Vice Grip

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


As the restaurant lounge adapts or dies in Dallas, it may very well re-emerge in the bedroom communities up north where smoking decisions are largely left to operators. After state legislators relaxed requirements for local wet-dry elections this past May, a flood of petition drives led to ballot measures aimed at going damp. So far, elections will in all likelihood be held in McKinney, Allen and Plano in May. Mabel points out that the driving force behind these elections is grocery and restaurant chains, who avoid building in dry areas, thereby shutting off lush sources of local tax revenue. But a byproduct of these ballot measures, which will allow beer and wine restaurant service and retail sales in dry areas as well as scuttle the annoying private club membership requirement in restaurants in "partial wet" locales, may be the emergence of the restaurant lounge in the hinterlands. The Asian restaurant-lounge Naan in the Shops at Legacy, a development with high-density residential lofts and town homes on the drawing board, could be the first of many.

Beyond tax revenue issues, there is palpable frustration among the grassroots in these communities because local laws lag far behind the culinary sophistication of residents. It's virtually impossible to find higher-alcohol wines like California Zinfandel or the much sought-after Amarone from Italy in these communities, because existing laws cap legal wine sales at 14 percent alcohol by volume. Frustration may even boil over to some day allow retail liquor sales in these communities (state law relaxed these wet-dry election requirements too, but they are still more restrictive than those for beer and wine). How many spoons will be hurled in kitchens when the amateur cooks who learned their stuff in cooking classes at Central Market and Whole Foods realize they can't obtain the fuel for their Madeira sauce or Cognac reduction without a trip to the next county? The ground is shifting.


Which is why 2003 may turn out to be the most pivotal restaurant year in recent memory. The evolutionary shifts have been dramatic, with the industry sloughing off huge chunks of its history. Several landmarks were scrubbed from the landscape this year, including Marty's (after 60 years), Il Sorrento (after 53 years), Ruggeri's (skipped Dallas for Colleyville after 18 years), The Riviera (after 19 years) and Star Canyon (after nine years), chef Stephan Pyles' groundbreaking restaurant serving New Texas cuisine. Add to that the sudden death of famed Dallas restaurateur Mel Hollen (Atlantic Café, Jaxx Café, Mel Hollen's Fine Dining, Café Pacific) at the age of 61. Hollen was found dead in his El Paso hotel room of an apparent heart attack. He was helping to open a restaurtant there.
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

Map

Cool River Cafe

1045 Hidden Ridge Road
Irving, TX 75038

Category: Bars and Clubs

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: Restaurant > Eclectic

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

Details

Vice Grip

Yet during this ground-rattling, a cluster of neighborhood, chef-driven restaurants bloomed, including Standard 2706 (Timothy Byres), Local (Tracy Miller), Aurora (Avner Samuel), Stolik (Francisco Mendonca), and Iris (Russell Hodges). The return of founding chef Matthew Antonovich to Sipango is the maraschino cherry atop this chef-driven cream puff.

But the closure of The Riviera is a potent metaphor for the current changes. The Old Warsaw and Ernie's aside, the passing of The Riviera was the dying gasp of traditional Continental cuisine. If the prolific breeding of sushi restaurants is any indicator, the continents have shifted. "Continental used to be European," says Mabel. It now means Asian. "It may be hard to find a good Chinese restaurant, but it's real easy to find more exotic, more interesting, more authentic restaurants of all other Asian nations," he says.

And while the burst of tapas restaurants (Nandina, Rouge, Urban Tapas, Americas, Spike and Republic) may suggest something of significance, it's probably more novelty than trend. History shows these "little plates" adventures get mercilessly crushed (Geode, Bibendum) when they evolve beyond their Spanish roots. "Small plates just won't have widespread traction," says Mabel. "It's not an easy way to eat for a lot of people."


Smoking ban aside, Dallas restaurant fortunes will soon flourish. Wine lists are energized again, with pricier bottles selling well, though a good chunk of the telecom/dot.com-driven high-dollar wine business is probably gone for good. Price points showing the most spark are in the $100 range. Meyers says he's "selling the hell" out of Silver Oak cabernet at $99 a bottle at Jeroboam. "I'm putting to shame all of my counterparts," he boasts.

According to the Texas Restaurant Association, the industry began its turnaround in August, when restaurants started adding jobs, and Texas restaurants are expected to post sales of $27.1 billion in 2004, representing a 5.2 percent uptick over 2003.

"The recovery is real for us," says Street, whose III Forks and Cool River Café are among the top-grossing restaurants in Texas, each with annual sales in the $10 million range. Though Street and his Consolidated Restaurant Operations scuttled a deal to pick up 119 Chevy's Fresh Mex and 10 Fuzio Universal Pasta from Emeryville, California-based Chevy's Inc. (Street says ousted California Governor Gray Davis' 11th-hour blizzard of business-unfriendly legislation choked the deal), steak sales are picking up, mostly because of the Atkins and South Beach diet crazes, which feature low-carb, high-protein regimens. (Though as this went to press, Fleming's Steak House closed its doors.) Diners are dumping the corn and potatoes from their plates. "We have a lot of people that say no bread, please, but boy, they're eatin' the steaks," he says. This despite an average $2 spike in steak menu prices because of a beef shortage.

Say what you will about Dallas: In the end, it all boils down to steak.

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