Of all the different kinds of restaurants, the neighborhood joint may be the hardest to successfully pull off. Say you want to open a fondue shop: All you need's a collection of cheese melting pots. Do you fancy yourself a high-end restaurateur? Get thee to the white tablecloth store!
A true neighborhood restaurant's not a matter of props—although that hasn't stopped countless corporate pubs from plastering their walls with grainy photographs and vintage football pennants. The customers have to be complicit in the venture, because a restaurant where eaters scowl at their servers and ignore one another at the bar doesn't feel very neighborly at all. And winning over regular customers is a good deal harder than buying, say, a set of tiki mugs: It takes food that's engaging, but not too demanding; service that's professional, but not too formal; and a room so warm and welcoming that waiting for a table doesn't feel like any more of an imposition than a beach house-owning friend asking you to have another gin and tonic while the oysters finish roasting.
But who am I to decree what makes a neighborhood restaurant work? Probably the only person in Dallas County qualified to speak on the formula is Nick Badovinus, who this summer completed his Neighborhood Services hat trick with the opening of Neighborhood Services Bar & Grill, a marvel of comfort and class. Badovinus reportedly has a few more restaurants planned: When a Bar & Grill guest recently asked a bartender why Badovinus wasn't in the restaurant on a busy Saturday night, the barkeep said with a chuckle, "Nick's out building his empire."
As far as I'm concerned, Badovinus can stop right now. The Bar & Grill is so uncommonly charming that I'm ready to make it my neighborhood restaurant—and I live 10 miles away.
I've never eaten at the original Neighborhood Services on Lovers Lane, but Neighborhood Services Tavern on Henderson Avenue was one of the first places I visited in Dallas when I moved here in May. The restaurant was fairly new, and I figured I needed to try it so I could keep up with food geek chatter. As I moved on to the next 30 or 40 restaurants on my must-eat list, I didn't think back on the Tavern much: My meal was decent, but the restaurant didn't have the open-arms feel I'd expect from a place stamped "neighborhood." Perhaps that's because I sat on the patio, or perhaps it's because the trendy crowd dining there that night seemed to prize style over sociability, but the restaurant didn't do much to staunch a newcomer's homesickness.
I assumed the Bar & Grill would have a similar vibe, possibly paired with a more conservative dress code. Nope. I first showed up at the restaurant on a Saturday evening, which seemed like a wildly bad idea until I later learned every night's nearly as busy. The bar was smothered with people: There were couples waiting for tables, fortifying themselves with mussels and white wine; whole parties of thoughtful diners who'd vacated their own tables so they might linger over after-dinner drinks; and a few men seeking passably wholesome snacks after a beery day spent watching football. Edging toward the bar, I had to dodge a few servers in bistro aprons dashing through the dining room, their plates of wine-soaked short ribs leaving aromatic wakes.
I finally collared a stool at the far end of the bar, cheating the boundary between the customer area and the service window, where the restaurant's hard-working bartenders—some of the few I've seen locally who jiggle their Boston shakers with the right amount of muscle—set up a parade of elegant mixed and muddled drinks. The Bar & Grill's featured cocktails are attractively austere: I loved the simplicity of a general store-worthy martini served with a lidded glass jar of housemade pickles.
Sliding over to a better seat, I was befriended left and right. The couple drinking wine had roots in Toledo, Ohio, and Kalamazoo, Michigan, and could fluently curse Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson's cranky performance along with me. On my other side was a woman who'd already eaten: "Are you a foodie?" she asked tentatively, before offering to point out her favorites on the menu. My courses outlasted my companions, who turned out to be just the first in a rotating series of conversationalists: I was joined by strangers who bought me drinks, told me secrets and shared their crab dip.
"You have to eat at this place," I told my husband when I got home.
I'm quite sure there are equally friendly restaurants in Dallas. But I haven't yet discovered one that serves such good food. The Bar & Grill's kitchen succeeds not by torturing ingredients in the name of creativity, but by consistently executing platonic ideals of the dishes diners actually want to eat. Restaurant-goers exhausted by rescuing bits of pork belly from yuzu-drizzled spring rolls paired with melon-cilantro chutney will be pleased to know Bar & Grill serves pig by the chop, plating the thick cut with potato salad and an autumnal apple-laced barbecue sauce.
If a full-fledged entrée seems too elaborate, there's a burger and a club salad and meals to be made from the phenomenal roster of starters, many of which are carry-overs from Badovinus' other restaurants, including the sextet of brawny brisket meatballs soaked in a puckish peppercorn sauce. Traveling from restaurant to restaurant hasn't enervated the recipe, a masterful homage to the classic hostess canapé. As the Bar & Grill understands, comfort food doesn't require copious amounts of bacon and cheese.
Indeed, the feta cheese that graced my roasted beet salad was meted out in perfect proportion to the crisp leaves of radicchio, its milkiness tempering the slight bitterness of the greens. The salad—a triumph of balance, with crunchy sugared pistachios playing off tender bits of orange—made me want to recant all my rants about the beet-and-feta cliché.
There are equally impressive miracles of salvage among the appetizers. Who's still serving hot crab dip? Thankfully, the Bar & Grill, where the surprisingly soulful dish has a distinct artichoke tang. And there's probably too much protein on the slim white plate of deviled eggs for any one person to tackle, but it's a fine snack for sharing: The gorgeous procession of eggs, dabbed with mellowing slivers of cucumber and smoked salmon from TJ's Seafood Market, present an Oz-like landscape.
The most stunning dish I sampled was the crisped calamari, dressed with a sweet chile sauce and flung into a riot of sautéed greens, diced mango, pickled red onion, hearts of palm and a smattering of salty crushed peanuts. The preparation sounded somewhat disastrous on the menu, but the flavors melded to wonderful effect. The dish is a looker, too: If a chef consulted an art history text instead of a cookbook—perhaps pausing on the chapter devoted to Matisse—he'd probably come up with something like the Bar & Grill's calamari.
My menu confidant told me she'd liked everything she tried at the Bar & Grill, and my explorations suggest that's a pretty sensible assessment. I was deeply enamored of a bowlful of handmade papardelle, the soft, rustic ribbons of pasta addled with a succulent Bolognese of brisket and ground chuck. It's the sort of dish you could eat again and again, perfectly suited for a restaurant cultivating a clientele that visits a few times a week.
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There's plenty of beef at the Bar & Grill: Both nights I ate there, I had the choice of a rib-eye, tenderloin and a sliced flatiron steak served with fries, still the champion side dish for red meat. The terrifically flavorful flatiron didn't miss a beat: It was seasoned and cooked just as it should have been.
"I could eat here every night," my husband told me when he tasted it.
Neighborhood Services Bar & Grill 10720 Preston Road, 214-368-1101, Open at 5 p.m., Monday-Saturday $$$