A Tough Year for Local Restaurants Sputters to an End
This has been, by any standard, an interesting year.
Americans made history by living up to—finally—the "regardless of race, creed or color" principle we ostensibly cherish. That President-elect Barack Obama came from the usually disheveled ranks of that often-pointless party known as "Democrats" makes our national break with the past all the more impressive.
By electing a non-native-born Muslim who...what? None of that is true? That's right, in another historic departure, the extremist conservative voices once dominant in the liberal media fizzled. And for the first time in quite a while, American voters chose a member of the educated "elite" capable of understanding the tricky nuances of global politics over some smirking Joe Sixpack—despite the best efforts of Joe the Plumber and some blank shopaholic grandmother-to-be.
Seems we may have learned a lesson after eight years of clownish swagger.
Finally, the country is in the midst of repeating history, as we tumble into a cycle of economic despair brought on by a long series of government decisions, corporate misdeeds and oversight failures, as well as the normal ups and downs of capitalism.
So, what does all this have to do with dining out? Well, politics always affects the way we eat and drink. Consider, for example, the damage wrought by Prohibition. It took decades for the California wine industry to recover, even longer for smaller vineyards dotting the country and quite some time for Americans to regain a taste for fine alcohol. Concern over dolphins trapped by tuna boats in the 1990s caused many people to seek out "ethical" tuna brands.
Even in the past eight years we've seen how political disasters can change our habits. The attacks of 9-11, if you'll remember, led to a mini comfort-food revival. W's ill-advised invasion of Iraq set off a ridiculous series of Franco-phobic acts when that country refused to back the war, ending with "freedom fries" on some menus. Most recently, the economic downturn set off a reported wave of restaurant closings—more than 60 in the Dallas area—and a drop in "real growth" in the industry, as measured by the National Restaurant Association.
"It was a real interesting year—good to be on the sidelines," says Nick Badovinus, who split with Tristan Simon's Consilient Restaurants early on, getting back into business just a month ago with his own Neighborhood Services. To hear some people tell it, 2008 was like Pickett's Charge, with local restaurants acting the part of Confederates charging across fields swept by shell fragments and musket balls. Falling bodies included Nove, 62 Main, Il Sole, Bice, Metro Grill, Ounce, Riccardi's, Scene, Martini Park and Sushi on McKinney. In response to the nation's financial woes, Amuse downscaled into Sala while Fuse dropped its prices and upscale Aurora introduced some lower-cost menu items. "This winter has been tough," agrees Andrew Wilt, general manager of Steel. One could feel it coming this summer, he continues, although the annual Restaurant Week feeding frenzy provided a little bump.
But, he adds, "it has always been a tough, competitive business."
Even good years rack up a long list of closings. Not all of the recent deaths were caused by the growing recession. And many shuttered establishments are set to reopen: Tre Amici filling what was once Rick Stein's, for instance, and Hully and Mo's in the old Riccardi's space.
"A lot closed," says Joel Harloff, chef at Dali Wine Bar in bustling One Arts Plaza. "But it's a restaurant recycling process—that's what it looks like to me."
Indeed, some rather notable places hit the market in the past year (give or take a few months): Tei An, one of the most exciting additions to the local dining scene; Villa-O, reviving the former Samba Room location; Charlie Palmer, classing up downtown; the refreshingly local and reasonably priced Bolsa in Oak Cliff. Consilient picked up famed chef David McMillan in the wake of 62 Main's collapse and reinvented lounge bar Sense as the fine cocktails and shared plates concept Victor Tango's. Another local restaurateur, Alberto Lombardi, replaced mediocre Ferre with his mediocre Pescabar. A coffee shop—Pearl Cup—is about to open across from the new Blue Collar Bar as Andres Properties' Henderson-Lowest Greenville strip continues to develop. "It was a year to prove ourselves," explains Randy Morgan, chef of the acclaimed Dallas Fish Market, which opened in 2007. "I think we did really well, considering the economy. It was a strong year."
If anything, the local market responded to economic turmoil by digging in, returning to the small, neighborhood concept. "People want real—not necessarily authentic, but things that feel durable," Badovinus points out (probably why he named his new venture Neighborhood Services, by the way). He cites Bolsa as a positive example of this "small footprint" phenomenon. Not only does chef Graham Dodds know his stuff, the owners "did a good job positioning a business that blends into the fabric of the neighborhood."
Bolsa occupies a 1940s garage in such a sympathetic manner it seems like a natural progression, mechanics to cooks. Chef Dodds purchases as much as possible from nearby farms and changes his menu daily, based upon what suppliers bring in. But the little restaurant is not fancy. Folks can kick back with a cheap draft beer or grab a quick salad and glass of wine, if they wish.
As Badovinus puts it, "places that very quickly identified themselves as part of their neighborhood—that's what was successful this year."
Of course, the big names continued to prosper...in more ways than one. The Mansion on Turtle Creek garnered national praise under the direction of new chef John Tesar. Also on the national scene, Kent Rathbun of Abacus and Jasper's fame swept Iron Chef America, and the year saw Dallas names Lisa Garza and Casey Thompson earn television notoriety, as well. And the year ended with Wolfgang Puck announcing the name (Five-Sixty) and chef (Sara Johannes) of his soon-to-open spot atop Reunion Tower.
I spent much of the year watching all this from a distance, returning after close to three years in Prague to find other things besides financial ruin to rave about. Good pizza, for instance. When I left, Fireside Pies and Louie's were arguably the only standout places in the city. Now? Let's see...Grimaldi's, Olivella's, Campania in Southlake, Eno's in Oak Cliff—the list could continue. Although I missed this summer's tomato and jalapeño scares, fortunately, I arrived in time to catch the tail end of this year's state fair phenom, chicken-fried bacon. Wine bars seem to be a new trend, with Dali, Veritas and several others drawing crowds. And it wouldn't be a restaurant season in Dallas without some intrigue and at least one bizarre incident.
M Crowd provided the intrigue, dumping co-founder Mico Rodriguez for unspecified reasons. The Mi Cocina chain, however, continues apace. For bizarre, the moment when Jason Boso, chef of Cowboy Chow and Twisted Root, dared share the city's Hummer-infested roads on a Vespa. The resulting confrontation left him hospitalized for weeks.
In the end, 2008 will be remembered—at least in the local restaurant world—as the year of uncertainty. But at least one person foresees something good from financial upheaval.
"Hopefully," says Badovinus, "this economic downturn marks the end of the concept restaurant—that it will do to concept restaurants what Nirvana did to hair metal."
We shall see.
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