Big Death

Fading flashiness marked the year in Dallas dining

"It's obvious that there's still a huge following for a big steak," says Matthew Mabel, president of Surrender Inc., a management and hospitality consulting firm. "And how many times have we all said if one more [steak house] opens, that's going to be it?"

In reality, there was a lot less rattle in the 2002 shakeout than was expected, a lot less blood in the bath. "It's not 1929," Mabel insists. "There are still people that are doing well, that are going out, that are spending money. It's not Armageddon."

Mabel sees 2002 as an adjustment; a nap while the body of food service mends and tends to the ravages of past excess. Management has tightened controls, costs are being shaved in areas that won't affect the dining experience, and prices have dropped--or at least have been throttled. Indeed, one of the most visible barometers of the new restaurant reality is wine, where restaurateurs are shedding or closely watching their inventories of pricey and conspicuously posh grape juice. "We've seen a drop-off in what the business traveler has been allowed or is willing to spend," says one Dallas wine industry insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He says the flock of coveted California cabernets--Spottswood, Groth, Heitz, etc.--that were judiciously doled out during the Dow/dot-com go-go days are now in ample supply. Particularly hard-hit are the chardonnays in the $50-plus price range. "It hasn't picked up, but it hasn't dropped off any more," he says. "Restaurateurs are happy being flat right now."

The big Bamboo Bamboo was looking kinda small and withered at year's end.
Stephen Karlisch
The big Bamboo Bamboo was looking kinda small and withered at year's end.

Location Info

Map

Abacus

4511 McKinney Ave.
Dallas, TX 75205

Category: Restaurant > Asian Fusion

Region: Park Cities

Tom Tom Noodle House

3699 McKinney Ave.
Dallas, TX 75204

Category: Restaurant > Japanese

Region: Uptown & Oak Lawn

Chow Thai Pacific Rim

3309 Dallas Parkway
Plano, TX 75093

Category: Restaurant > Asian Fusion

Region: Plano

Mabel even sees a silver lining among the modest strewing of dining rubble. The industry is experiencing a talent infusion, he says, after its brain was drained during the late-'90s boom and the industry was wheezing in a labor and management shortage choke hold. "The industry has been given a reprieve by the economic downturn," Mabel insists. "There's more experienced people working in restaurants. It's easier to hire good people now."

Mini TemblorsStill, the shifts, while not seismic, were significant. Phil Romano, a sort of poster boy for restaurateuring Ritalin, was busy purchasing Brinker International's interest in Eatzi's, taking full control of the small gourmet grocer home meal replacement emporiums with plans to expand in Dallas and elsewhere. Romano also opened an upper-crust burger bagger in Highland Park Village called Who's Who Burgers featuring pricey Kobe beef hamburgers. Street was right. Even the basics aren't back to basics. But perhaps Romano's biggest adventure was Lobster Ranch, the midscale New England seafood restaurant that seemed to take its interior design cues--bright yellow and blue--from a Sesame Street set. After just five months in operation, Romano and partner Luke Crosland opted to shut the place after the cash register registered a thud instead of a ring. Also slipping off the landscape were Patrick Esquerré's Café Patrique; Mediterraneo; Scented Geranium, a Vietnamese restaurant on McKinney Avenue; Geode, a global tapas flit also on McKinney; Deep Sushi in Deep Ellum; Avner Samuel's kosher Bistro K; and Dakota's, which was scheduled to reopen in mid-October after sustaining flood damage from a water main break in August, but still sits idle. Other teapot tempests include Mardi Schma's sale of the venerable City Café to former Mediterraneo (and Lombardi Mare and Toscana) General Manager Karim Alaoui, Ron Corcoran's move to put Sipango and his recently opened bar with nibbles Daxx on the block and Tristan Simon's (Cuba Libra, Sense) acquisition of a 50 percent stake in Genghis Grill, Jeff Sinelli's small Dallas-based chain of create-your-own-stir-fry Mongolian barbecues.

But perhaps the most significant restaurant move was the decision by Carlson Restaurants Worldwide to dump its Emerging Brands division, the umbrella under which it developed several "chef-driven" concepts including Samba Room, Mignon, Fishbowl and Timpano Italian Chophouse, and housed its Star Canyon and Taqueria Cañonita acquisitions from Stephan Pyles and Michael Cox. Nick Natour, owner of the Enclave restaurant, subsequently picked up Mignon last spring. Mico Rodriguez, the main brain behind the M Crowd Restaurant Group (Mi Cocina, Taco Diner) and Restaurant Life (The Mercury, Mercury Grill, Citizen, Paris Vendome), snatched the pair of Taqueria Cañonitas in the Dallas area and renamed them Mi Cocina's Cañonita.

Ball PeeksWhat does the future hold? Noodles. We're tripping over the things. The long-predicted and mulled-over Asian noodle house trend has finally gotten itself tangled up in Dallas. Noodles Kitchen, Noodle Nexus, Noodles Ave.--the names roll off the tongue like lemon pucker spit. The Green Pepper Asian Grill and Noodles, with four Dallas-area locations, just opened a spot on Oak Lawn Avenue and has plans to expand to Lakewood and Plano. Royce Ring, former head of Carlson's Emerging Brands division, opened Tom Tom Noodle House, a SoHo-style slurp hut, in West Village with another set to open in early 2003 in Preston Plaza.

But noodles slipped a little this year, too. Jeffery Yarbrough, the prescient Asian noodle house pioneer in Dallas, shuttered his original Liberty noodles on Lower Greenville Avenue shortly after he opened an extension at the Pavilion shopping center on Lovers Lane near Inwood.

Another trend that will continue to build steam is fast casual, the rapid, tipless feed style perhaps best represented by Café Express and Tin Star. But perhaps the most significant rumble in this rapid-fire arena was driven by a grocery store. This summer H.E. Butt's Central Market opened in Dallas, offering a vast fast-casual catalog for the plucking. To pull it off, they poached some of the city's most seasoned and talented chefs and restaurant pros: Jamie Samford from Lola the Restaurant, one-time Crescent Club chef Helen Duran and one-time Mansion on Turtle Creek wine director George Howald. "Here we are in the last bastion of cafeteria service in the country in the South, and as it goes out, fast casual will be coming in with some of the same appeal as far as speed, no tip, except this time it's got good flavors and interesting food," Mabel says.

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