Vice Grip

In Dallas restaurants, 2003 was all about smoke. The future may be all about hooch.

It was the year of smoke. So many Dallas restaurant landmarks went up in the stuff in 2003, and so many Pall Malls and Partagas Churchills didn't, at least not within restaurant walls. And walls will be the most crucial culinary consideration in Dallas from now on, thanks to the mayor.

This past spring Mayor Laura Miller pushed through a smoking ban in Dallas, prohibiting tobacco fog in establishments that derive more than 25 percent of their revenue from food sales. Smoke-friendly bars and lounges must be completely sealed off from dining areas.

Social nannies cheered and operators jeered, as the cost of the former's sense of personal righteousness must be borne by the latter's bottom line.

Tristan Simon in Sense, a semi-private club at the heart of Dallas' lounge act.
Mark Graham
Tristan Simon in Sense, a semi-private club at the heart of Dallas' lounge act.

Location Info

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Cool River Cafe

1045 Hidden Ridge Road
Irving, TX 75038

Category: Restaurant > Southwestern

Region: Irving & Las Colinas

Urban Tapas

62 Main St.
Colleyville, TX 76034

Category: Restaurant > Eclectic

Region: Mid-Cities (H-E-B)

The Riviera

7709 Inwood Road
Dallas, TX 75209

Category: Restaurant > Continental

Region: Park Cities

The Old Warsaw

2610 Maple Ave.
Dallas, TX 75201-1924

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Uptown & Oak Lawn

Aurora Maison de Cuisine

4216 Oak Lawn Ave.
Dallas, TX 75219-2312

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Uptown & Oak Lawn

Local

2936 Elm St.
Dallas, TX 75226-1596

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Downtown & Deep Ellum

Cuba Libre

2822 N. Henderson
Dallas, TX 75206

Category: Restaurant > Latin American

Region: East Dallas & Lakewood

III Forks

17776 N. Dallas Parkway
Dallas, TX 75287

Category: Restaurant > Seafood

Region: Carrollton/ Farmers Branch

Abacus

4511 McKinney Ave.
Dallas, TX 75205

Category: Restaurant > Asian Fusion

Region: Park Cities

Jasper's Restaurant

7161 Bishop Road
Plano, TX 75024

Category: Restaurant > New American

Region: Plano

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But some say those with cost concerns are simply whining. Acclaimed chef Kent Rathbun, founder of Abacus and Jasper's, has been running ads in restaurant publications extolling the virtues of smoke-free dining environments. "If anybody tells you smoke-free measures hurt hospitality, don't believe it," Rathbun insists in ad text on behalf of a project called TobaccoScam. "...Going smoke-free four years before the rest of Dallas' restaurants showed that when you focus on your guests' total comfort and well-being, no one misses secondhand smoke--not even customers who still smoke!"

Rathbun's comments are no doubt true--for him(he couldn't be reached for comment). But there's a difference between his attaining a state of higher consciousness through personal realization and personal choice and having it rammed down your throat by municipal edict--a peculiar form of "catching on." So it's no surprise that a number of Dallas restaurateurs take umbrage with his conclusion. Jeffrey Yarbrough claims the smoking ban killed off his bar business, mortally wounding his groundbreaking noodle restaurant Liberty this past November. Mark Maguire of Maguire's Regional Cuisine in North Dallas and M Grill & Tap in Uptown says the ban knocked the breath out of his bar at Maguire's, kicking down revenues 14 percent. But he really felt the squeeze at M Grill & Tap--inevitable when he has Frankie Carabetta's Manhattan bar blowing smoke down his neck from across the street. "The smoking ban killed my late-night business," he says. After the ban went into effect, Maguire says revenues plunged from an average per-week take of $6,000 between 9 p.m.-2 a.m. to $700-$1,500 per week over the same five-hour span. He now shuts down at 11 p.m.

"It's been troublesome," says Gene Street, operator of III Forks, who bemoans the loss of event bookings because of the ban. "We just provide big ashtrays right outside the front door." Over at Jeroboam Brasserie downtown, operator Whit Meyers says the ban bled the life out of his once-sizzling late-night lounge business. "If you go around town and see the bars that have smoking and the ones that don't, there's some correlation there as far as volume goes," he says. "I mean The Loon is just knocking it out of the park right now."


Yeah, The Loon may be booming through its thick fog. But if other restaurants are truly suffering, they haven't assembled much credible data--anecdotal or otherwise--to illustrate their plight. (There was virtually no consumer outcry driving this top-down edict, an indication of the effectiveness of existing restaurant ventilation systems and smoking section design.) Some restaurateurs are privately appalled by the utter lack of political savvy among Dallas restaurateurs, a gap that stood out starkly against Mayor Miller's shrewd instincts. Witness the feeble attempts to mobilize tip-dependent employees in the smoking-ban fight.

Rathbun's claims notwithstanding, the smoking ban has indelibly altered the Dallas restaurant scene. The restaurant lounge is dead. And whether through dumb luck or uncanny prescience, Tristan Simon felt this social tremor well before it shook his competitors. In retrospect, his pre-ban blueprints for the semi-private nightclubs Senseand Candle Room look astonishingly brilliant. Any smoke revenue shaved from his heavily bar-dependent Cuba Libre was immediately soaked up by Candle Room. And he was able to maintain a grip on Cuba Libre's customer base by embarking on a methodical campaign with chef Nick Badovinus to upgrade the culinary value of the menu while simultaneously exerting heavy downward pressure on costs--this, months before the ban caught the rest of the industry with its butt exposed. By the time the ban hit, he had already established the perception that Cuba Libre was an affordable, chef-driven dining destination rather than a nightclub.

And if genius is the shameless theft of ideas, then Phil Romano and partner Joe Palladino are Mensa inductees. Their chosen salve to soothe the anticipated slump in their Nick & Sam's after-dinner bar business led to the creation of their $1.2 million semi-private club Medici this fall, just down the street from their steak house. Medici tosses little appetizers at its limo-driven clientele in small enough quantities to slip through Mayor Miller's 25 percent food-revenue loophole. The club will also be fed by their joint venture project with Fernando and Gino Masci, founders of Il Mulino. The home-style Italian restaurant, which debuted in New York in 1981, will open in the former Casa Dominguez space on Cedar Springs Road next February.

So while the smoking ban does leave Dallas in a quandary, it doesn't spell disaster. "People who have a desire to be in that hip lounge environment that they crave as part of their urban experience, you can't beat them down," says Matthew Mabel, president of Surrender Inc., a management and hospitality consulting firm.

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