Hattie's Helped Build Bishop Arts, and 10 Years Later People Are Still Coming

Dallas' most vibrant dining scene may owe it all to one restaurant.

It's 7 on a Friday night, and there's something odd, eerie even, about the Bishop Arts District. There are these things called "pedestrians" here (pronounced "ped-ESS-tree-ans"), moving past crowded patio tables on long, limb-looking contraptions that are strangely devoid of mufflers. Elsewhere people are idling — standing, it's apparently called — on small strips of cement and brick, like tiny streets with no cars or stoplights.

Inside the stores that dot Bishop Street, things are even weirder. There's a chocolate shop called Dude, Sweet that will sell you dehydrated blue cheese and sea salt fudge, and a Soda Shop will sell you a bottle of soda that tastes like turkey and gravy. There's also art you can browse for hours before totally failing to buy. I'm not certain what this is, but it's surely not Dallas. Perhaps I fell through a wormhole and into some other dimension. Does Portland have its own dimension? I must look this up.

This place hasn't always existed. Not like this. In the fall of 2002, as Tony Alvarez put the finishing touches on a Southern-fried sit-down spot called Hattie's, the homey Tex-Mex of El Jordan Café was the only notable food served nearby. Nobody came to Oak Cliff to eat back then. Tillman's Roadhouse had opened around the corner a few years before, but it didn't have the draw to lure customers from across the river.

Standbys like the mac-and-cheese-crusted filet keep Hattie's dining room packed -- and keep suburbanites coming back to Oak Cliff.
Sara Kerens
Standbys like the mac-and-cheese-crusted filet keep Hattie's dining room packed -- and keep suburbanites coming back to Oak Cliff.
Sara Kerens

David Spence witnessed the transition. The real estate mogul behind some of Oak Cliff's more interesting apartment buildings and dining spaces (including Bolsa and Lucia) bought his first property in 1995 and went on to help usher zoning and design changes that had a significant impact on the Bishop Arts District. Hattie's, he says, was the wormhole's first fissure.

"It was Hattie's that pulled on patrons from Highland Park and University Park," he says. The restaurant's clean lines, white tablecloths and simple Southern cuisine called to North Dallas diners who were sick of Mercury and Suze. "Hattie's is the place where North Dallas first felt comfortable, and still feels comfortable, dining in Oak Cliff," Spence says.

They're as comfortable as ever. Over the past 10 years, Hattie's has run a somewhat boring but always bustling bistro, and the patrons sitting at their tables haven't changed much at all. Diners skew older. At first, it's a sea of empty nesters and couples nearing retirement, and then it gradually skews younger (but not too young) as the night wears on. They're mostly loyalists, and all of them look as if they'd be happy to come back to Hattie's for 10 more years, bouncing out the door each night with mac and cheese leftovers in tow.

It's not a dynamic or inventive menu that calls to them. Hattie's serves up Low Country Cliché, with a menu drawn from Magnolia Café and Blossom in Charleston, South Carolina, according to Lisa Arango, who opened Hattie's with Alvarez and Hal Dantzler. Back then she went by Lisa Kelly, then a marriage took her to New Orleans before a brief return to Dallas. She's currently in New York State, where she works as a private chef.

Arango was working at Parigi when Alvarez and Dantzler offered her the job, and the young, self-taught chef (one of the few women chefs in Dallas at the time) took to Southern cuisine like butter to biscuits. Arango plated up the same pecan-crusted catfish, grits and pulled pork, and prosciutto-wrapped figs stuffed with walnuts and blue cheese that you can get at Hattie's today. Sure, the menu's changed some, but that evolution has remained true to the initial vision the owners had when they opened the door: refined but approachable Southern comfort food.

There are shrimp and grits and fried green tomatoes with an herbal buttermilk dressing. There are fried oysters, too, wrapped in bacon and dotted with horseradish cream on a bed of brash cabbage slaw.

On one of my visits, tomato soup with grilled cheese arrived with a cheese sandwich that wasn't very grilled, but the soup had a smooth, velvety texture and deep flavor derived from plenty of sautéed peppers and onions.

Roast chicken came crispy and seasoned perfectly, but it was a little late in the spring for the bed of muddy root vegetables that supported the poultry. The seasonal vegetables served with the catfish plate were more like it — bright and green and almost summery broccoli and squash — even if the plate looked like something you've been served at a wedding.

Lamb chops were more interesting. The kitchen cuts them two bones to a chop so the grill could impart a nice char on the outside while the center remained a deep crimson. They came with bright green collards and spoon bread as moist as loose grits. (You really do need to eat it with a spoon.)

Steaks, chops and a popular side of mac and cheese round out a menu that feels a little dated — but that's exactly why it works. North Dallasites didn't come to Oak Cliff for emulsified foams and trendy offal; they came for the comforting plates they've grown accustomed to, served by a professional waitstaff. Locals from the neighborhood come for the same familiarity. They've all grown comfortable in Hattie's consistency.

When I talked to Spence, I described the scene I encountered during my first visit to Hattie's: people on their feet for longer than the trip from the valet to the door, young kids and families walking — walking! — the streets. "That is the marker of this still being a local neighborhood hangout," Spence told me. That's a central element to the appeal of the Bishop Arts District. Through all this expansion and improvement, the neighborhood never abandoned its roots.

Hattie's hasn't abandoned its heritage either. Despite its consistent success, the restaurant remains a singular entity. "We thought about putting a second location in Highland Park," Dantzler said when asked about expansion, "but didn't want to cannibalize from what we have here." Which makes sense. Why drive to them when, for almost a decade now, they've proved they're more willing to drive to you?

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8 comments
guest
guest

Hatties did not help build Bishop Arts. There were many people there that started out and helped the area to build. Hatties has a very snooty reputation. They would not donate to fundraisers and chose to be the outsider of the BAD. I have never, will never and don't spend money at this excuse of a "neighborhood" restaurant.

P>S> I live in the hood and have for 20 years.

Heykaren2
Heykaren2

I recently moved to Austin from Dallas for a better job. I still drive back to Dallas monthly to eat at Hattie's. Don't let Austin fool you. They have NOTHING that compares to Hattie's.

Rob
Rob

@MonicaD - great idea, except Jim Lake, Sr passed away. You could certainly talk with Jim Lake, Jr, and he'd tell you much of the same that Spence said. Spence and Lake work together closely to cultivate the amazing atmosphere that you find in Bishop Arts. And both would probably admit that the great shop and restaurant owners (both present and past) are really the ones that deserve the credit. It is their blood, sweat, tears and cash that attract the crowds.

Hellonheels1189
Hellonheels1189

Hattie's is absolutely amazing. The food and.service is consistantly superb. Being able to survive a decade in a city like Dallas says a lot. I agree, who wants to be a John Tesar and start over every 6 months. Keep up the great work Hattie's!!!!

Antoinetty
Antoinetty

FACT CHECK: It was Tillman's Corner back then and Genie's Bishop Grill served up some of the best home cooking in the city, long before Hattie's arrived on the scene.

John Neely Bryan
John Neely Bryan

I think you have "comfortable" & "stale" confused. Hattie's has a great mix of food, location, service, & price; would you rather they go all John Tesar and start over every 6 months or so?

MonicaD
MonicaD

A good source to speak with would have been Jim Lake, who, before David Spence, bought buildings in the Bishop Arts District in 1984, helped rezone it, and brought in Tillman's, Hattie's, Oddfellows, The Soda Gallery, etc. They still own and manage all of those buildings today and help preserve it as a pedestrian neighborhood.

Beda
Beda like.author.displayName 1 Like

I was eating at Gennie's Bishop Grill in 1971 until it closed just a few years ago (I believe they opened in 1970). Gennie's was the pioneer of what is now Bishop's Arts District. Your source is wrong when he states that El Jordan was the only place to eat, and that nobody went to Oak Cliff. The lines every day at Gennie's would prove that statement wrong. Although it was only open for lunch, the place was packed five days of week.

 
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