Face off

I'm not really sure what all the fuss was about. But it all started with a printing error. Last summer, The Dallas Morning News did an article on the Palm Restaurant's upcoming renovation, one that would darken the restaurant and sequester its dining spaces. The modest upgrade included new floors, the installation of mahogany woodwork, new lighting, a four-foot expansion of the bar, and the enclosure and carpeting of the Dallas Cowboy room, a private dining slot accessorized with player caricatures. And a new roof.

The renovation also included the reconfiguration of the walls in the entry foyer. And the last line of the story on the front page of the Metro section went like this: "Some [pictures] are not going back up." Funny thing was, due to a printing error, much of the article was lost and didn't make it into half the newspapers distributed in Dallas. So a lot of people didn't get to read the part explaining that the caricatures weren't "going back up" the same way as before. Instead, 270 of the Palm's 1,700 local and national likenesses would be removed during renovation and later reinstalled. This freaked out the Dallas Palm Restaurant celebrity set, who feared their faces would be permanently banished from the collection. "It created quite a stir," says Palm general manager Brian Perry. "And of course most of the people that came off the walls, they look better now than they did 15 years ago. You know, they had the big Dallas hair...just sort of funky hairdos and things. It's kind of funny. In Dallas they have many ways of [looking better]."

What's even funnier is that--according to 14-year Palm veteran Perry, who replaced Al Biernat last year as general manager--among the very first caricatures to make it onto the Palm's walls was Morning News Publisher Burl Osborne's. Maybe this explains why the News called with an apology and reprinted the story in its entirety the next day. Getting a cartoon version of your mug up on the Palm's walls is serious business.

But I got this creepy feeling eating a prime rib eye cowboy-cut steak surrounded by caricatures of smiling celebrities and Dallas famous people. And it wasn't the meat that gave me the heebie-jeebies. The thick slab drooled with tender, well-seasoned richness, the kind that makes you want to high-five the big rancher in the sky and give thanks for being born a blood-thirsty carnivore.

No, that creepy feeling came from those cartoon stares, looks with a knowing glow that this little bit of wall fame will last longer than 15 minutes (if they have anything to do with it), even if it's immortalized in bouffant-topped, pre-cosmetic-scalpel glory.

Perry says the Palm requests pictures of its patrons. Bankers, lawyers, oilmen. Cowboys, DJs, tycoons. Journalists, actors, charity-ballers. "If they eat at the Palm two or three times a week, they definitely would be good candidates to have their pictures on our wall," he says. "They're celebrities in our eyes."

Celebrities make it onto the menu too. There's steak a la Stone, sliced New York strip over a bed of roasted onions and pimiento with a piece of pumpernickel. The plate is a replica of a frequent request by a Palm guest who was a father or uncle or conspirator of some sort to director Oliver Stone. Shrimp Bruno is named after a general manager of the Palm in New York who retired last year. Gigi salad is named after the GM in Los Angeles. And this dish--a supple conglomeration of lettuce, large bits of white onion, green bean, bacon, avocado, tomato and cut shrimp--was a pleasant surprise. It was fresh and crisp with a lively vinaigrette, though the strength of some of the flavors (bacon, onion) overwhelmed the shrimp a little.

Other starters weren't as successful. Clams Oreganata, tiny meat disks on the half shell bludgeoned with a bread-crumb-butter-oregano-garlic caulk, were gawky, graceless things that canceled all gentle hints of marine flavor.

Clams Bianco, served in a wine-garlic sauce, were better: The clams were firm and chewy, and their briny flavors were more prominent. Still, there was little engaging assertion here.

Pimientos and anchovies, a dish that seemed daring on the surface, was more a lyricism of listlessness. Shards of head lettuce were cluttered with capers, anchovy, and large sheets of watery, tender Spanish pimiento virtually stripped of any sweet flavor and lush aroma. No surprise that these red vinyl-like sheets were plucked from a can. It seems the Palm consciously skirts taste at times.

Which might account for those walls. Most of the faces and names I didn't recognize, people like Richard Zelda and Tracy and Mel Naftalis. Who are they? Famous locals in the roster I didn't personally spot include Emmitt Smith, Chuck Norris, Sheree Wilson, Larry North. Many others have high national face recognition: Sylvester Stalone and John Travolta; mugs of Geraldo and Farrah with autographs scrawled across the wall in black marker.  

Perry says that just about every television newscaster in the metroplex is a Palm wall resident. Most of the names he spewed I didn't recognize. Except for Ashleigh Banfield. But that's because I thought I once spotted her at a charity wine auction, and I spent the next few evenings watching her cast news, trying to reconcile the TV image, and the Mt. Rushmore-like head on billboards, with the real live charity-baller. I'm embarrassed to admit it--oh hell, no I'm not--but I studiously avoid local television news.

The thought that kept popping into my mind during my Palm visits is that this restaurant is actually a caricature of itself. Despite the seemingly contrived trimmings, the concept actually had sincerely spontaneous origins, at least according to a corporate backgrounder. In 1926, two Italian immigrants, John Ganzi and Pio Bozzi, opened the Palm restaurant in New York. They planned to call it Parma, after the region from which they came. But because of their accent, the name was registered as "Palm" on their business license. They established the restaurant near the headquarters of King Features Syndicate, and a good slice of their clientele was composed of cartoonists, which turned out to be fortunate as Ganzi and Bozzi allegedly had no money to decorate. So newspaper illustrators would draw images on the walls--in marker, charcoal, and pastels--in exchange for a plate of spaghetti. Then customers started asking some of the artists to scribble their likenesses on the walls too.

The practice morphed into a restaurant signature and a local marketing tool when the Palm began opening extensions in different cities, the first of which was in Washington, D.C., in 1972. Since then it has hit some 15 metros, including Houston, Miami, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Prior to each opening, the company scrambles to scribble 200-300 local notables over its walls, and new likenesses are added monthly. And it seems to work. Company propaganda says each restaurant generates roughly $5 million annually. Perry adds that the West End version is on pace to trump that for 1999.

"It's a family-run restaurant...and then the customers, they become part of the family," says Perry. "The celebrities that come in, they feel they're at home with their families." There are a lot of people with silly tastes in interior decorating if that's the case.

The lamb chops came with a bowl of Gummi Bear-green mint jelly, which somehow seemed to fit in with the whole shtick of the place. I haven't seen a retro entree like that since the days when every home-cooked steak and pork chop I had came with a jiggly side of mini-marshmallow Jell-O mold. The chops were firm, chewy, moist, and unspectacularly mainstream in flavor: none of that racy, sweet gaminess that makes lamb more than just another hunk of red meat. Still, the fundamentals were there.

The salmon steak was the same: wonderfully adequate. The simply prepared fish risked no flirtation with the embracing, richly complex flavors and textures that elevate this flesh to pinkish royalty.

Sides burst with compelling simplicity. Mushroom tops in a savory beurre blanc had the decency to let the musty earthiness bleed through. Leaf spinach Aglio E Olio with just olive oil and garlic showed respect for the inherent foliage flavors, allowing the fresh, biting greenness of the leaf to take prominence.

But lunch was as disastrous as a Palm wall-mug eviction. Though sheathed in a tasty coating without excessive grease sheen, calamari fritti was tough and rubbery. The sliced steak sandwich, served open-face on rye toast, had tender, richly red flesh. Yet the meat lacked richness and seasoning, and its texture was almost watery.

French dip was just plain awful. Thick gray slices of parched, tasteless beef were haphazardly parked in a hard toasted baguette. Jus dip was a thin, cloudy puddle of separating meat substances, while a side of housemade greaseless chips was devoid of seasoning.

Even the service, normally attentive, sharp, and accommodating, was lax and indifferent. Three separate requests for ice water went unheeded until the end of meal, when a server we'd never seen before waddled up to our table and dropped off the chilly fluid.

There's a lesson in there somewhere, especially for the provincially ambitious. If you want to scale the heights of these walls of fame, eat nothing but Palm steak and Gigi salad conspicuously three or four times a week for the next year. Then order a bottle of pricey wine from the Palm's fine list the day they appeal to you for a personal photo. But don't you dare touch any of the faces who have already made it, especially the ones with the big funky hairdos.  

Palm Restaurant. 701 Ross Avenue, (214) 698-0470. Open Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-10:15 p.m.; open Saturday 5-10:30 p.m. and Sunday 5-9:30 p.m. $$-$$$$

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Palm Restaurant

701 Ross Ave.
Dallas, TX 75202


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