Several years ago Jeffrey Yarbrough thought up a wild idea for his wife's 25th birthday. Anyone could reserve a table at some Dallas hot spot, he decided, but only a hardy few would dare brave the vast uncharted territories outside the metro area. So the owner of Club Clearview and Liberty Noodle loaded everyone into cars and road-tripped to distant Frisco.
"We all drove to a little Mexican restaurant up there because it was so out of the way," Yarbrough recalls. "Now we know people who live there."
Yes, Frisco is booming. It has a mall, hotels and a planned sports complex. Twenty-five restaurants opened since last August, and city planners expect seven more within the next few months. "In the past we went to Plano because it was close and had the selection," explains longtime resident Doug Witt. "Now Frisco has the selection."
Indeed. Mainstay restaurants like Randy's Steakhouse, The Abbey and La Hacienda Ranch have been joined in the past few months by Tin Star, Chili's, Corner Bakery, Macaroni Grill, Krispy Kreme and Red Lobster. Greenville Avenue's popular Terilli's plans to open a branch--Terilli's Sauce--in early September.
Only five years ago, Frisco teetered on the fringe of the Dallas metro area, a town of 13,850. Now some 45,000 people live there, and city hall expects the population to reach 146,000 by 2010. The torrid growth has thus far shielded local restaurants from the economic downturn, even as dozens of new establishments sprang up. "Last year Texas Land & Cattle opened," says Randy Burks, owner of Randy's Steakhouse. "It was the first steakhouse besides us to open in Frisco, and I had the best winter I ever had." The city also added 2.2 million square feet of commercial space over the past 12 months, again without denting retail enthusiasm. "If there's increased competition, I haven't seen it," Burks says. Randy's increased its revenue every month this year, compared with 2000 numbers, and the restaurant plans to break ground on a new addition in two weeks.
All of this growth is enough to make anyone greedy. "We just want to keep building on what's been started and become a restaurant row for folks in the northern suburbs," says George Purefoy, Frisco's city manager. Burks, too, expects big things. "I think we will be the same as Addison," he says.
Yet when people speak of restaurant rows or Addisons or Deep Ellums they refer not only to a location but a character. Deep Ellum and Lower Greenville house some of Dallas' top independent restaurants--Monica's, Green Room, Firehouse, Terilli's. In the popular imagination, independent restaurants add character to an entertainment district. Each district--Addison, Deep Ellum, Las Colinas and so forth--develops a unique atmosphere, based on ambiguous things like identity and population base. One sort of crowd flocks to Deep Ellum, identifying with its noisy urbanity. Another group gravitates toward the automobile-friendly establishments in the suburbs. Addison supports 130 full-service restaurants, and Carmen Moran, director of development services for the town, claims residents there prefer unique establishments. "Red Lobster didn't do well here," she says. "The Shoney's was the worst one they ever opened. Addison customers are discriminating. They like independents."
Restaurateurs naturally try to follow the crowds. When Addison boomed several years ago, popular Dallas locales such as Blue Goose, Sambuca, Aw Shucks, Club Clearview, Ruggeri's and Deep Ellum Café opened branches north of LBJ. Only three restaurants from that intrepid group remain in Addison. The rest closed up and scuttled back to Greenville or Deep Ellum.
"It's a little more family-oriented in Addison and even more so in Plano," explains Matt Mortimer, general manager of Blue Goose, one of the survivors. "You really have to adapt the restaurant to its location and atmosphere." Lunch crowds swarm Addison restaurants. Evening rush brings out families and settled "empty-nesters." At night, however, a more pretentious set takes to the streets of Addison. "I like Greenville Avenue, because Addison is like, 'Hey, Buffy,'" says barhopper Stacie Pakebusch, performing a perfectly timed double pistol finger pointing motion as she mimicks suburban Lotharios.
"To succeed, restaurants must take a strong look at demographics and why people are going out, versus why your downtown crowd is going out," says Tracey Evers of the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association. "In the northern suburbs, restaurants should be more family-friendly." They apparently should serve up a lot of imports, as well.
"Some people love the Addison restaurant, and some love Greenville," says Mortimer. "It's funny to hear both sides."
Aw Shucks failed to adapt to the Addison crowd. The building was too large for the restaurant's famous "honor system" to work, and management lost control of the atmosphere. Club Clearview, however, closed its Addison operation for more mundane reasons. "For us it was a real estate problem," Yarbrough claims. "The landlord was very aggressive. We left the market doing $1 million in revenue, and that was based on two busy nights a week."
Existing space in Frisco rents for $30 to $35 per square foot, according to several restaurateurs, on par with costs on Lower Greenville. The expense alone deters many established Dallas independents from expressing more than mere passing interest in the northern suburb, especially those who struggled with prices in the Addison market. "I'm interested in it now," Yarbrough says, "but real estate prices are inflated. You'll find the independents arriving in the second generation, when all the infrastructure is in place." Indeed, the owners of Terilli's found a second-generation location, a site formerly occupied by Sopranos. Their menu will offer more family-oriented fare (including pizza), and they plan to close at 10:30 in the evening. They paid attention to the Addison experience.
"It's refreshing to see some of the independents taking a stab at Frisco," says GDRA's Evers of Terilli's Sauce, "because rent is high, and it's hard to build."
Aside from Terilli's and the existing independents, chains dominate the new restaurant landscape in Frisco. The area surrounding Stonebrier Mall already resembles every other mall and restaurant cluster in the area, sporting all the familiar names. "It's important to have the independents because it makes us more interesting," says Addison's Moran. "We have a lot of professional couples who eat out several times a week and a large business population at lunch. I don't know how Frisco will do at lunch and weeknights." Families, it seems, rarely find the time to dine out during the week.
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Still, she concedes, "for the family market they're going to have, the chains may do well in Frisco."
Yarbrough refuses to dismiss the surge of restaurant construction to the north. "I think the comparison is difficult," he says. "The Frisco-Plano area has different moving parts than when everyone moved to Addison. There are so many more rooftops than there were six or eight years ago." And Burks dismisses efforts to pigeonhole markets into family or lunchtime or trendy and hip. "When I first moved out to Frisco we saw nothing but families," he says. "In the past year we've seen more business people." New hotels--Westin Stonebrier and Doubletree--send steady business to Randy's Steakhouse. Besides, Frisco's average age barely tops 30, suggesting a young and vibrant population.
Sure, it's hipper to say you own a home in the M Streets than in distant Frisco. But with the experience of Addison to guide them and fresh evidence of a continuing boom all around, Frisco residents don't care.
"Shit," says Witt, looking around at Frisco's glowing neon corridor. "It's all coming to me."