We are, generally speaking, a timid culture seeking vicarious means of adventure.
There's no need to look far for examples. When Robin Williams shouted "carpe diem," Americans seized the opportunity to purchase T-shirts bearing the message--and that's just one example. Metal playground fixtures? Too dangerous. A Mexican restaurant serving menudo? Head to Taco Bueno instead. Sure, thrill-seekers don helmets and body armor for an afternoon on a rock climbing wall or other artificial endeavor. Otherwise, we prefer to plop in front of a plasma screen and watch "reality" stars perform daring feats.
North Texans in particular fear those who test the boundaries. "We're a small, homogenous market," points out Matthew, poet laureate of Dallas nightlife. "Our subcultures are uptown, Addison and Las Colinas."
Granted, the Burning Question crew won't even approach a climbing wall or bungee tower. We confine our adventures to courageous levels of alcohol consumption and wild, unprotected conversation. We opted, therefore, to rein in this week's topic. Instead of seeking out platefuls of tripe or roasted insects, we defined "unusual" within the limits of a risk-averse culture.
So what are the most unusual dining experiences in Dallas?
Pushing the limits requires a certain amount of bravado. Whether that means driving out beyond the LBJ-Loop 12 barrier or slinking away from the hottest see-and-be-seen venue in favor of some old dive, any form of anti-trendy behavior may be considered un-Dallas-like and therefore risky. Yet there are easy ways to find something different.
Lunch on any Friday among the Las Colinas subculture provides a bit of a shock. Guys sport golf shirts and bad corporate haircuts, almost as if vying for Oklahoman of the Year (which, as far as we know, has never been presented). We visited Razoo's, a cheesy restaurant along LBJ in that uncertain space between Valley Ranch and Las Colinas sometimes referred to as Irving. It's a world of fried foods, modest service, dark slacks with white socks--one almost entirely devoid of "pretty people."
The simplest way to achieve the Zen of nonconformity, inside the loop, is to eat at a restaurant that does not offer a trendy tapas menu. "That's what this industry is--trends," says Michael Zeve, chef at the non-tapas restaurant Sevy's. "But if you establish a restaurant on one particular concept and that concept is no longer popular, what are you going to do? Restaurants that stay a course and take care of their guests, they will weather any competition and continue on."
Now, finding a non-tapas place without an Atkins-friendly menu...
Thanks largely to spring planting chores (damn those slave-driving Eastern European mail-order brides), the Burning Question crew missed an opportunity to dine atop the Reunion Tower with our favorite group of...um...professional dancers--a truly unique experience. Our editor begged to go in our stead, but we refused ("I want the strippers." "You want the strippers? You can't handle the strippers."). Yet even without the accumulation of cleavage, tourist sites such as Antares or Baby Doe's draw very few locals.
"Who in the hell eats at Baby Doe's?" says Nancy Nichols, senior editor at D magazine. "I've never heard anybody talk about it, so who goes there?" Still, she admires restaurants willing to find a permanent niche amid the trend-frenzied crowd.
"They haven't changed a thing in 30 years," Nichols adds. "It survived in spite of all the competition."
Speaking of Zen, the establishment most threatening to the city's meat-eating Baptist sensibilities--Kalachandji--beckons from inside a Hare Krishna temple full of incense and Day-Glo togas (if you take a wrong turn, as did several now former members of the crew). Veer correctly and you enter a buffet line featuring a vegetarian menu that changes daily. While the food tends toward mediocre, the setting itself, with courtyard dining, real trees, fountains and patrons in jeans purchased somewhere other than Lucky Brand, is enough to make any of the "fickle 500" of trendy leaders soil their T.J. Maxx ensembles.
If that's too much of a departure, Obzeet offers outdoor/fountain/tree dining sans inner peace. Other edgy-safe establishments: The Londoner (real British fish and chips, plus it's part of the Addison subculture), Angelika Café (dine in a multiplex lobby, then take the leftovers into the theater while you watch Russell Crowe run from the French (sure, he turns around in the end, but talk about suspension of disbelief) and high tea at the Adolphus.
But we selected two experiences considered unusual in a nice, safe, Dallas way. That is, good enough to enjoy, unique enough to brag about and common enough that the experience will not deflate your cool: fine dining at a strip club and the "feed me" meals served at Green Room and Jeroboam.
"You can go to most topless bars and say 'get me some wings,'" says Paolo Stoltz, executive chef at The Men's Club, "but people come here to eat." We tried peppered steak with a lap dance on the side while the lawyer in the next chair (never go in unprotected) ordered a blackened lobster followed by a lap dance chaser. Upscale establishments such as The Men's Club or The Lodge take a certain amount of pride in their food service program, presenting neatly dressed plates, using good ingredients, and other standards of high-end dining.
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Unfortunately, their chefs must compete for attention.
Now, shoving twenties at the Green Room's waitstaff...well, it's just not the same. Chef Marc Cassel's feed-me meal, however, stands as the best nontraditional dining experience in Dallas. It's four courses of the chef's choice and--large parties excepted--each person at the table receives a different dish, every round. "The idea is that you want to invite people to share," Cassel says. When the Burning Question crew wants to impress out-of-town guests, we drag them to Deep Ellum and introduce them to the feed-me concept, which actually started years ago when a patron scanned the menu and said "just feed me." The uncertainty (you don't know what is coming next) and the quality (Cassel remains one of the top chefs in Dallas) add a level of anticipation and astonishment to the evening.
Jeroboam also offers the feed-me menu, and it's downtown, another unusual setting.
And if none of this satisfies your desire for clean, safe, middle-class adventure, there's always Fort Worth.