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Eat these words

High-dollar dish: Scott Ginsburg's multimillion-dollar Voltaire was aong 1999's notable opening.
Judy Walgren

I'm swearing off restaurant prognostication. Other than accurately predicting that Chuck Norris' stogie lounge, Lone Wolf, symbolized the death knell of the cigar craze, every other prediction has been a bust. Last year, I confidently predicted (though, of course, not on the record) that the restaurant business in Dallas would nose-dive by the end of the third quarter of 1999, and most certainly by the fourth. My faulty reasoning was that it would take a mere leveling off in the stock market (which was due, no?) to dent the nation's 401k/IRA crop, dramatically tossing the current personal financial euphoria into despairing circumspection. In dining terms, this means ordering fries instead of foie gras.

When industry watchers speculated in late spring that the summer of 1999 would be a merciless Bataan death march that would hobble into September, with high-profile carcasses strewn across the landscape, I nodded knowingly. But now that the end is near, it's obvious there were no dramatic Dallas dining-room evacuations or high-profile restaurant fatalities -- other than those nursing self-inflicted wounds, or those that were nothing but open sores to begin with. The death toll wasn't really that dramatic at all. Places with promise, but with either poor execution or market readings, closed quickly: Bon Vivant Market, Plano's me-too Eatzi's incarnation; Zeitgeist Café in Turtle Creek Village, a place that didn't understand that a new-age-sounding moniker doesn't make bad food taste any better; Angels in the Park, a kind of Mini-Me Rainforest Café designed as a 1940s-style city park with fake trees, fiber-optic stars, and tinkling fountain water; Ararat Middle East Restaurant in Deep Ellum; and Moonshine Café, the Creole restaurant parked in the spleen of the defunct Palace nightclub, itself a former church. The only high-profile exception that comes to mind was Mel Hollen's Bar & Fine Dining, which expired after more than two years in its Addison location.

Then there was FoodStar, the company that operated Mediterraneo, Mediterraneo at the Quadrangle, Toscana, and PoPoLos, which it had hoped to expand in clusters to other cities across the country. The company's vitals started unraveling early in the year with the departures of founders Franco Bertolasi and David Holben, followed by director of operations Michael Costa and lauded chefs David Woodward and Gilbert Garza. Mediterraneo at the Quadrangle was transformed into a PoPoLos, a move akin to chicken-frying a prime filet for mass appeal. It was shuttered in late summer. PoPoLos faltered and closed shortly after that. Now, Mediterraneo and Toscana are in the hands of a court-appointed trustee and will either be shut down or sold off in early January. Other closures included Shannon Wynne's 8.0 and Barclays, which was purchased by Van Roberts, the owner of Point West Volvo in Irving.

But this list belies a year of robust frothiness, despite a dip in the growth trends of the recent past. According to the Texas Restaurant Association, this year our food and beverage receipts are projected to reach $4.39 billion, ranking Dallas second (again) in the state to Houston. That's a 5.6 percent increase over '98, which had an 8.9 percent increase over '97. Clearly, there's a bit of slippage. But the TRA expects a 7 percent uptick in 2000, based on projected personal income, population growth, and, no doubt, the desire of most Americans to spend as little time as possible at home with George W. Bush, Al Gore, and The Donald.

Yet these recent growth surges don't mean restaurateurs are growing fat and happy. Despite surging sales, the market is still a gut-wrenching, blood-spilling, gladiator-glutton clash in Dallas.

"The flip side of people eating out a whole lot more is that people are much smarter consumers when they eat out now, more price-conscious," says James Scurlock, publisher of the newsletter Restaurant Investor. "You've basically gone from eating out being a real treat and a differentiated experience with few choices to this commodity experience where you drive past 20 restaurants all selling chicken breast with a baked potato for the same price."

Scurlock says the current market is causing fits among the big chains because demographics show people are eating out a whole lot more than they were 10 years ago. In addition, industry sales are exploding, and restaurants are grabbing a greater share of the entertainment dollar. All of which spells a whole lot of volume -- and not much return. "Restaurants are having a hell of a time making any money," Scurlock insists.

Are there any graspable trends or dining-habit complexion shifts to jerk us from this fiscal turmoil with a silver lining? Doesn't seem so. At least, not like last year, which could be summarized in one word: steak. (Or two words, if you stir in a martini.) Such an easily defined trend in 1998 prompted some industry watchers to confidently peg the next big market fads: the upscale taqueria and the Asian noodle house. Yet the only evidence of a highly stylized taco tremor after the M Crowd's Taco Diner struck in the summer of 1998 is the ongoing Stephan Pyles-Michael Cox quest for a Dallas Taqueria Cañonita, and Monica Greene's Ciudad D.F., an upscale restaurant serving "Mexico City" food slated to go into Turtle Creek Village in the former Zeitgeist space sometime next year. (At least, these are among the most stimulating projects on the radar screen.)  

The Asian noodle-house trend didn't spill over either -- except for FISHBOWL, a kind of resuscitation nodule tacked on to the end of the sluggish AquaKnox. But that doesn't mean the Asian influence wasn't felt profoundly. It figures prominently in the cuisines of the high-profile, mega-buck eruptions known as Abacus and Voltaire. Plus, a slew of Asian restaurants emerged this year, including Yumeya Sushi Bistro in North Dallas, Mango Thai in Plano, and Pho Kim and Green Papaya Vietnamese restaurants in Dallas. Then, there's Citizen, the M Crowd's retro-hip French-influenced Asian cavern that has become the latest migration point for Dallas' exotic-car flock.

So what's in store for 2000? Scurlock predicts the emergence of a significant Latin trend, primarily with flavors from South America and the Caribbean. He cites the 1999 openings of the Samba Room, the Dallas extension of Texas de Brazil, and the soon-to-be opened Cuba Libre as the iceberg tips. He also spots a trend toward tapas -- not traditional Spanish tapas, but little plates with a decidedly global attitude. That means Avner Samuel's recently opened Bibendum may very well be riding the edge, cutting a significant culinary swath.

But don't bet on it. These trend predictions seem like the same grasped straws that upscale taquerias and Asian noodles houses turned out to be this year. Restaurant consultant Matthew Mabel points to the consolidation of restaurant neighborhoods in Dallas as a significant trend, one that is transforming certain areas into true restaurant zones: Maguire's, Voltaire, and Buttermilk Café cropping up on the Tollway, amongst the Sullivan's, Ruth's Chris, III Forks, and Canyon Café conglomeration; and Abacus, Samba Room, Il Sole, Torrefazione Italia, and the soon-to-be-opened Cuba Libre adding muscle to the dining cluster marked by Tei Tei Robata Bar, Sipango, AquaKnox, Ziziki's, and Adelmo's Ristorante in the Knox-Henderson area.

Yet even this trend morphs in strange and unexpected ways. Consider bistro alley, the ménage à trois of French bistros, trolley trains, and road-construction equipment rippling across McKinney Avenue. Not long ago, McKinney was a strip of restaurant rigor mortis haunted with the lifeless husks of Coco Pazzo, Chihuahua Charlie's, Clive & Stuarts Island Cuisine, Allen Street Bar and Grill, and LuLu's Bait Shack. Suddenly, it's back, defying death amongst road demolition in the precious guise of French and pseudo-French bistro chic. Watel's already had its feet planted on the strip. But this year, Alberto Lombardi's French-Ital bistro, Bizú, perked up the old Coco Pazzo/Sfuzzi space; Bistral Neighborhood Bistro & Bakery squatted in the Allen Street spot; and Le Paris Bistrot, perhaps the most authentic of the bunch (aside from its un-bistro-like prices) moved into a circa-1923 building that was, for many years, an antique shop.

But that's not all. Restaurant fertility font Phil Romano, who recently opened Nick & Sam's on Maple Avenue, is going Gallic too, drafting a casual French concept called Oui Oui in the old Sam's Café spot in the Crescent Court Hotel. Yet McKinney isn't afflicted exclusively with Francophilia. The anemic wine bar Cork opened there this year, and the Irish pub O'Dowd's Little Dublin was supposed to open in the Clive & Stuart's space just before Christmas; as of this writing, it still hasn't. At the mouth of the McKinney Avenue construction carnage is Phil and Janet Cobb's Italian restaurant Salve! Restaurant Row? More like Restaurant Ghetto.

Then, Matthew Mabel reflects a little bit, thinking that maybe there's too much reflexive pigeonholing when analyzing the Dallas restaurant market. Perhaps the current market is more like tangles of niched trend lines coiling into indecipherable knots, so much so that it's becoming impossible to peg specific emerging tastes. "It's been a year of good business," Mabel says. "It's been a year of more options for the Dallas diner. But I don't think it's been a year of the big trend."

And maybe it won't be for quite a while. Mabel posits that perhaps the market is simply being sliced, diced, and narrowed; just as TV viewers are moving away from the Big Four networks to the multiplicity of cable and satellite offerings, so too are diners branching out. He calls it "the choicing of America," a process by which tastes are so scattered and segmented that dominant trends simply crumble before they have a chance to dominate.  

It's not hard to see the logic in this. As people dine out more, differentiation becomes paramount. Mindlessly replicating a style or a cuisine once it takes off seems a surefire way to choke it to death before it gets a chance to gain footing -- though, somehow, steak is an exception to this. Dining concepts become like groundbreaking television-program concepts smothered beneath a blanket of endless knock-offs and spin-offs.

"Good food is not enough anymore," says restaurateur Gene Street of Consolidated Restaurant Companies, Inc., operators of El Chico, Good Eats, Spaghetti Warehouse, and Cool River Café. "People are likin' a little bit of irreverence conceptually, something that takes them out of their living room. You got to have a little bit more bang for the experience."

Irreverence reared its idiosyncratic head in many ways during the past 12 months. There were the museum-like odes to Texas grub and junk emerging as Love and War in Texas in Plano and Texana Grill in Arlington. There was the pricey new American fare dressed in Native American regalia known as Tenaya in Irving, and a dubiously successful but creative stab at upscale, casual counter service with the "smoke, salsa, and sizzle" plied at Tin Star.

There's the seeming unrestrained application of dining tender in the form of Voltaire and Abacus. Voltaire, radio mogul Scott Ginsburg's multimillion-dollar restaurant, is a monument to distinctive French-Asian cuisine in a chicly minimalist dining room feathered with pricey artwork and design touches. Abacus, though perhaps costing much less, is rife with strikingly busy design touches drenched in garishly rich hues with vigorously eclectic cuisine that one prominent Dallas restaurateur described as a "menu from Mars."

"As a society as a whole, we are more design conscious; it's evident in what we do with our homes and the clothes that we wear," says Mabel, who denies that these upscale indulgences are worthy of trend consideration. "The economy is simply producing people with lots of money to gamble and play with restaurants."

But if there was irreverence in 1999, it was most potent in the idiosyncratic personalities that strolled across the landscape in the final year of the century. At the beginning of 1999, oil businessman Joseph Barbaria opened Joshelé, an upscale "Texas-French" restaurant billing itself as "the ultimate experience in fine dining and live jazz entertainment" -- only to close it a few months later, stiffing various vendors for thousands of dollars in the process. Barbaria claims he got the idea for the name of his Plano restaurant from a 65-pound lobster -- named Joe Shell -- he planned to feature at the restaurant for kiddie lobster rides. But Barbaria once tried to launch a restaurant with the same name at a different location in 1995, when he reportedly came up with the tag "Joshelé" by combining his and his wife Michele's first names. Then, as Joshelé was bolted shut in early June, Barbaria sued his wife for divorce.

There's the odd case of former Mansion maître d' Wayne Broadwell and former Sipango chef and founding partner Matthew Antonovich, who paired up to launch Villa on Maple, an upscale, classic Northern Italian concept they planned to plant in the Loyd Paxton antique gallery after boasting they scooped it up for $2.5 million. Their grand plans also called for an upscale American grill called Lucille's, a Paris brasserie called the Tack Room, and a speakeasy called the Electric Room -- all to be assembled in Mockingbird Station before the end of this year.

But before the project got off the ground, Antonovich had a clairvoyant visitation from his dead grandmother, who told him he needed to open his own restaurant with his name on the door. So, in the spring, he launched Antonovich's Tuscan Steakhouse in Plano in the old Ricardo's Ristorante Mexicano, only to be locked out some five weeks later after racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in unsecured debt, igniting the fury of vendors, contractors, and his landlord. Antonovich subsequently skipped town and is rumored to be holed up in Louisville, Kentucky.

And then there's Wayne Broadwell, who, it seems, didn't actually purchase the Loyd Paxton property, but merely had a contract on it, which he let expire when his financial angels flew the coop. Now he's maître-d'-in-waiting at Salve!

All of which proves there's one strain of prognostication that's impossible to swear off. In midst of all of the fierce competition, brutal price pressure, and razor-thin error tolerances, restaurateuring in Dallas is so often daffy. In fact, predictably so.

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Tei Tei Robata Bar

2906 N. Henderson
Dallas, TX 75206

214-828-2400

www.teiteirobata.com


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