Pools of melted cheese, surfboard-sized steaks, plates with color wheels that range from beige to French beige: These, for the most part, are the images that come to mind when considering Dallas dining circa 2000. Now, though? Legions of diners, each armed with a WordPress app at the ready and a DVR full of food TV, have begun to scrutinize flavors and ingredients with the discernment of pro eaters — or at least they can fake it. And chefs, both the old guard and an ambitious crop of newbies, are increasingly answering the call of culinary thrill seekers.
Are Dallas and its famously fickle diners still lagging behind their coastal contemporaries? Sure. But in the pages that follow, its chefs sound (mostly) bullish on the scene, encouraged by its evolution, by our collective palate, and by a slow, yet deliberate, trend toward small, chef-driven, neighborhood restaurants that just might save us from wafting away in the chain-restaurant doldrums.
The Go-Tos: Where do you eat when you eat out?
Katherine Clapner, 47, Dude, Sweet Chocolate: Lucia, because Dallas has had exceptionally shitty Italian for so long. So when they opened it was spectacular. El Jordan for a Mexican breakfast. Eno's, Oddfellows, Veracruz and Gloria's are all great also.
Kent Rathbun, 50, Abacus, Jasper's, Rathbun's Blue Plate Kitchen, KB's Woodfire Grill: Maple and Motor, Thai Noodle and Rice, Meso Maya, Nonna and Off the Bone Barbeque.
Stephan Pyles, 60, Stephan Pyles, Fuego, Samar: I like Dean's, Local, Nosh, Bolsa, Hattie's, Private | Social. I like to do brunch at Smoke and Parigi. I get my Indian fix at Sutra and Taj Chaat House. And I like anything that Katherine Clapner, Tim Byres and Matt McCallister are involved with.
Teiichi Sakurai, 46, Tei-An: I love Bruno [Davaillon] at the Mansion — it's not about the Mansion, but more about Bruno's food. I'm from Tokyo and we have a lot of French and Italian culture influence, and every time I go to the Mansion, which is only on special occasions, I feel like I'm in Paris. And Royal Thai is the same way. When I go there I feel like I'm in Bangkok. For American food I really like Smoke and John Tesar at The Commissary — John's palate balance is absolutely perfect.
Mike Smith, 47, The Common Table: Right now Frenando's, Neighborhood Services and One2One. For burgers the Dairy-ette on Ferguson. And a great off the beaten-path place is a Lebanese place called the Hookah Pipe.
David Uygur, 38, Lucia: For Japanese, Tei-An and Yutaka. For Vietnamese, Pho Pasteur in Richardson. For tacos, El Si Hay. We recently had a fantastic meal at Nana at the Anatole. For pizza, Il Cane Rosso. And for Thai, Bambu Thai. Smoke for pretty much whatever Tim's cooking that night. And Jimmy's Food Store for fantastic sandwiches.
Matt McCallister, 30, Campo Modern Country Bistro: I really don't go out much. I prefer to cook at home, and by that I mean ham sandwiches and some vegetables. I'm usually tired when I get home and I eat fairly healthy, but if I do venture out, I like Victor Tango's, First Chinese BBQ, Nana, Teppo, Vietnam, Pecan Lodge, Jimmy's for the Cuban and Afrah.
Dean Fearing, 56, Fearing's: Bugatti's on Northwest Highway is one of the greatest hidden Italian restaurants ever. And all the Asian places, like Kirin Court for Chinese in Richardson. I can taste their Peking duck right now. You want to start with dim sum, then order the Peking duck, which they do three ways. First they bring it out and show it to you, then serve the skin with pancakes, plum sauce and spring onions, which is to die for. Next you get the meat and that's absolutely delicious. Lastly, they take the bones and make a soup with vegetables. It's the best ever and you feel like you're in downtown Hong Kong.
John Tesar, 54, The Commissary: I love Royal Thai, Empire Szechuan and Teppo. I think Oak in the Design District is a fresh, new restaurant and Jason Maddy is a young chef with a great pedigree. And when I want a steak, I love Nick & Sam's; I just like everything about that place.
Jay Jerrier, 43, Il Cane Rosso: Maple and Motor, The Grape and Hibiscus for when we can plan ahead enough to make reservations. Same for Lucia. I had my 40th birthday dinner at Fearing's and that was amazing. We eat at Crossroads Diner at least once a week — best French toast and breakfast sausage. Jimmy's Food Store and Uncle Uber's for sandwiches. Pecan Lodge and Lockhart Smokehouse for barbecue. I love tacos, and [local taco blogger José] Maldonado will roll his eyes at my favorites for sure: Taco Joint, Torchy's (queso!), Velvet Taco, Rusty Taco, Taco Loco, even Tin Star. The Cowboys Cheese Steak at Cowboys Stadium! Why don't more people put queso on a cheesesteak?
Put a Fork in It: What restaurants and trends are you tired of?
Stephan Pyles: We do NOT need another steakhouse.
Kent Rathbun: We definitely need fewer chain restaurants.
Jay Jerrier: Instead of just putting up cold dark shells with metal studs and glass storefronts all over the place, how about rehabbing some of the spaces we have that are interesting? I think the organically grown projects will be more sustainable and successful in the long run. Less red tape in getting things done in the city would also be helpful.
Brian Luscher, 44, The Grape: Less elitist food snobbery. Less "smoke and mirrors."
Matt McCallister: Bitchy eaters. I had a customer not long ago who complained that there wasn't enough duck breast on a dish and that it should be taken off the menu. She overlooked the fact that there were three pieces of fried duck rillettes (which she ignorantly referred to as hushpuppies. Last time I had a hushpuppy, which by the way suck, it was not filled with fatty herbaceous braised duck goodness) and half a duck breast cut into two pieces and a duck glace that takes about 10 hours to make. Not to mention that it is also served with salsify, pickled membrillo and kale. This is a dish that I put a lot of time into preparing and thought into the structure of. For someone to just discount the artistry and bitch about there not being enough duck breast ...
Braden Wages, 28, Malai Kitchen: TACOS!
The Dallas Diner: How would you describe the local palate?
Matt McCallister: Average, but there are great palates out there, as well and a lot of people willing to try new things.
Tim Byres, 36, Smoke: Very particular. People in Dallas know what they like and as chefs we are focused on casting a wide net.
Jay Jerrier: Dallas is pretty provincial. Most people won't go out of a five-mile radius from their house to eat. On the one hand it's kind of nice, as it builds in neighborhood pockets for restaurants. On the other hand I think it limits exploration unless it's destination dining. I think Dallas gets knocked for the "Fickle 500" that flutter from new place to new place, but if you have a good product I think Dallas diners are very loyal and passionate.
Braden Wages: The Dallas diner is increasingly more exploratory. This is no longer only a steak-and-potatoes market. Unfortunately, most diners rarely branch out of their immediate neighborhoods. Dallas is not so large that going to a restaurant should seem "too far."
David Uygur: I have been repeatedly surprised by guests' willingness to try new and maybe off-the-beaten-path things. Since we change our menu frequently, we have tried all kinds of ingredients. The items that generally get the best reaction are the ones that are a bit unusual. We have had great success selling beef tongue, tripe and chicken liver. We even have sold sanguinaccio dolce, a traditional Italian chocolate pudding-like dessert that uses pork blood as a thickener. In fact, the toasted hazelnut semifreddo with sanguinaccio dolce has been one of our best-selling desserts.
Teiichi Sakurai: We're serving things now that previously we couldn't sell at all. The first time sushi was introduced to Dallas was around 1980, and the selection was just tuna, salmon, yellow tail and shrimp. That's it. And only a very small, eclectic group of people would eat it. No one else wanted it — no one wanted to eat raw fish. But now you can get sushi from Tom Thumb and people eat it like potato chips.
Brian Luscher: While the Dallas diner typically wants comfort, flavor, value and quality, as of late they are interested in occasionally trying something that might be out of their comfort zone. Fifteen years ago — hell, even five years ago — sweetbreads, headcheese and pigtails on a menu would have elicited a gag reflex; now diners are interested in unique items on occasion. Are we ready for true nose-to-tail dining? No, although maybe the right chef in a small unique location could be successful.
Brady Williams, 25, Oddfellows: There are a lot of places that are killing it right now that three years ago would have had a tough time making it. Things like craft beer and spirits, local and sustainable sourcing, or even certain cuts of meat were, even only a few years ago, either unappreciated by the mass market or considered a novelty. We still have a long way to go, but we're at the beginning stages of a paradigm shift.
Brent Hammer, 35, Hibiscus: As compared to Los Angeles, where the diners are very fussy, here the customers are easier. I think people that come to this restaurant do so to be a little bit of escapist, to leave it all behind — enjoy the food, their company, the atmosphere and the music. For the most part I don't think their palates are any more or less sophisticated then anywhere else.
Dean Fearing: I've seen the growth of education of the Dallas palate over the last 25 years. It used to be you could serve anything and everyone loved it, but now Dallas diners, including guests from all over the world, have a very well-educated palate. And this education has only strengthened my staff over the last five years. Every plate has to go out as ordered.
Trending Topic: What trends in the local food scene get you excited about cooking here?
Dean Fearing: It's great to finally see some really good neighborhood restaurants. Five years ago we hardly had any, but now there are chefs opening restaurants where you can get great food, good service that is casual and inexpensive. We're starting to see them all over town now.
Teiichi Sakurai: I love that restaurants are using more local ingredients. America has always been influenced by food from different countries: French, Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese. But we have all our own vegetables and local produce, like Texas peaches and tomatoes. So why don't we cook the way Mom used to cook? I think it's an absolutely beautiful culture, and it's about time.
Brian Luscher: I like the trend of dining simply, without it being dumbed down. A lot of times, until recently, it seemed like it was taco trucks or formal dining if you wanted something great; now we can go out on a weeknight, have a great experience and not drop a ton of coin, like at The Meddlesome Moth, Il Cane Rosso, Whiskey Cake, Smoke, Neighborhoods Services, and so many more that I haven't been to yet.
David Uygur: I'm quite happy that more restaurants are producing their own salumi. Other ethnic restaurants that have opened in the last few years are really producing some unique and interesting foods as well. There seems to be a bit more of a whole-animal ethic that is coming up, which is more culinary interesting, and less wasteful.
Brent Hammer: I like the fact that John Tesar opened a burger restaurant. I like that it's a simple food that's been knocked off a thousand times, but there are places devoted to doing it really well. I also like the fact that a lot of restaurants are leaning toward comfort and warmth in terms of their atmosphere and serving great food.
On the Scene: How has Dallas' restaurant scene evolved over the last several years?
Jay Jerrier: [We're seeing] a lot of "back to basics" and traditional items re-thought and elevated: pizza, tacos, burgers and Mex-Mex. I suppose someone needs to really get after Chinese.
Brady Williams: From the industry side, the people I gravitate to are really trying to change the food culture of this city and provide the types of dining experiences that can be found in other, more progressive or developed cities. There's a lot of camaraderie and support among the current generation, stemming from the realization that in order for the food culture in this town to really make some positive strides, we need to be supportive of each other, whereas the old guard seemed to be more anti-competition and not celebrate each other's successes. The more successful we can become, the sooner the paradigm will shift and the culture begin to change, which in turn will ultimately mean a demand for more of these types of places and a consistently higher quality product.
Stephan Pyles: There is much more competition and the quality and diversity of restaurants have greatly improved. Also, and primarily because of the healthy competition, it's rare that a really good restaurant is hard to get into. Diners don't make reservations weeks or months in advance like they did in years past. In the Routh Street, Baby Routh and Star Canyon eras, the better restaurants would actually do less covers than they had reservations for because no one came without reservations and the no-show factor was not balanced by people coming in without them. Today, if I start the evening with 150 reservations, I know I will do at least 175. It's common practice today to come without resies.
Dean Fearing: After I left the Mansion seven years ago, I knew that I needed to get out of strict fine-dining and have great food served with real glassware, Rosenthal bone china, German silver, and have the ambiance, but forget the rules with how you need to come. It used to be that customers wore sport coats and they were told how to sit in the dining room, what to eat, and "No, the chef doesn't make any substitutions." It was a strict atmosphere. All of that has gone away.
Katherine Clapner: We're seeing more independents — chefs that worked for other people are going out on their own and doing very well. That's a great thing to see. People are starting to go outside of main areas, like Highland Park Village, to eat. They're leaving their comfort zone to come to restaurants here in Oak Cliff.
John Tesar: When I first got here, there was just me, Dean and Stephan and then Nick and Sam's, Al Bernait's, then Tristan Simon's world exploded on Henderson. Now we're seeing real chef-driven restaurants everywhere.
Brian Luscher: Diners are savvier now more than ever, and chefs are able to showcase some culinary wizardry on their menus.
David Uygur: When I first moved to Dallas, there were few restaurants that featured local produce. Now that is much more of a focus, despite our difficult climate. I also believe that our customers are more aware of interesting ingredients and preparations, are willing to try more adventurous things.
Braden Wages: More often people want to know where food is from and the quality of the ingredients used in their meal. And, increasingly, Dallas restaurants are able to provide that information. Craft cocktails, pho and sushi are officially mainstream, and diners have established cravings and appreciation for them. In the near future, I think you will see a strong preference for healthy, flavorful dining options such as Asian and slow-food restaurants.
Brent Hammer: One thing I didn't like about working in Las Vegas a few years ago was that we had a lot of restaurants with a lot of flash and no substance. I think the restaurants here have substance. Some are bordering on or have reached iconic status, and it just needs to keep going.
Jeff Harris, 35, Bolsa: It's definitely evolved in the four years I've been here. There's the older guard — Stephan, Dean and Kent — those guys are still doing amazing stuff and they keep pushing. Then there's also a group of younger chefs, like David at Lucia, Tim at Smoke, Tiffany, Jay and a lot of people that are introducing different things. It's a very exciting time for the city.
Bring it On: What does Dallas need to make it a more interesting place to eat?
David Uygur: I believe that any good food city has a great variety of small, unique freestanding restaurants and less emphasis on big chains. It would be great to have more focused restaurants as well (Tei-An and their focus on making soba noodles and Il Cane Rosso making great Neapolitan pizza both being good examples). It would be great to have a deli where they prepare all their own meats and breads. Some quality ramen noodle houses would be cool, too. I certainly don't think that Dallas needs another steakhouse.
Matt McCallister: More detail, less food. Do you really need to eat that much?
Dean Fearing: Camaraderie. If we want Dallas to move forward and become a great food city, we all have to work together. And with that, a humble attitude goes a long ways. I learned at an early age that you should be very happy about the success you have and you should also always strive to be better and move forward. If we want to become a great restaurant town, then it's going to take all of us to make that happen. Every place has to be good.
Jay Jerrier: I would love to see some more communication and interaction among the independent restaurants in Dallas. Like with artisanal pizzerias — it shouldn't be cut-throat. Dallas is big enough to support good pizza. We should all be working together, like a rising tide lifts all boats. A good example is our Monday Industry Night; it has been so surreal having all these big-time chefs making pizzas and it's fun for the staff and for the customer. We all need to lighten up a little bit. I love Jimmy's Food Store. We get a lot of our stuff there, but we could sure use some more Italian markets. Growing up in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, it was unusual if your convenience store wasn't an Italian market with insane grinders. We could use a D'Nics or Tony Luke's here for sure.
Braden Wages: Bakeries and restaurants offering cheese and charcuterie.
Stephan Pyles: More offals, entrails, charcuterie, house-baked breads. There's currently (and oddly) a dearth of quality but casual Texas-inspired chef-driven restaurants. I hope to add one in the summer. Just as New Orleans has a certain Creole style that says "NOLA," Dallas should have that same flavor but in a more Western/Southwestern manner. More chiles please.
Kent Rathbun: It could use more innovative food concepts in a more casual setting. Seems like the trend for restaurants is a fun, casual atmosphere with awesome menu options.
John Tesar: Dallas needs more small, chef-driven restaurants that understand foodies.
Teiichi Sakurai: I would like to see some high-end Chinese restaurants. They don't have to be expensive, but authentic with homegrown cooking and really selective produce.
Brady Williams: I'd love to see some traditional Japanese fare other than sushi, like ramen. Dallas needs more ramen. I'd also like to see more offal.
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Brent Hammer: In terms of food trends, it all kind of comes and goes. People stay the course when they're focused just on good food, like The Grape; the food is simple but it's awesome.
Tiffany Derry, 29, Private | Social: Singaporean food needs some representation in the Dallas food scene.
Katherine Clapner: Good Chinese. I'd be happy with that. Or Indian food south of 635. I love the Oriental grocery store out on Old Denton Highway and wish there was something closer. More local growers and a better farmers market.