By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Anyone who's followed Food Network's Opening Soon, a program documenting the furious ups and downs of bringing a restaurant to life, expects to see chaos. Fixtures break, code inspection reveals hidden flaws, contractors fail to show—and if they do, it's with the wrong materials.
Park opened on Henderson Avenue this July and a month later, the kitchen was still working out menu kinks. In the run-up to its opening, Hibiscus, a five-year veteran on the same street, had a sewage pipe burst, the muddy sludge draining into Hector's, the establishment next door. From the start of construction, frustrating delays and pesky problems are a constant.
That's what it was like a year ago when a couple of unknowns—guys with long bartending résumés who latched onto the local food movement sweeping Dallas—unlocked the doors to Bolsa. Their Friday opening was flat-out frantic: Chris Jeffers had been drinking heavily for weeks; Chris Zielke was stressed out, dropping 25 pounds from his not-too-sturdy frame. Five minutes before patrons arrived, they realized they had no table centerpieces; Jeffers' wife found a set of light boxes in the attic, which would have to do. There were plenty of customers—maybe too many—crowding into the tiny Oak Cliff café, and one irate caller on the phone—the cable guy demanding they make good on the $800 check they had written him for TV installation. It had bounced at the bank, and he was thoroughly pissed off. The rookie restaurateurs had counted on weekend receipts to cover the amount, which they planned to deposit first thing on Monday.
"We didn't think he'd try to cash [the check] on a Friday afternoon," Zielke says.
Although Bolsa almost crashed within its first few months, largely due to such cash flow problems, the restaurant has become one of the city's top venues. Its one-page menu not only changes seasonally, but half the listings also change daily. Chef Graham Dodds takes what farmers bring in and develops entrees and other items based on the freshest ingredients. There's also a small shop, a beer garden-style patio and people—lots of people. "It's more fate than intelligence," Jeffers says of Bolsa's popularity. "It was the right time," Zielke agrees. "People are getting away from the 'big show' restaurants, moving to neighborhoods and what's real—whatever that means."
This kind of runaway success has put even more pressure on the two former nightclub drink-slingers, who have tempted fate once again by opening a second and much different establishment. Only this time, public expectations are off the chart. Smoke is one of the most talked-about venues of 2009, approaching the orchestrated promotional blitz of Wolfgang Puck's Five-Sixty, though with only a portion of that celebrity's budget. Media types jabbered incessantly when Jeffers and Zielke hired chef Tim Byres away from the legendary Stephan Pyles, and again when word of the restaurant's name and concept—a gourmet barbecue restaurant—leaked out. Suddenly, they have reputations to defend.
And this time around, something else is different. When I stopped by two weeks before their September 11 grand opening, worn wooden planks lay across the concrete entrance, and the main dining room was cluttered with unpacked boxes, stacks of plates and other debris. Yet Jeffers and Zielke seemed remarkably serene. Rather than fiercely debate every minor detail, like many restaurateurs would during such frenetic times—the partners are engaged in a civil discourse over wine glasses: Jeffers wants tables set with four glasses so guests can catch a glint from the polished stemware; Zielke says that's too much formality—and inconsistent with the image of comfort and ease they want Smoke to project.
"I'm fine with that," Jeffers says with a shrug. End of discussion.
These guys look strangely like suburban dads in a quiet backyard conversation, albeit suburban dads with an abnormal interest in stemware. And their nonchalance seems to be rubbing off on others in the dining room. Byres, who is a partner as well as chef, and once cooked for the U.S. embassy in Brussels, slumps quietly over a table, informally dressed in mangy brown shorts and a T-shirt. Opposite him sits dapper interior designer Mike Thompson, propped forward but also calm. There is a constant clanging from the kitchen as the line cooks perfect their salmon presentation. And behind me, contractors haul equipment in and out the front door. Whatever heavy reconstruction was necessary, however, ended days ago.
Maybe that's why Jeffers and Zielke seem so relaxed as they ponder the wineglass question. Even the previous week, when I stopped by to speak with Jeffers amidst the final hammering and annoying razz of power tools, there were no bags under his eyes, no damp patches of sweat. He looked as if he'd spent the day thumbing through vacation brochures. A few days later I caught up with Zielke as he sat at Bolsa, casually drinking coffee and perusing the Sunday New York Times, the very picture of composure.
This seemed destined to be the most boring restaurant opening ever. Had the bad boys of Bolsa outgrown their wild ways? Had fame and good fortune granted them a level of normalcy they had never before known? I'd known these guys for nearly a decade. Or at least I thought I did.