She's Gotta Serve It

Dallas dining is largely controlled by men. Seven women are trying to change that.

Chen insists the answer is Grove. "She has a sweet personality," he says. "That is something you can use to attract a lot of people to your business. At Steel she had a lot of customers coming in just for her."

Yet others don't buy it. Grove says just after she dropped out of college and was raising money for her restaurant, scraping by on student loan tailings and credit cards, she ran into a prominent Dallas restaurateur who had once tried to woo her from Steel. She told him she was putting her own restaurant deal together. "He said, 'Marie, come on; you're a good-looking girl. Surely you've got someone taking care of you,'" she remembers him saying. "'You're just like every other fucking bimbo in Dallas.'"

The west wall in Local, a tiny Deep Ellum restaurant in the circa-1916 Boyd Hotel, was once a billboard painted on the side of the building next door. The words are cut off by the kitchen, but chef-owner Tracy Miller and her partner, hotel designer Alice Cottrell, restored the placard, and the meat of it is visible in the dining room. "Are you tired?" the ad copy asks. "Cardui. The woman's tonic."
Some Dallas restaurant boys doubt Marie Grove can pull off her restaurant Stolik: "Don't listen to what I say. Watch what I do," she fires back.
Mark Graham
Some Dallas restaurant boys doubt Marie Grove can pull off her restaurant Stolik: "Don't listen to what I say. Watch what I do," she fires back.
Perry's creator Amie Bergus loves being underestimated: "That's a great place to be. Let other people get comfortable."
Mark Graham
Perry's creator Amie Bergus loves being underestimated: "That's a great place to be. Let other people get comfortable."

Formulated in the late 19th century and sold over the counter until the early 1960s, Cardui was a 38-proof "medicine" that relieved everything from menstrual cramps to constipation ("...two bottles regulated me and made me feel lots better," reads one testimonial). "It was not appropriate for women to drink alcohol at the time," Miller says. "So they were able to get Cardui and live it up."

Cottrell and Miller savor this piece of irony in their restaurant, a tiny understated contemporary dining room tucked into a piece of brittle Dallas history. Among the oldest hotels still standing in Dallas, the Boyd is one of the few remaining cast iron-front buildings left in the city. Guests included Bonnie and Clyde and blues musicians Huddie Ledbetter and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Miller and Cottrell believe the hotel is haunted, citing the eerie sounds construction workers toiling at night have reported.

But perhaps these fragmented pieces of history are befitting a restaurant that was patiently pieced together not over eight months, but eight years. Though not formally trained as a chef, Miller cut her teeth working with Kent Rathbun and George Brown at Seventeen Seventeen. She also owned a restaurant called The Health Bar just above Star Canyon in the Centrum building. She met Cottrell, who has operated her own hotel design firm in Dallas since 1991, some 10 years ago during a spiritual seminar called "A Course in Miracles" conducted by best-selling author and lecturer Marianne Williamson.

Together they nursed the idea for Local, a tiny boutique restaurant serving fresh, creative but unfussy cuisine, which had been in Miller's back pocket for several years. It nearly came into being about seven years ago after the pair had raised some $300,000 from investors and loans secured through the Small Business Administration with plans to tuck Local in the space now occupied by Tin Star across the street from the Quadrangle.

But negotiations on the space bogged down, and the pair realized they would have to come up with a lot more money to bring the restaurant to fruition. It was then that they stumbled upon the Boyd Hotel space. They quickly shifted gears, returned all of the loans and investment capital and quietly set about to nurse their restaurant to life in Deep Ellum.

"We said, 'Let's just take $10,000 and open a catering company and do it all on our own,'" Miller says. "So that's what we've done. We don't owe anyone." For nearly six years they operated their catering company in the back portion of the ground floor of the hotel, gradually sloughing off profits to fit together the pieces of their tiny 50-seat restaurant in the front. It opened in February, and critical acclaim and word of mouth now mean the restaurant is booked 10 days out.

Plans for expansion are fraught with the same slow deliberateness that birthed the restaurant. As time and profits permit, they plan to expand into the space next door, transforming it into a wine lounge. "I'll know when it's time to do the next thing," Miller insists.

In the fast-paced, ephemeral glamour of the Dallas restaurant business, Local is an anomaly in the anomalous sliver of female operators. "There is always that element of the woman stereotype not being taken seriously," Miller says. "It happens still to me every day in some indirect way."

Miller thinks this has little to do with the fact there are so few female operators in an industry dominated by women. "I don't know if there are that many women that have the passion [for the business]," she explains. "They might have bumped up against a lot of obstacles as they go. Owning a restaurant and working in a restaurant are two totally different animals."

Dallas veterans Kathy McDaniel and Charlotte Parker seem to agree with Miller's synopsis. The pair founded The Grape on Lower Greenville in 1972 in a naïve, if ultimately shrewd, attempt to exploit the recently liberalized liquor-by-the-drink laws passed in Texas. "Dallas was just at that lift-off point in the coming of age of the restaurant business," says McDaniel, who wanted to open a cool wine-and-cheese place like those she had experienced in New York while working as a paralegal for a scant six months.
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