The Grape is celebrating its 38th anniversary this month, which makes it the perfect time to chat with chef and owner Brian Luscher.
When the restaurant's previous owners, Kathy McDaniel and Charlotte Parker, decided to give up the Dallas institution, they tapped their former executive chef to take over the operation. The timing was right, so far as Luscher was concerned: His wife had just given birth to a daughter and Luscher had just been named Best Private Club Chef in DFW by Avid Golfer Magazine. He was looking into opening his own restaurant.
Luscher had the plans, the backing and bids for a restaurant that would have been called The Pickled Onion. But The Grape offer was too enticing to refuse.
"They called me and asked to meet and I thought great, another investor," Luscher says. "But when we met, they told me about the plans to sell the business. They had a great run and it was time. They said if it was a right fit for me, it was the right fit for them. They didn't want to sell it to just anybody."
But his timing turned out to be a bit off.
"The day I signed the papers three years ago for The Grape was about the same time the market crashed," Luscher says. "It was pretty scary. A lot of people lost their businesses and a lot of restaurants shut their doors. It was a death-toll ticker. It was really tough: There were days I didn't know what we were going to do,"
Luscher spoke to his wife, Courtney, and agreed they needed to stay true to the restaurant's reputation. They didn't want to cut corners or do anything gimmicky. They wanted to create solid cuisine with excellent service and a great wine list.
The chef continued doing what he knows best: Making great American bistro cuisine. Sales continued to rise steadily each year. And then Texas Monthly named The Grape as having the best burger in all of Texas.
"I am really happy that happened," Luscher says. "I am proud and I am grateful. We started making this burger on Sunday, my day off, because I just wanted a burger. I may have had a few cervezas the night before, and Sundays are daddy-daughter day. I wanted to come in here with my daughter Landry, who would get a waffle, and I wanted a good burger.
"Well, it was the day after I won the Hico steak award and this guy came in and introduced himself from Texas Monthly and said he was looking for the best burger. I laughed and gave him a burger. I may have tossled his hair."
He soon got a call from Texas Monthly saying the magazine wanted to take a picture. They only took photos of the top six burgers, so Luscher was pretty excited. He started making plans to market the sixth best burger in the state. Or maybe the fifth. In his wildest dreams, he would be number two.
"We were selling like ten of these things a week," he recalls. "I made my own bacon; we still make our own bacon. Rumors started flying that we were number one and it went crazy, like a tsunami. We did like 240 burgers that next Sunday. Karen [then sous chef] made every burger to order. Pans were flying, and when it was all over, I think I had a tear in my eye. I remember giving her a big hug and saying 'we did it!' Over 200 burgers in there hours; She went into the walk-in and laid there for like ten minutes. It was amazing."
But The Grape isn't all about the burger; In fact, they only sell it on Sundays and Mondays. What The Grape is better known for is its hand-made charcuterie, bistro-style mussels and ever changing menu of fresh and seasonal food. And, of course, the grapes. CIA trained chef Luscher dominates in the kitchen, but The Grape's still a family-run business. Courtney tends to the front-of-the-house, and just over a year ago obtained the first level of Master Sommelier, giving the Greenville Avenue bistro even more credibility.
When asked which list he would like to be on besides a burger list, Luscher paused for a moment. Then he talked about how he wants to be a nice guy, a good chef and someone that cares. He certainly comes off as such. And we know his food makes the lists in various publications around town.
During the pre-Luscher regime, The Grape didn't accept substitutions. Luscher's more flexible: "I want everyone to have a great experience," he says. "I think we do a good job here, but if you have a special request, if you want ranch dressing, if you want your tuna steak cooked well done, we will do it. It wasn't always that way here. We want everyone to enjoy themselves."
The chef last year got caught up in a controversy that bubbled up after he asked people to set down their phones, put their cameras away and enjoy their meals. But he is not begrudging anyone who wants the photos for whatever reason.
If you'd like to try The Grape's legendary burger, but have a difficult time making it out for a Sunday or Monday visit, you have two extra opportunities this month. Luscher will be at the second annual Taste of Greenville Avenue on Oct. 23 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Luscher's planning on selling as many as 1,000 mini versions of his burger.
Luscher is also participating in John Tesar's Burgers and Burgundy event on Friday from 6 to 10pm. The fundraising event for the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (DIFFA) will feature Luscher's award-winning burger and burgers from 11 other top chefs in the DFW area.
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"We do a lot of charity events through out the year," Luscher says. "It is just expected of restaurants. We don't mind doing them; it's just part of doing business."
When not in the kitchen at The Grape, Luscher spends as much time with his family as he can. His favorite place to have a beer after work is on the milk crate behind the backdoor to his kitchen. Luscher did mention that some of his favorite restaurants in Dallas include Bolsa and Neighborhood Services, but, for a burger, he likes Lakewood's 1st and 10 and Burger House.
Luscher hinted he has a possible new concept up his sleeve: He laughingly said it might be a really good fried chicken joint. The Pickled Onion concept was akin to a Houston's, with mid-range pricing, simple ingredients and consistent quality. Wait: Isn't that The Grape?
Catch Luscher at one of his upcoming off-site events, or at The Grape, where he plans to celebrate the 38th anniversary with a $38 three-course chef's special Oct. 26 - Oct. 30. Tomorrow, Luscher shares with us his favorite dish and reveals what he would have done if this whole chef thing hadn't panned out. On Friday, we enter the hallowed grounds of The Grape's kitchen to make a menu item that's easy to prepare, but sure to impress the guests at your next dinner party.