Best Of :: People & Places
You couldn't turn on a Top-40 radio station this year without hearing Justin Timberlake's bold declaration: "I'm bringing sexy back." At first, his claim seemed silly. Sexy told us it loved us, and it made us breakfast. But then sexy never called. Actresses lost so much weight that ribs became the new breasts. We were forced to visualize Senator Larry Craig legislating all over some dude in an airport bathroom. And in a final, crushing blow, Jenna Jameson gave up pornography, for fuck's sake (or, rather, for not fucking's sake.)
But watching sweet J.T. slink across a stage or a television screen does remind us that once, there was sexy. The same thing happens when you walk into the Velvet Hookah. Oversized plush cushions cover the floor, surrounded by gauzy jewel-toned curtains. Dim lighting casts shadows on the elaborate, phallic glass hookahs on every table. (There are no talking caterpillars sitting atop mushrooms, but if you have enough 'shrooms before you go, there might be.) The music, a blend of house, lounge and world beats, snakes suggestively through the Velvet Hookah's three smoking rooms, coaxing conversation, not silencing it.
"Sexy never left," says Jei Baker, the Velvet Hookah's founder and self-described "brand architect." "It was just over here." Even at its busiest, the bar is serene. Hookah requires nothing more than sitting and smoking. Low seating encourages guests to lean close together. Soft-focus lighting works better than the best beer goggles.
Memo to Dallas' exclusive, swanky nightspots perched atop certain luxury hotels with one-letter names: Sexy isn't about shoving remixed Top-40 hits into people's ears, charging $11 for drinks and encouraging patrons to dry hump on the dance floor before they even get a chance to swap names. That's just Carson's Live with a bigger tab at the end of the night. Real luxury is about a unique experience. And there's no place in town like Deep Ellum's Velvet Hookah.
"We have the best shisha in the world," Baker says, using the aficionado's term for specially flavored hookah tobacco, which he imports from Jordan before curing and flavoring every batch himself. Baker started making the Velvet Hookah's special proprietary blends when the bar opened on September 4, 2002. In five years, Baker has created 169 flavors of shisha.
Some restaurants may have hookah, says Baker, but nobody does it like Velvet. That's because, he says, he started the business without "the pre-sets that become limitations." Baker's a guy from southern Dallas. He used to travel a lot when he worked for Club Med before opening the bar, but he knew little about Arab culture, in which the hookah was popularized. And so mixing liquor with hookah, something Arabs would never do, didn't seem illogical to Baker. The Velvet Hookah was born after Baker's original business partner tried to join the dot-com boom by selling hookahs online. The site didn't take off, and "we had a garage full of hookahs."
With hookah, there's the sense that what you're smoking is actually a gas, not a cloud of filtered additives. Shisha is three things: tobacco, molasses or honey, which is used for curing; and fruit flavors or essences. The tobacco isn't burned, it's baked. Velvet uses traditional Egyptian hookahs, with one or two hoses. That engenders conversation, which was the original purpose of hookah.
"If you have the hookah," Baker says late one Monday night when the bar is closed, "you have the floor." He takes a hit of an orange-flavored blend in a miniature hookah he carries with him. "Mo-bowl technology," he calls it.
The Velvet Hookah, in the heart of Deep Ellum at the corner of Main and Crowdus streets, is an anchor in an area besieged by controversy and economic hardship.
It's hard, he says, staying afloat while the city's tearing up the northern access points to Deep Ellum to put in a DART station. And the homeless people are a problem too. But, he says, "violent crime doesn't happen down here," thanks to an increased police presence. Baker focuses on the future Deep Ellum. If that means losing the grit and grime that some believe are the soul of the neighborhood, too bad. "Gentrification is what it is," he says. And the Velvet Hookah is about constant reinvention.
When tall, modern tables and stark décor didn't work, they went Mediterranean. Belly dancing was OK for a while, but not anymore. Instead, Baker says, he's bringing in a Cirque du Soleil-trained trapeze act. And starting this month, Baker began selling trademarked Velvet Hookah shisha blends online. A fine idea, but the communal Velvet Hookah experience is a difficult one to replicate.
"All week long we section ourselves off" in cubicles and cars, Baker says. That's why there's only bar service these days at Velvet, no table service. It creates flow, which creates conversation, which creates community. And forcing people to ask for shisha blends called "Floral Fixation" and "Le Petite Mort," well, that creates sexy time. — Andrea Grimes
Go figure. The only place we could find those nifty vintage rock-and-roll tees for our kid was at Haute Apple Pie on the square in downtown McKinney, which has gone through quite the transformation since the days when the coolest thing up there was a record store that sold us Get the Knack in 1981. Until recently the world's largest antique shop, downtown McKinney is what the West Village wants to be and what Deep Ellum ought to be—a smorgasbord of hip retailers (Bath Junkie, Alternative Furnishings, Mom and POPcorn Company) and cool clothing stores and some of the finest dining in North Texas. Within a couple of blocks are four of our favorite places to hang in the 972: Rick's Chophouse and Wine Bar, which boasts a plush library bar bigger and badder than any we've ever seen; Café Malaga, a superior tapas joint; La Misha, a coffee house Dallas would die for; and Spoons Café, a low-key eatery that feels like home...if you're from Austin. Add to that an amazing rare-book store (The Book Gallery, to which people come from all around for great prices on amazing finds), a new boutique inn that used to be a historic hotel (the Grand Hotel, actually, with a dazzling formal ballroom all ready for your special occasions) and two wineries (Landon Winery and Lone Star Wine Cellars) at which we've been known to tipple till we wobble, and you've got the making of a special weekend every weekend.
Why is it that no matter what happens to the Cowboys, everyone is still hung up on the team's ex-coach, the legendary Bill Parcells? Neither Cowboys fans nor players ever warmed up to the aging, dyed-blond grump, who did a perfectly average job in his four-year stint here. He improved the team some, though he never broke their epic playoff-win drought. Despite a rather forgettable record, Parcells haunts Valley Ranch like a ghost at a shuttered mental hospital. He's brought up, of course, by the media, who loved the perceived rivalry between Parcells and Jerry Jones, and the players, who either looked upon him as a father or as tyrant. But even Jones himself and Wade Phillips still talk about Parcells. We're not quite sure why the Cowboys can't quit Parcells, but not since Heath and Jake has a bunch of Cowboys shown this kind of passion.
This is Dallas, and we're a material bunch. Frankly, with the right attitude, there's no shame in that. Take for instance the need for a little air-conditioned walking space. NorthPark Center is the finest of the mall walks. Covered parking is nearly always available, and thanks to recent mall additions, walkers get a perfect lap. Natural light beams in through periodic skylights, beautiful wearables and trinkets abound for extensive eyeballing (no wallet required for that), people-watching is prime and with the addition of a brilliantly varied food court, strollers can replenish with Snappy Salads, Hibachi-San, The Original Soup Man and others. Take in a movie and head back out for another 2.72-mile circuit (maps of various routes available at northparkcenter.com).
We want it all from our bar. We like a bar with a nice blend of drunks and fashionable folk so we can have something to laugh at and ogle while we take in our Boddingtons (which they have on tap, thanks) or Stella or vodka whatevers. We love a comfortable bar stool. We love the option of ordering really, really good food (Guinness steak sandwich with fries, please) to soak up our drink. We appreciate the presence of DJ Mr. Rid's Scaraoke every Thursday night for a good bit of self-humiliation if the mood strikes us. We like a mix of regular faces and a steady stream of first-timers. And we adore the opportunity to return hung-over the next morning for an outta-sight weekend brunch (gingerbread pancakes or eggs Florentine with a damn fine Bloody Mary) to a place that looks like it survived the night before much better than we did.
We are so gonna regret this. Look, just keep this little secret between us, OK? There's this great little bar on Maple Avenue that's not called The Grapevine, which we love, but apparently so does everyone else. Sometimes you just need a drink, a friendly face and a quiet, cozy place to sit and ponder your beer bubbles. That's why we love The Windmill. Owned and operated by a friendly New Yorker who introduces himself simply as Charlie, this joint is sort of little place that drives home the difference between a bar and a nightclub. Beneath the neon windmill on the roof is a secret treasure chamber, dark enough to let you sit in peace and contemplate your day, yet lighted enough to allow you to look your drinking companion in the eye. It's also one of the few places we've been to where you can actually walk up to the bar without looking like Marion Barber cutting up the middle. The Windmill even has a "cell phone booth," a former pay phone booth (look it up, kids) to give you privacy while making a call. Don't be ringing up a bunch of frat boys to come out for the night, though. We want to keep this "best" place the best.