Matthew Mabel sees nothing but blue skies ahead for Dallas' restaurant industry.
Matthew Mabel sees nothing but blue skies ahead for Dallas' restaurant industry.
Judy Walgren

Playing Chicken

Will it slump or bump? Will we be dining on caviar and burping through silk hankies, or chewing Velveeta sandwiches and picking our incisors with plastic straws?

The pessimists are getting delirious. The heralds are all there. Alan Greenspan failed to cut interest rates. Gas costs more than a pound of chicken gizzards, yet is still less than bottled water. Corporate profits are slimming. Stocks are tanking. The Olds 98 will soon be history. now stands for DOA instead of IPO. The world's leading economies all seem to be grinding in concert from a jitterbug to a drowsy cheek-to-cheek shuffle, a vision that is giving some economists sweaty palms.

But Dallas restaurant consultant Matthew Mabel thinks it's nonsense to worry. He offers former Labor Secretary Robert Riech's insight that economic forecasters exist to make astrologers look good. Well, some of us think astrologers look pretty spectacular without the help of economists, thank you.

Yet the question remains: Will there be a downturn in 2001, and if there is, will it rake the dazzle out of Dallas' restaurant boom?

The Texas Restaurant Association doesn't think so. The trade group projects Dallas eating and drinking establishment sales will surge to $5.6 billion in 2001, a whopping 10.9 percent increase over this year. The group gave Dallas just a 7 percent projected growth rate for 2000. Why the optimism in the face of such economic uncertainty?

According to the TRA, "Most employment and income indicators show that Texas' economy is hot enough to withstand slower growth in some sectors." As evidence, they site the six short-term interest rate increases that the Federal Reserve has served up since 1998, all of which had little to no impact on the state's economy.

Yet such assumptions can be foolhardy. "The economic boom produced an abnormally large number of new restaurant openings," says Cuba Libre founder Tristan Simon. "That has resulted in a market glut and incredibly fierce competition, which in turn will force operators to find ever greater ways to deliver a more conspicuous value. In 2001 there will be a conspicuous reorientation toward value."

Which means you may have to tighten your wallet and step down a few dining rungs if you frequent some of Dallas' more upscale and energetically innovative venues. Maybe.

Still, Mabel says there's no reason for rattled nerves. Sure, places with a heavy reliance on expense-account eating (namely, steak) will feel an annoying pinch, but that could be about the extent of the pain. Plus, steakhouses generally have enough padding built in to absorb such shocks.

"The harbingers of bad news about the economy are just emerging now and that could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, or that could just be one bad quarter," he says. "And one bad quarter does not a recession make."

Yet it'll be hard for the current Dallas restaurant market to stand impervious to economic shocks, no matter how thick its fried batter coating might be. That's why many of the city's restaurant watchers predict a move to fast-casual restaurants, those less expensive but high-quality venues with counter service that include everything from Southwestern and Mexican to Asian noodles and sushi. And all without tipping.

How the Stomach TurnsPerhaps the best way to determine where the Dallas restaurant market is going in 2001 is to see where it's been in the year 2000. And the answer to that is "all over the map."

"I'm amazed that restaurants still just keep poppin' up all over the place," says Michael Costa of DMC Hospitality. "And there's no sign of it slowing down. The low and moderate ends of the market have widened the whole market. If there used to be one Riviera to every 10 decent restaurants, now there's one Riviera to every 25 restaurants."

A pair of upscale masterpieces arrived in late 1999, early 2000: Abacus and Voltaire, but there really haven't been that many exquisite upscale entries in 2000, with the exception of Phil and Janet Cobb's Salve! Ristorante, Lola in the former Barclay's space, and Jeroboam in the Kirby Building downtown. The latter is significant for a number of reasons that go way beyond the delicious food and remarkably entertaining wine list. Jeroboam is one of those few restaurants that shrewdly exploit the see-and-be-seen flitting--a Dallas narcotic--by creating a few strategically placed sight lines, while it eschews the concomitant cheesy flash by patching together an interior with materials (woods, granite, glass) from various Dallas historic buildings. Jeroboam has a lot of soul, but it's still horny.

Other significant openings include Monica Greene's exquisite Ciudad D.F., a foray into Mexico City cuisine; the flashy but inconsistent Venus Steakhouse & Supper Club; and the opening in Plano of the Stephan Pyles/Michael Cox Mexican invention Taqueria Canonita, the taqueria that was test driven in Las Vegas for more than a year before it hit this region.

Perhaps one of the most bizarre restaurant openings of the year was Phil Romano's We Oui, the quasi-French casual brasserie serving marginal food and big, bright red lips as a decorative focal point, French language tapes vocalizing pickup lines in the bathrooms, and an apparently aborted gimmick of distributing mint-flavored condoms for your "wee wee" at closing time. There's no better way to say We Oui care.

Moving down a few tiers from the Dallas glam crop reveals a whole new spectrum of fresh blood in Dallas. These include O'Dowd's Little Dublin Irish House and Pub on McKinney; Simon's Cuba Libre on Henderson; Ildefonso Jimenez's tapas bar Hola!; Caribbean Red, a Latin fusion spot in Addison; caterer Jimmy Lee's Silver Room, which was slipped into the former 8.0 space in the Quadrangle; and Charolais Steakhouse at Royal and Preston. Even the chains hit in appreciable numbers with units of Earls, Carrabba's Italian Grill, Buca di Beppo, and Big Buck Brewery and Steakhouse dotting the Dallas landscape.

But all of this dining verbosity introduces stresses that affect the diner, mainly by the quality of the personnel you deal with when you spend your money. Costa predicts a continuing decline in the quality of restaurant service as the thirst for labor heightens. "People that were bus boys just a couple of years ago are now assistant managers," he says. "It's just scary...There's nothing in sight that's going to turn that around."The SpinAnother significant trend to emerge in 2000 and one that will no doubt continue through the new year is the frenzied pace at which existing Dallas operators regurgitate their own ideas. "Everybody's trying to do a spinoff of what they currently have," Costa says. "And there's certainly no sign of that slowing down at all."

The evidence is everywhere. See-Worthy Restaurants' Rockfish Seafood Grills are expanding like guppies around the city, including an upcoming unit in the new Mockingbird Station. Vinnie Virasin of Chow Thai and Mango Thai fame planted Chow Thai Pacific Rim in Plano. Meanwhile, Jay and Gene Potchana, who operate Baan Thai in Lewisville and Royal Thai in Old Town Village in Dallas, opened Royal Spice Thai Bistro in Addison Circle. Also elbowing in on Addison Circle was Jack Ekhtier, who added to his Avanti holdings on McKinney Avenue and downtown with Avanti Euro Bistro.

And the dizziness will continue well into next year. Liberty's Jeffery Yarbrough is fashioning a fast-casual Asian concept on Cedar Springs. Rooster owners Amanda and Todd Tracy have broken ground on a new Rooster in Southlake, and Jeff Sinelli, developer of Genghis Grill, has plans for two more of his Mongolian grills in Fort Worth and Southlake. Even the American Indian-themed Teneya in Las Colinas will soon have a sibling in Plano. Tristan Simon is laying plans for another new concept to take shape next year, and Patrick Colombo's wine bar Cru and the contemporary Tuscan restaurant Ferre are set to go into the West Village project by the beginning of the summer. It will be joined by Mico Rodriquez's (The Mercury, Citizen, Mi Cocina, Taco Diner) new projects Paris Vendome and Barumba.

Yet sometimes this replication falters. Jeff Frankel, founder of Mattito's and the We8it Food Group, developed a similar Mattito's Tex-Mex concept called Ay Carumba and put it in Plano in the space that was once Joshele. Frankel had hoped it would serve as a prototype for expansion elsewhere in Texas. Ay Carumba was shuttered a short time later.

Into the Crypt But while Dallas was a frying pan of creation, it was also a cauldron of destruction, with several longtime mainstays bloodied and driven from view. Yvette, the opulent Addison Continental restaurant/cabaret that opened in 1996 with the involvement of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and former coach Barry Switzer, shut down last summer. It will reopen early next year as, of all things, a banquet hall called Abbotsford Court, operated by Wall's catering.

Another longtime Dallas restaurant that chewed dust was the Asian fusion restaurant Anzu, which went bankrupt and shut down last February after an 8-year stint. It will reopen sometime next year as La Duni, a Latin fusion fandango forged by Espartaco Borga, founder of ZuZu Handmade Mexican Food and a co-developer and partner in Lavendou with Pascal Cayet. Also hitting the star-studded death list in 2000 was Toscana, a one-time searing nightlife crucible and FoodStar Restaurant Group restaurant huddled with siblings Mediterraneo and PoPoLos. It was picked up by Alvin Granoff of the Stoneleigh Hotel and will reemerge as Eccolo, which should see the light of day shortly after the first of the year.

Interestingly, chef Robert Auston seems to have been swallowed in the post-FoodStar Restaurant Group wake after he forged ties with Shared Vision, the company that picked up Mediterraneo and Toscana when FoodStar went belly up. Just after he severed his ties with Shared Vision, his Ianos Trattoria slipped from view.

The body count rises with Reata in Fort Worth, done in by a tornado; Routh Street Brewery, which was shuttered and taken over by Mattito's; "clean foods" eatery Preston's American Bistro; Ketama, the Deep Ellum tapas bar launched by Café Madrid cofounder Ildefonso Jimenez; and Tarrantino's, the Mediterranean tapas bar opened across from Fair Park. But what was perhaps the shortest lifestyle in the history of Dallas restaurateuring was Bosque Café, Edgar Watson's New American restaurant across from the Meyerson Symphony Center. It was open for exactly one week this past fall.

Near-death ExperiencesBut it was not only death that struck the restaurant industry, it was near death. Spots either swapped owners, such as PoPoLos, which was shuttered and then taken over by original owner Maury Jaffer, or were reincarnated. Alberto Lombardi's Dallas-French bistro Bizu was closed, dressed in casual duds, and reopened as an Italian tapas bar called Mangia e Bevi. Bet on another outfit change here in the near future. Gershwin's bolted its doors after some 15 years in operation and reopened as...Gershwin's, albeit under the ownership of Nick and John Natour, who operate The Enclave.

Other changes were mere transplants. Ruggeri's shut down after roughly 15 years and moved across the street to the Quadrangle in the space that was Mediterraneo before it was PoPoLos. Arthur's, the restaurant that has been hovering around Dallas since 1948, finally found a home this year in the Addison space that was Mel Hollen's Bar and Fine Dining. After a retrofit and with doors open for just a week, the restaurant caught fire, destroying the roof of the structure. Owner Mohsen Heidari says he hopes to have the restaurant reopened sometime next year.

MigrationsChefs in Dallas change kitchens faster than Dallas changes school superintendents. It's almost impossible to keep tabs on chefs without a flow chart. Super-Tuscan chef Gilbert Garza transmogrified from chef to chef-owner and purchased the little Northwest Dallas neighborhood restaurant Suze from Suzie Priore. Former Grape and then AquaKnox chef Jason Gorman bumped from The Mercury over to City Café. And then there was Jim Anile. After he was deep-sixed from the Melrose Hotel following an ownership change, Anile struck a deal with the operators of the Green Room to help develop Jeroboam as executive chef. But just before the restaurant opened, he was off to Santa Barbara, California, to charge up a resort called Vacara, leaving Jeroboam's reins in the hands of former Green Room sous chef Garreth Dickey.

Former Zodiac Room chef Sharon Hage severed herself from Salve! after a short and high-profile stint and surfaced at the Hotel St. Germain. Tom Fleming skipped out of the executive chef post at the Riviera to do that duty at Lombardi Mare, and Tim Penn left as executive chef of Brian and Sonya Black's Il Sole, surrendering the slot to chef Jeffery Hobbs. But perhaps the most significant Dallas chef rift was the departure of super chef Danielle Custer, who ended her accolade-stuffed tenure at Laurel's to rejuvenate her career in Seattle, from whence she came.

Another significant rupture struck Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, the huge TGI Friday's parent that picked up the Stephan Pyles/Michael Cox restaurants Star Canyon, AquaKnox, and Taqueria Canonita in 1998. Just after the company opened Taqueria Canonita in Plano, Michael Cox severed his ties. Shortly after that, Pyles' sister Alena, who was appointed executive chef of the Plano restaurant with plans of overseeing development of the taqueria in other cities, left suddenly. Her exit was followed by Stephan's, who left Carlson to "pursue other interests," and curiously retained an equity position in Fishbowl and AquaKnox.

While Cox says he's not fixated with a hunger to draft another restaurant hit--though it could end up that way--he adds he's noticed a few trends that will pick up momentum next year. Namely, the outlying stretches of Dallas are slowly filling with distinctive restaurants and food choices. Witness Thai Tango in Flower Mound and Carlson's Mignon French steak house within a spitball shot of Frisco.

"The public in Dallas is just too used to going out to eat," Cox says. "And it's just become an acceptable affordability."


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