Bones to Pick

Is the 2006 invasion of culinary foreigners killing off our local character?

Should local chefs wave the white tablecloth or dispense with it altogether? Mabel notes that the most formidable competitive element in the replication and transference of national nameplates is that these famous chefs have figured out how to do what nobody could do 10 years ago: keep standards up from location to location, all without the presence of the celebrity chef.

But therein lies the local opportunity. Sure, the days of the large, big-buck local chef-driven restaurant may be on the wane. Behold the emergence of the casual, intimate room of roughly 65 seats with the chef always present to spoon healthy helpings of undivided personal attention. It's the only way that the locals will compete with the star chef who parachutes into town with endless supply lines of legal tender, opens a large restaurant and then goes AWOL.

Yet foreign star power may not be as formidable as it seems. Il Mulino New York was felled this year by pride suffused with arrogance. Rumors circulated over the summer that Nobuyuki Matsuhisa and company were itching to scrub Nobu's lease with the Crescent because monetary projections weren't being hit. Anecdotal evidence (including ours) suggested diners were fed up with staff arrogance. Lunch was scrubbed last summer.

Dallasites love their steak, but they didn't love Smith & Wollensky enough: The steakhouse closed after three-plus years on the Tollway.
Dallasites love their steak, but they didn't love Smith & Wollensky enough: The steakhouse closed after three-plus years on the Tollway.
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"This is what we do in Dallas: We eat out, and we shop," says Tracy Evers, executive director of the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association (GDRA). "We don't respond well to customer service that maybe works in other cities." Bice in the Crescent has generated a volley of negative anecdotes as well. Craft? So far the service is as flawless as the culinary simplicity, though you do have to hack your way through thick W Hotel bitchiness to reach your table.

Another indicator of foreign star power vulnerability is the recent demise of Smith & Wollensky after more than three years on the Dallas North Tollway. "I don't think that whoever they had working there identified with Mr. Dallas...the Dallas people," says Gene Street, chairman of Consolidated Restaurant Operations, which runs III Forks just down the strip. "Maybe this is not a real good location here on the Tollway. People avoid it. Destination-wise, it's difficult." Despite Tollway challenges, Street boasts III Forks will top $13 million in sales this year, making it one of the most lucrative restaurants in the state. "We work it," he says. "We hustle the business."

Increasingly, that hustle is moving north, which is bleeding the Tollway steakhouse strip. Consolidated is installing a Silver Fox Steak House at the northern tip of the Tollway. Christopher Barish, a nightclub mogul who made his fortune in New York and Las Vegas, has just opened Martini Park, a lounge/club with sophisticated finger foods and live music, in the Shops at Legacy. And former Sfuzzi and Rosewood Hotels & Resorts executive Kenyon Price just christened Isabella's, his new Italian restaurant in Frisco's Stonebriar Commons, with expansion plans targeting Uptown, Southlake, Austin and Newport Beach, California.

Street says the looming struggle up north is labor: finding it, training it, keeping it. "The [potential] staff is still too young," Yarbrough says.

Bulls 'n' Bears

Like the embalmers, restaurant midwives have been busy too. Kenichi, the Aspen-based highbrow sushi restaurant, is poised for a Victory entrance. Former Del Frisco's chef Frank Rumore opened Four Winds Steakhouse in Wills Point. Social opened in the Kimpton-managed Hotel Lumen while the quasi-French Bijoux took shape on West Lovers Lane. Chic From Barcelona, a highbrow rotisserie chicken joint, opened near Mercury Grill while Veuve with its adjunct lounge Nine 7 Two opened in Addison. Go Fish owner Mike Hoque will open Dallas Fish Market in the Jeroboam corpse and Lynae Fearing (wife of Dean) and Tracy Rathbun (wife of Kent) launched the ambitious Shinsei. And downtown was hit by the $6 million, 400-seat Luqa restaurant and Petrus Lounge.

Numbers suggest the business is booming and will continue to surge in the foreseeable future, further straining labor woes. The National Restaurant Association is forecasting a 5 percent jump in national restaurant industry sales to $537 billion nationwide. Texas is equally bullish. The Texas Restaurant Association is predicting a 6.9 percent surge in 2007 sales to $32 billion. "The last three quarters have really been booming here in North Texas," says Blaise Hadley, president of the GDRA and regional vice president of Outback Steakhouse. "Comparative sales over last year have been really strong here, especially over the last two quarters."

Yarbrough doesn't buy such optimism. He says the market gives him the willies right now, what with the closings and shifts and influx of national nameplates. It's difficult to tease out what's really going on under the surface, he says.

The steak market may be a leading indicator. In addition to the demise of Smith & Wollensky, Wichita-based Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon has been beset with turmoil over the past year resulting in a $586.1 million buyout by the Dallas-based private equity firm Lone Star Funds. The publicly traded Lone Star Steakhouse, which operates Lone Star Sullivan's, Del Frisco's and Texas Land & Cattle steakhouses plus one Frankie's Italian Grille, cited a slate of negative market trends—including demographic shifts, higher gas prices and interest rates, market saturation and increases in taxes and labor costs—in its decision to put the company on the block.

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