The Grape is Stuck in the Past, Right Where it Belongs

Compared to modern bistros, The Grape's menu and dining room seem dated. That's why it works so well.

Lower Greenville Avenue has seen a lot of change lately, and it's going to see a lot more. An Asian behemoth, Rohst, and a revamped Terilli's have risen from the ashes of a four-alarm fire. Bucket loaders, backhoes and jackhammers are making a mess of the street and sidewalks, and soon cement trucks and steamrollers will arrive to repave them. A new permitting process has challenged establishments that want to stay open late, as the neighborhood applies pressure to undesirable bars.

But for all the change that's molding what will become the new Lower Greenville, a few things have remained constant. And while San Francisco Rose, Daddy Jack's and Blue Goose are fixtures, slinging cheap beer and affordable fare for years, The Grape is the neighborhood's culinary anchor.

Brian Luscher took over in 2007, buying the restaurant from Kathy McDaniel and Charlotte Parker, who'd owned The Grape for 35 years. Luscher closed the restaurant for a couple days, updating furniture, tables and flatware, and adding a fresh coat of paint. He tweaked the menu a little, too, but not by much.

Look to the chalkboard for Mr. Lemley’s Tomatoes.
SARA KERENS
Look to the chalkboard for Mr. Lemley’s Tomatoes.

"It became my menu," he told me. The biggest change was in the way he rotated the menu's offerings. The old guard cycled dishes every two weeks, but Luscher slowed down that pace. He saw it as change for the sake of change, and opted instead for a monthly menu. He also canceled lunch hours (business wasn't steady enough) and added Sunday brunch to pick up the slack.

Customers worried he'd muck up a good thing. McDaniel and Parker worried too, but not as much. They didn't just sell their beloved to anyone. They chose Luscher specifically. Before his stint at the Tournament Players Club at Craig Ranch, he'd worked at The Grape for four years. McDaniel and Parker were ready to retire but wanted someone who would keep the place true to their vision and its past.

The back hallway of the restaurant is a testament to that history. Articles from neighborhood rags, alt weeklies, big dailies and glossies line the walls like wallpaper. The pages are filled with gushing prose, describing a restaurant steeped in its own past.

If the hallway is like rummaging through a time capsule, walking into the dining room is like climbing into a time machine. Picture George Herbert Walker Bush taking oath and Back to Future II rocking the box office as you settle in. Those romantic little tables still fill the tight space, and an entire wall-turned-chalkboard still tests the handwriting of the wait staff, just as it has for years. (See correction below). The look and feel may have changed a touch with new owners, but the place still has maintained that old-school atmosphere.

The food beckons another period as well. When was the last time you encountered a whole mint leaf garnish or an off-menu special of baked brie? A scoop of housemade ice cream feels like a culinary anachronism. Steak frites that boast a pair of demi-filets feel retro, too, as does a charcuterie board with grapes and apple slices and massive hunks of cheese.

That charcuterie board is a Grape classic. During a recent visit, two young blonde twins, drinking chardonnay and albariño, sat next to me at the aging bar of worn blue and white tile. They ordered the appetizer (their tradition, apparently) and finished each other's sentences while picking at rabbit mortadella and housemade boursin cheese, scented with garlic and herbs. Your mother probably served a store-bought version of the same spread at cocktail parties decades ago, but it wasn't this smooth, and it wasn't this good.

The rabbit on the board was mild, despite pistachios and large black peppercorns and a thin skin of pork fat. Pork rillettes, blended to a smooth purée, was uninspired. But those are deficiencies I may not have noticed had my bartender not offered a supplemental off-menu treat, a small plate of two thin slices of a venison and veal terrine. The forcemeat was studded with diced foie gras that played brilliantly off an old-school Cumberland sauce, loaded with big, boozy cherries.

The dish was so good it upstaged the entire charcuterie board. If I had my choice, I'd settle for three thick slices of that last flavorful terrine, the other meats be damned. The cheese on the plate could use an upgrade, too. I would prefer smaller portions of beautiful, higher-quality fromage than the accompanying hunk of aged Gouda so large it recalled a cantaloupe slice.

Many chefs get a kick out of talking with inquisitive customers, and Luscher is especially amenable to that dialogue. Offer such curiosity and you may be rewarded, because behind that printed menu lurks a trove of secret dishes, condiments and preparations.

Ask specifically for the calamari. You may hear a faint groan from the guys working the line — the dish remains a favorite after being removed from the menu — but the results will ruin those clichéd rubber-band rings forever. Thick slivers, lightly breaded and flash fried, maintain a tender texture that's rare for squid in bistros. The crispy strips sit in a shallow pool of sweet chili sauce, garnished with scallions like refined Chinese take-out. You may find yourself looking around for chopsticks before you swallow your first bite.

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10 comments
Long Time Dallas Guy
Long Time Dallas Guy

Now that you have teased us with the Asian Behemoth, Rohst, can you give us a review of it?Should we go?Long Time Dallas Guy

CNI
CNI

Stuck in the past? That's why I LOVE the Grape ! It's GREAT !

Mel
Mel

I'm glad you landed in Dallas!

Joe Tone
Joe Tone

@Matewan: That headline is a higher editor's. I wrote it, and I still like it, but if you don't, that's on me, not Scott.

@primi: As he wrote yesterday, he likes' em medium. He swears it's juiciest that way.

Matewan
Matewan

as with most of Scott's posts and article something is just amiss. the headline (maybe from a higher editor) is just awful. stuck in the past, what past? i think it's an inappropriate metaphor.

I would think Old Warsaw is stuck in the past...and that's right where it belongs. I can't imagine OS serving coal-oven pizza, achiote chile steak or sushi.

idk, i just get the feeling things arent working out...

primi timpano
primi timpano

I thought you wanted your hamburgers to be cooked medium rare?

Scott Reitz
Scott Reitz

I want medium. A pink, but cooked center. Yesterday I wrote about Dallas restaurant consistently over cooking their burgers, and wondered if medium rare was the new way to go.

Colleen
Colleen

the red and white checkered tablecloths have not been on the tables in over 2 years. They were replaced with beige tablecloths....can we get some accuracy please? How can such abasic thing be overlooked. The observer needs to replace Scott.

Scott Reitz
Scott Reitz

You're correct Colleen. I went back and looked at my original material and the tablecloths are indeed beige, or perhaps a deep linen or flax if you'd prefer. Before writing this review I read every historic review and blurb I could find on The Grape, many of which referred to their checkered past. My favorite was a small snippet from the Times that focused on the romance of the place, something I think is still alive and well in Luscher's fine restaurant. One of those references obviously made it into my review somewhere along the way.

A mistake? Yes. But one worthy of my dismissal? I think not.

Joe Tone
Joe Tone

Fuck that, you're fired. So is whoever wrote that shit headline. BURN THIS PLACE TO THE GROUND.

 
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