian restaurant on McKinney, continued to shed key employees including maïtre d' Wayne Broadwell, Executive Chef Kevin Ascolese and pastry chef David Brawley. Brawley and Ascolese resurfaced at Patrick Colombo's Ferré.

Then there's Doug Brown, who made his mark at Nana Grill atop the Wyndham Anatole. Brown returned to Dallas from Murial's Supper Club in Palm Springs, after it succumbed to dot-com cash suction, to open his own restaurant. But the deal soured. So he's hanging out as corporate sous chef at Eatzi's until another one ripens.

Grim Reapings

McKinney Avenue solidified its reputation as Dallas' strip of restaurant antimatter. Three notable restaurants--O'Dowds Little Dublin, Bistral and Mangia e Bevi--chewed dust in 2001. It seems the places that do the best along this piece of pavement are sports bars and small joints with cheap food. So while other restaurants sputtered and died, Frankie Carabetta (formerly of Frankie's Sports Bar & Grill on the same street) and his partners Ed and Michael Ruibal Landscape Systems of Texas quietly opened Rocco's Pizza & Pasta and the McKinney Avenue Tavern.

Farther uptown, Lemmon Avenue saw the death of Shelly Dowdy's Venus Steakhouse & Supper Club after a few short months. This is the space where Chris Svalesen is slowly growing his restaurant 36 Degrees. Up north, Laura's Last Chance Texas Grill and Cantina was locked up after just a year in business, as was Caribbean Red, Anthony Bermea's eclectic Caribbean-Latin fusion restaurant and lounge, after just a couple of months. Francesco and Jane Secchi, owners of Ferrari's and Il Grano, opened and closed the Italian Cowboy and promptly sued the building's owners for sewer problems. Gene Street and his Consolidated Restaurant Cos. shuttered the Buttermilk Café.

Other restaurant corpses include Isola Gozo in NorthPark Center; Soprano's "Ameri-Ital" restaurant in Frisco (now Terrilli's Sauce); Jimmy Lu's Asian Bistro; Traci's restaurant, which shuttered to make room for a new boutique hotel on Leonard Street; and the massive brew pub Coppertank Brewing Co., which will reopen sometime in 2002 as America's Pub. Air-conditioning breakdowns made Fish a floater, and Les Saisons, the two-decades-old French restaurant that moved from Turtle Creek Village to the Centrum in 1997, closed its doors. Another Frenchie falter was Phil Romano's Ameri-French bistro We Oui in the Crescent Court, which is now an upscale casual New Orleans grubbery called Gumbo's. Romano is working on a seafood restaurant called Lobster Ranch with chef Tom Fleming. Carlson Restaurants Worldwide shuttered the Pyles-Cox global water-cuisine haunt AquaKnox and turned it into zen den, while the spot that was once La Valentina de Mexico was purchased by the group operating Nuevo Leon, which promptly shut it down after just a couple of months.

Blood and Guts

While this may look like a blood-soaked landscape, it's not as bad as it could be. "The restaurant business has been so good for so long that a lot of people are in a strong financial position to withstand it," Mabel says. "And they'll be fine."

Mabel points out that this dingy cloud hovering over the Dallas landscape might have yet another lustrous lining: A lot of restaurant-worthy real estate could hit the market at reduced lease rates, prying open opportunities to entrepreneurs who might otherwise find themselves undercapitalized. "That's part of spring coming after winter," he says. "When you talk to restaurateurs about their future, they feel very, very enthusiastic about the long term of this market and in surrounding markets. Life is more interesting and more diverse and more sophisticated and more urban and more exciting than it ever was in this city."

Kind of makes you hungry just thinking about it.

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