In August, Voltaire closed. And that pretty much sums up the Dallas restaurant complexion for 2002. Voltaire's death rattle served as a worn metaphor, a symbol of what was expected to happen but didn't--the big bang that rattled the windows and agitated the lava lamp but left the infrastructure unfazed.
No one can say Dallas mega-millionaire and Voltaire founder Scott Ginsburg isn't tuned into the cultural pulse. After all, he collected his insider-trading allegation from the SEC more than two years before Martha Stewart started testing recipes for "perp walk" cakes.
But what of this shuttering of the critically acclaimed Voltaire (whose namesake famously said, "Illusion is the first of all pleasures"), Ginsburg's summit of all fine-dining indulgences? It seems Ginsburg--purveyor of Porsches and Audis and enthusiast of that most basic of all transportation, the Gulfstream IV--decided that Voltaire and its preciously edgy cuisine were no longer hip. What is? Asian fusion, a concept that has suspiciously eluded the Dallas dining radar screen if you don't count Steel (and the new Steel II-the Drálion), Abacus, Citizen, Tom Tom Noodle House, Chow Thai Pacific Rim, Liberty and Big Bowl. To that end, Voltaire reopened as a casual Asian restaurant with the moniker Bamboo Bamboo, whose repetitive name also is groundbreaking in the Asian restaurant lexicon--if you don't count Tei Tei, Mei Mei, Tom Tom and Pei Wei. To illustrate how much of a has-been Voltaire was, and how hip Bamboo Bamboo is, Ginsburg and company sent out a written statement with the old "What's out" "What's in" duality to illustrate. "What's out" items included fine dining, inch-thick wine lists, captains and waiters, high prices and foie gras. "What's in" included chopsticks and bowls, flavored sakes, simple dishes and bamboo trees (the latter a replacement for Ginsburg's passé Dale Chihuly glass sculpture collection).
Dallas dining in 2002
Flashy, monied gormandizing in the presence of artwork costing more than a fully loaded Graceland replica is démodé. Witness the shuttering of the critically acclaimed Salve! Ristorante, Phil and Janet Cobb's upscale Tuscan indulgence with crisp Milanese design touches. The restaurant was put down in July after Texas Capital Bank moved to foreclose on two pieces of property the Cobbs had used to secure a $375,000 letter of credit required by Salve!'s landlord. In March, Enigma, the chichi pricey art hovel that predated Voltaire by some seven years, drew its last gaudy gasp. Enigma, operated by the elusive Bob Bablu, a scion of rich London-based Indian industrialists--or so the rumors went--was an anarchy of nude sculptures and reliefs by artist Bill Mack. It was famous for its table settings, little more than chaotic collisions of expensive tableware pieces by Erte, Faberge, Versace, Baccarat and Lalique costing as much as $1,500 each, all shuffled and assembled with an achingly eccentric eye. The food was an eclectic mix of game and seafood bearing stratospheric prices ($45-plus) well before Voltaire was even thought of.
It is said that the rich and the famous die in threes. So perhaps it's fitting that the crème fraîche of this Dallas crop passed in triplicate during a year of parched expense accounts and anemic tourist trade. "I want to be a sustenance provider," declared Shannon Wynne at the start of 2002, getting a prescient whiff of the corpses and vultures that were soon to infiltrate Dallas' posh dinner plates. Wynne, who founded the 8.0, Flying Saucer Draught Emporiums and Flying Fish fast-casual seafood spots, vowed to squelch any voice that might creep into his psyche urging him to venture into the mid- to upper crust of Dallas noshing. Instead, he focused his energy on the "eat to live and drink to live" segments of the market; the shredded wheat and Ovaltine sector you might say.
The indulgent hoity-toity slice of Dallas dining has burned itself out on too much refracted glitter. Or has it?
Myths and MeatBefore the onset of 2002, the Dallas dining scene was a virtual dead pool with insiders placing bets on which restaurants wouldn't live to see the Times Square ball plop. But it appears Salve!, Voltaire and Enigma were more aberration than rule--isolated instances of management foibles perhaps. "This year's been pretty rosy," says a sheepish Gene Street, chairman of Consolidated Restaurant Cos. Inc., commenting on the surprising cash flurry blowing into III Forks. "I don't think it's back to the basics." Indeed Street, whose company operates Cool River Café, Silver Fox, Spaghetti Warehouse, Cantina Laredo and El Chico as well as III Forks, says Consolidated is in expansion mode, planning a Cool River Café at Highway 121 and the Tollway and a Dallas location for a Silver Fox steak house.
It could even be said the upper segment of the feeding market is pulsing with vitality, subdued though it might be. Dragonfly, the "world class" restaurant in Hotel ZaZa created under the guidance of Dallas celebrity super chef Stephan Pyles, opened December 20 while the uptown boutique hotel itself grabbed accolades from Forbes.com, the online site for Forbes magazine, which named ZaZa one of the best new business hotels of 2002--quite a feat for a property that's been open barely a month. The Oceanaire Seafood Room, a tiny Minneapolis-based upper-crust "power steak house with a seafood center," opened its fourth unit this fall in the Westin Galleria. And the steak-house segment, a culinary Energizer bunny in recession-proof armor, is poised to pump up the posh even more. New York City-based Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group, "the Tiffany of steak houses," will convert the former Humperdink's Chophouse on the Dallas North Tollway to a Smith & Wollensky steak house in spring 2003. S&W, which operates 15 restaurants around the country, has become the top-grossing restaurant in New York and the third-largest grosser in the nation.
"It's obvious that there's still a huge following for a big steak," says Matthew Mabel, president of Surrender Inc., a management and hospitality consulting firm. "And how many times have we all said if one more [steak house] opens, that's going to be it?"
In reality, there was a lot less rattle in the 2002 shakeout than was expected, a lot less blood in the bath. "It's not 1929," Mabel insists. "There are still people that are doing well, that are going out, that are spending money. It's not Armageddon."
Mabel sees 2002 as an adjustment; a nap while the body of food service mends and tends to the ravages of past excess. Management has tightened controls, costs are being shaved in areas that won't affect the dining experience, and prices have dropped--or at least have been throttled. Indeed, one of the most visible barometers of the new restaurant reality is wine, where restaurateurs are shedding or closely watching their inventories of pricey and conspicuously posh grape juice. "We've seen a drop-off in what the business traveler has been allowed or is willing to spend," says one Dallas wine industry insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He says the flock of coveted California cabernets--Spottswood, Groth, Heitz, etc.--that were judiciously doled out during the Dow/dot-com go-go days are now in ample supply. Particularly hard-hit are the chardonnays in the $50-plus price range. "It hasn't picked up, but it hasn't dropped off any more," he says. "Restaurateurs are happy being flat right now."
Mabel even sees a silver lining among the modest strewing of dining rubble. The industry is experiencing a talent infusion, he says, after its brain was drained during the late-'90s boom and the industry was wheezing in a labor and management shortage choke hold. "The industry has been given a reprieve by the economic downturn," Mabel insists. "There's more experienced people working in restaurants. It's easier to hire good people now."
Mini TemblorsStill, the shifts, while not seismic, were significant. Phil Romano, a sort of poster boy for restaurateuring Ritalin, was busy purchasing Brinker International's interest in Eatzi's, taking full control of the small gourmet grocer home meal replacement emporiums with plans to expand in Dallas and elsewhere. Romano also opened an upper-crust burger bagger in Highland Park Village called Who's Who Burgers featuring pricey Kobe beef hamburgers. Street was right. Even the basics aren't back to basics. But perhaps Romano's biggest adventure was Lobster Ranch, the midscale New England seafood restaurant that seemed to take its interior design cues--bright yellow and blue--from a Sesame Street set. After just five months in operation, Romano and partner Luke Crosland opted to shut the place after the cash register registered a thud instead of a ring. Also slipping off the landscape were Patrick Esquerré's Café Patrique; Mediterraneo; Scented Geranium, a Vietnamese restaurant on McKinney Avenue; Geode, a global tapas flit also on McKinney; Deep Sushi in Deep Ellum; Avner Samuel's kosher Bistro K; and Dakota's, which was scheduled to reopen in mid-October after sustaining flood damage from a water main break in August, but still sits idle. Other teapot tempests include Mardi Schma's sale of the venerable City Café to former Mediterraneo (and Lombardi Mare and Toscana) General Manager Karim Alaoui, Ron Corcoran's move to put Sipango and his recently opened bar with nibbles Daxx on the block and Tristan Simon's (Cuba Libra, Sense) acquisition of a 50 percent stake in Genghis Grill, Jeff Sinelli's small Dallas-based chain of create-your-own-stir-fry Mongolian barbecues.
But perhaps the most significant restaurant move was the decision by Carlson Restaurants Worldwide to dump its Emerging Brands division, the umbrella under which it developed several "chef-driven" concepts including Samba Room, Mignon, Fishbowl and Timpano Italian Chophouse, and housed its Star Canyon and Taqueria Cañonita acquisitions from Stephan Pyles and Michael Cox. Nick Natour, owner of the Enclave restaurant, subsequently picked up Mignon last spring. Mico Rodriguez, the main brain behind the M Crowd Restaurant Group (Mi Cocina, Taco Diner) and Restaurant Life (The Mercury, Mercury Grill, Citizen, Paris Vendome), snatched the pair of Taqueria Cañonitas in the Dallas area and renamed them Mi Cocina's Cañonita.
Ball PeeksWhat does the future hold? Noodles. We're tripping over the things. The long-predicted and mulled-over Asian noodle house trend has finally gotten itself tangled up in Dallas. Noodles Kitchen, Noodle Nexus, Noodles Ave.--the names roll off the tongue like lemon pucker spit. The Green Pepper Asian Grill and Noodles, with four Dallas-area locations, just opened a spot on Oak Lawn Avenue and has plans to expand to Lakewood and Plano. Royce Ring, former head of Carlson's Emerging Brands division, opened Tom Tom Noodle House, a SoHo-style slurp hut, in West Village with another set to open in early 2003 in Preston Plaza.
But noodles slipped a little this year, too. Jeffery Yarbrough, the prescient Asian noodle house pioneer in Dallas, shuttered his original Liberty noodles on Lower Greenville Avenue shortly after he opened an extension at the Pavilion shopping center on Lovers Lane near Inwood.
Another trend that will continue to build steam is fast casual, the rapid, tipless feed style perhaps best represented by Café Express and Tin Star. But perhaps the most significant rumble in this rapid-fire arena was driven by a grocery store. This summer H.E. Butt's Central Market opened in Dallas, offering a vast fast-casual catalog for the plucking. To pull it off, they poached some of the city's most seasoned and talented chefs and restaurant pros: Jamie Samford from Lola the Restaurant, one-time Crescent Club chef Helen Duran and one-time Mansion on Turtle Creek wine director George Howald. "Here we are in the last bastion of cafeteria service in the country in the South, and as it goes out, fast casual will be coming in with some of the same appeal as far as speed, no tip, except this time it's got good flavors and interesting food," Mabel says.
He also predicts wine bars will proliferate modestly in the next few years as wine consciousness rises. The new Sonoma Grill & Wine Bar in Flower Mound, and Mercy, a wine bar set to open in late January in Addison, are but the latest examples. But success will go to those wine bars that actually offer service and expand wine knowledge by offering food-pairing suggestions, flights that introduce new wines and easily digestible background information instead of recycling trends.
Whatever complexion the industry takes on, it will survive and may very well thrive next year, just as it did to some extent in 2002. "If we had this economic downturn without the uncertainty in the world, there'd be fewer people going out," Mabel says. "But there's more of an emphasis now on being with people you care about, and restaurants will benefit from that."
"Next year is going to be tough, because we really don't know," says another industry observer. "Are we going to war? I think in Dallas, we tend to eat, drink and spend money regardless of the economy. We'll still go out."
Voltaire--the man, not the restaurant--would have had a field day in this town.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Dallas dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.