The Grape is Stuck in the Past, Right Where it Belongs
Lower Greenville Avenue has seen a lot of change lately, and it's going to see a lot more. An Asian behemoth, Rohst, and a revamped Terilli's have risen from the ashes of a four-alarm fire. Bucket loaders, backhoes and jackhammers are making a mess of the street and sidewalks, and soon cement trucks and steamrollers will arrive to repave them. A new permitting process has challenged establishments that want to stay open late, as the neighborhood applies pressure to undesirable bars.
But for all the change that's molding what will become the new Lower Greenville, a few things have remained constant. And while San Francisco Rose, Daddy Jack's and Blue Goose are fixtures, slinging cheap beer and affordable fare for years, The Grape is the neighborhood's culinary anchor.
Brian Luscher took over in 2007, buying the restaurant from Kathy McDaniel and Charlotte Parker, who'd owned The Grape for 35 years. Luscher closed the restaurant for a couple days, updating furniture, tables and flatware, and adding a fresh coat of paint. He tweaked the menu a little, too, but not by much.
"It became my menu," he told me. The biggest change was in the way he rotated the menu's offerings. The old guard cycled dishes every two weeks, but Luscher slowed down that pace. He saw it as change for the sake of change, and opted instead for a monthly menu. He also canceled lunch hours (business wasn't steady enough) and added Sunday brunch to pick up the slack.
Customers worried he'd muck up a good thing. McDaniel and Parker worried too, but not as much. They didn't just sell their beloved to anyone. They chose Luscher specifically. Before his stint at the Tournament Players Club at Craig Ranch, he'd worked at The Grape for four years. McDaniel and Parker were ready to retire but wanted someone who would keep the place true to their vision and its past.
The back hallway of the restaurant is a testament to that history. Articles from neighborhood rags, alt weeklies, big dailies and glossies line the walls like wallpaper. The pages are filled with gushing prose, describing a restaurant steeped in its own past.
If the hallway is like rummaging through a time capsule, walking into the dining room is like climbing into a time machine. Picture George Herbert Walker Bush taking oath and Back to Future II rocking the box office as you settle in. Those romantic little tables still fill the tight space, and an entire wall-turned-chalkboard still tests the handwriting of the wait staff, just as it has for years. (See correction below). The look and feel may have changed a touch with new owners, but the place still has maintained that old-school atmosphere.
The food beckons another period as well. When was the last time you encountered a whole mint leaf garnish or an off-menu special of baked brie? A scoop of housemade ice cream feels like a culinary anachronism. Steak frites that boast a pair of demi-filets feel retro, too, as does a charcuterie board with grapes and apple slices and massive hunks of cheese.
That charcuterie board is a Grape classic. During a recent visit, two young blonde twins, drinking chardonnay and albariño, sat next to me at the aging bar of worn blue and white tile. They ordered the appetizer (their tradition, apparently) and finished each other's sentences while picking at rabbit mortadella and housemade boursin cheese, scented with garlic and herbs. Your mother probably served a store-bought version of the same spread at cocktail parties decades ago, but it wasn't this smooth, and it wasn't this good.
The rabbit on the board was mild, despite pistachios and large black peppercorns and a thin skin of pork fat. Pork rillettes, blended to a smooth purée, was uninspired. But those are deficiencies I may not have noticed had my bartender not offered a supplemental off-menu treat, a small plate of two thin slices of a venison and veal terrine. The forcemeat was studded with diced foie gras that played brilliantly off an old-school Cumberland sauce, loaded with big, boozy cherries.
The dish was so good it upstaged the entire charcuterie board. If I had my choice, I'd settle for three thick slices of that last flavorful terrine, the other meats be damned. The cheese on the plate could use an upgrade, too. I would prefer smaller portions of beautiful, higher-quality fromage than the accompanying hunk of aged Gouda so large it recalled a cantaloupe slice.
Many chefs get a kick out of talking with inquisitive customers, and Luscher is especially amenable to that dialogue. Offer such curiosity and you may be rewarded, because behind that printed menu lurks a trove of secret dishes, condiments and preparations.
Ask specifically for the calamari. You may hear a faint groan from the guys working the line — the dish remains a favorite after being removed from the menu — but the results will ruin those clichéd rubber-band rings forever. Thick slivers, lightly breaded and flash fried, maintain a tender texture that's rare for squid in bistros. The crispy strips sit in a shallow pool of sweet chili sauce, garnished with scallions like refined Chinese take-out. You may find yourself looking around for chopsticks before you swallow your first bite.
Don't stop your inquisitiveness there, though. There's a hot sauce hiding in the back, and something interesting is always curing. There's also that aforementioned brie, which, like the calamari, was removed from the menu but refuses to stay in retirement. You might like Luscher's version, baked in a blanket of honey. Baked runny cheese is hard to deny. But I made a similar dish far too many times, working my own red-and-white checked restaurant back in high school. It wasn't interesting then, either.
For all the classics on the menu, Luscher does branch out successfully. Sitting in the dining room on another visit, I nibbled on little skewers of minced lamb, aggressive with heat. The lamb was dry, but a salad of watermelon cubes, coated with tiny quinoa sprouts and balanced with pickled watermelon rinds and cheese, was a breath of fresh air. Cool and refreshing, the way a summer dish should be. Perhaps the one part of this miserable season I'll miss.
A well-seared red fish managed to avoid being overcooked, and gazpacho stained red with beets embraced summer's bounty. The moules frites are a competent example of another bistro classic. The mussels are small but the potatoes are excellent, especially with a touch of the broth spooned into the mayo for a brine-kissed french fry dip.
The mushroom soup is a heavy, earthy affair. The intense, rich puree of thickened stock, suspending a small dice of mushrooms, lightened nicely when I added a fresh squeeze of lemon. I wonder if sherry would have the same effect. Luscher's mind might wonder some too, but he'd be a fool to change a dish that's been on the menu this long.
The burger hasn't been around quite as long, but it's certainly not going anywhere. The restaurant sells more than 200 some weekends, ever since Texas Monthly named it, understandably, Texas' best. The sandwich sports high-quality ingredients, including two thick slices of bacon cured on site. Most important, it's cooked carefully. Mine arrived a perfect medium, as ordered — an execution that's rare in Dallas.
But if you really want to understand The Grape, lift your eyes from your menu or plate and look around. You could spend that time reading the words of other writers slathered on the walls, but you're better off reading the room.
That night I sat at the bar, a table of five lingered long after desserts, sipping red wine and talking with the locked eyes of close friends. A fan spun in slowly overhead. The twins had left, but they'd be back another day.
Up front, a couple tucked themselves into a corner nook. It was hard not to wonder what went on under that table, or notice when they both disappeared in the direction of the bathroom. They looked in their 40s, although it was hard to tell for sure. It was, however, clear that they were quite comfortable at The Grape, probably even regulars, acting just like they might have 20 years ago.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the restaurant's table cloths as checked. They're actually plain-old beige.
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