Over on Travis Street, a man wearing a sandwich board stands on the sidewalk in front of Samba Room. He advertises dollar sushi and sake. This is how far we've come: a Cuban bar shilling sushi and rice brew for a buck. The city shudders, sobbing great streaming tears of rum.
The choices confronting Dallas diners--Brazilian, Russian, Indian, Viet-Tex--are mind-bending, even mentally debilitating. "Too many choices out there," says Matthew Mabel, president of Surrender Inc., a management and hospitality consulting firm. To bolster this piece of heresy, Mabel cites an article in the April 2004 issue of Scientific American titled "The Tyranny of Choice." The crux of this piece can be found in its accompanying pictures: a tube of toothpaste called "good enough flavor" and an advertisement for one-color socks that shouts "They all match!"
"Thus," says author Barry Schwartz, "it seems as society grows wealthier and people become freer to do whatever they want, they get less happy. In an era of ever greater personal autonomy, choice and control, what could account for this degree of misery?"
We torture ourselves over choices not made, answers Schwartz. We're clipping wires to our genitals and turning up the power with worries about what we're missing. We have so many options and so much control that our expectations go galactic, and we mope in a black funk when our choices fall short. "With no options, you just do the best you can," muses Schwartz. "But with many options, the chances increase that a really good one is out there, and you may well feel that you ought to have been able to find it."
It gets worse: "The consequences of unlimited choice may go far beyond mild disappointment, to suffering. As I indicated earlier, Americans are showing a decrease in happiness and an increase in clinical depression."
Not that many years ago an expectant mother--should she and her infant survive a childbirth without antibiotics, labor induction and modern hemorrhage control techniques--only had to worry about how to feed and clothe the whelp. Now there are the unbearable stresses of selecting potty training rituals that won't cause irreparable personality damage, the most appropriate infant diet to maximize post-graduate earning potential and the right toddler social circles to ensure entry into the Ivy League. We have much to learn from the Soviets, it seems, who sowed happiness by limiting choices to which meat line to stand in and what month to begin your 10-year wait for a new television.
Yet if choice is but a portal to the hellhole of clinical depression, why is the Dallas restaurant community whining instead of throwing kisses at City Hall for removing at least one tyrannical choice from their tortured lives: Where to put the smoking section?
Maybe Brandt Wood has the answer: "It's knocked bar sales down 20 percent, which is massive," he says of the Dallas restaurant smoking ban. His company, the Entertainment Collaborative, operates the Green Room in Deep Ellum and Jeroboam downtown. "We aren't waiting for any apologies from the city, either." Actually, the damage might even be worse. According to sales reports from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, the Green Room's alcohol sales were off 51.5 percent while Jeroboam's were down 26.47 percent in the 12 months ending March 2004, compared with the previous 12 months. The smoking ban went into effect in March 2003.
Of course Deep Ellum and downtown have their own set of problems--crime, homelessness, parking, cruising--or the perception thereof. But a study commissioned by the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association (GDRA) and conducted by economists Terry Clower and Bernard Weinstein of the University of North Texas shows alcoholic beverage sales in Dallas eating and drinking establishments have slumped across the board since the ban was imposed.
"The rate of loss accelerated dramatically right after the smoking ban went into effect," Clower says. "There are many factors that go into it, but it is telling that the decline occurred in Dallas while most of the surrounding suburbs experienced substantial increases."
While Dallas sales slipped some 3.6 percent, or $11.8 million, in 2003 compared with 2002, sales edged upward in Addison (3.3 percent), Plano (7.9 percent), Richardson (3.2 percent), Grand Prairie (6.4 percent), Grapevine (9.7 percent) and Frisco (12.2 percent). The only Dallas-hugging city to slump was Irving, which dipped 0.8 percent. Clinical depression be damned, it seems Dallas diners are making their choices. More choices may follow.
"There's an overall feeling coming out of the hospitality industry that Dallas is becoming less and less business-friendly," says Tracey Evers, executive director of the GDRA. "And the suburbs are becoming more and more business-friendly."
Competitive pressures are likely to intensify over the next 12-18 months. On December 13, Brad Shanklin, president of the Plano Chamber of Commerce, submitted petitions containing some 47,000 signatures to the city secretary to put two local option measures before Plano voters this May: one permitting beer and wine sales at stores and the other allowing restaurant patrons to order a drink without joining a club. In addition to that, the GDRA is teaming with the Texas Restaurant Association to hammer out legalese in the upcoming legislative session to amend the Texas Constitution to allow all restaurants in Texas to be wet, a measure that would be put out for a statewide vote.
Some restaurants are crafting expensive smoking ban workarounds. Jaden's Restaurant & Bar, which just opened off Knox Street, has a separate bar building so that the operation can permit smoking.
Yet Clower notes another pressure point: the new Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center in Grapevine. The Gaylord, which features dining at the Old Hickory Steak House and the Stephan Pyles-inspired Ama Lur, offers smoking guest rooms and smoking in Texan Station, the resort's sports bar. In Dallas, conventioneers must puff on the street. Mabel says the Gaylord threat is overblown, since it attracts smaller conventions channeled from its other properties rather than the massive conventioneer swarms that Dallas' hospitality trade thrives on.
Yet smoking isn't the only issue driving Dallas/suburban choices. Evers says the gory process of city permitting and regulation is stifling the industry, especially downtown. Evers dreams of a "hospitality czar" installed in City Hall to function as a liaison between restaurant developers and the city's various sniping fiefdoms that include the Zoning Ordinance Advisory Committee, historical groups and neighborhood associations that get riled up over things like signs. "One hand doesn't know what the other hand is doing at the city level," she says. "I think people want to open businesses down there. There's such a great spirit of entrepreneurialism in this city, and it just gets choked. It gets thwarted just cutting through all the red tape."
Prozac Patient And downtown isn't looking all that swell. In addition to the struggles of Jeroboam, Metropolitan's alcohol sales have slumped 33 percent through the 12-month period ending in September--the latest 2004 figures available--compared with the same period last year. The $4 million-plus, three-story, 14,000-square-foot Iron Cactus, which moved into the historic Thompson Building with a cylindrical tower housing a winding staircase, opened with a bang in mid-April, had a blow-out in May, and then spent the next couple of months mired in single- and double-digit declines before leveling off in September, according to state alcohol tax records. Monica Greene got so frustrated with her downtown business that she shuttered her fledgling Pegaso Cocina Economica after just eight months.
Still, urban corridor anemia isn't stopping bold downtown development. Former III Forks cellar master Kyle Kepner is working with silent partners and $3.5 million to turn the long-abandoned circa-1960s glass-shrouded building at 1217 Main St. into a massive four-story, 400-seat restaurant and lounge with twin waterfalls. It's called Cascades. "The rooftop garden will be unlike anything in Dallas," boasts Kepner. He says he will beat the downtown doldrums by blanketing airline magazines with advertising--a la III Forks--to position Cascades as a national destination when it opens in May. But even Kepner is struggling to contend with city red-tape rituals. "Permits are out of control," he says.
Best of Times Mabel insists 2004 has quietly and steadily blossomed into restaurant prosperity. "In 2004, that's the first thing they're going to remember," he says of operators. "It's been a good year. They haven't said that for a few years. Most restaurants are up in the single digits. Restaurateurs are fairly happy about 2004."
At the same time, 2004 was a year of low restaurant fertility, with few splashy openings to churn the dazzle junkies. "I can't think of a year where there were fewer interesting new restaurants that have opened in Dallas," he adds. Yet Mabel believes all that will change over the next 12-24 months. He points to the new W Hotel in the Victory project, Nobu and a possible Kerry Simon restaurant in The Crescent and the luxury hotel project displacing Hotel Santa Fe at Mockingbird Lane and North Central Expressway. The plot was recently purchased by developers, and the $80 million hotel, shopping and condo complex with a high-end restaurant will be renovated and operated by San Francisco's Kimpton Hotels.
Mabel believes future development including restaurants will cluster around DART rail stations. Yet with a few exceptions, Mockingbird Station restaurants aren't exactly billowing heady profit margins. The Angelika Film Center recently throttled its full-service restaurant, and the DART light-rail system recorded its first annual drop (3 percent) in ridership since the train system began operating in 1996.
Blooms While there wasn't much new restaurant splash in 2004, there sure were a lot of trickles. Grand Lux Café, a kind of Donald Trump wet dream in yellow starring buxom angels, planted itself in the Galleria. George Brown's long-awaited and antiseptically modern George Restaurant swiveled open in the former Riviera space while Kim and Holly Forsythe moved their Sambuca Jazz Café in Deep Ellum into the former Salve! space on McKinney. Just up the street, Feargal McKinney and Peter Kenny of Old Monk and Dubliner pedigree opened the Idle Rich Pub in the former O'Dowd's Little Dublin space. Former Nana Grill and Melrose Hotel chef Doug Brown broke the mold by opening the upscale sandwich/salad outlet Beyond the Box, while Alberto Lombardi quietly opened his loud but addicting Taverna Pizzeria and Risotteria.
Then there's Tristan Simon. He sold off his interest in Genghis Grill, took over the Barley House and opened Fireside Pies, finally bringing pizza to Dallas that doesn't taste like the box it came in (do Chinese and Italian next). The forgettable GF Prime Steakhouse opened in North Dallas with all-you-can eat prime rib; William Guthrie took over Rooster and called it Guthrie's; and former III Forks manager Rick Stein slipped into the Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar on the Tollway and called it Rick Stein's. Taco and Dunia Borga opened La Duni Latin Kitchen and Baking Studio on Oak Lawn, a project primed for expansion, while former Riviera manager Hector Garcia opened Hector's on Henderson, no doubt aiming to take a stab at Tristan Simon's upcoming Hibiscus on Henderson. Hector vs. Hibiscus: a free-range cockfight for the gourmand. But the year's crown jewel was brought to you by Phil Romano, who imported the opulent Italian New York dinner house Il Mulino New York to Dallas and then promptly launched the most exciting Dallas restaurant event of the nascent century: a defamation suit against Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Dotty Griffith for her scathing four-out-of five-star review of the pricy dinner house.
Wilts This year's restaurant passings weren't splashy either. Urban Tapas slipped off its perch in Colleyville, while Michael Costa's Vino & Basso on McKinney passed on in a confetti cloud of lawsuits and bounced checks. Deep Ellum crime became too much for Standard 2706, forcing founding chef Tim Byres to shut the restaurant down. He emerged a few months later to partner with restaurant backer Mike Chen (Steel, Kirin Court Chinese Restaurant) to recast Standard on Fairmont and Cedar Springs after Chen shut down Stolik restaurant and lounge. Mike's Treehouse on Greenville Avenue went away, giving rise to Little Havana, a restaurant backed by Gene Street Jr. Ron Corcoran announced this will be the last year for Sipango, this after a thrill ride of a 10-year run. Torrefazione Italia Café next door shuttered to give way to Little Katana sushi bar, while Big Fish Little Fish now swims with the fishes. So does Rosebud Wine Bistro in Uptown and Ruth's Chris Steak House on Cedar Springs.
Choices will escalate next year, driving us further into brooding fits of gloom. The smoking ban, the burgeoning suburbs, slackening alcohol laws and the city's gifts wrapped in red tape will only add delicious drama to the problem of choice. "It's going to change the landscape over time," Mabel says of these forces. "It's definitely going to shake things up." Pass the Paxil.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.