With a few days still remaining in December, it's probably too soon to accurately assess how 2010 will be recalled in the annals of Dallas food. And as someone who spent the first half of the year living in North Carolina, I'm surely not the obvious candidate to hold forth on what happened in Dallas County in February. But year-end summations are far too important in the culinary news biz to be derailed by such niggling considerations as perspective and expertise, so let's just press on.
It's no easy thing to classify 2010 as a good or bad year for the local food scene. Almost every event that riveted the food community this year could represent a stride forward or a minor setback, depending upon how you squint at it. Should we be heartened that so many charitable fund-raisers showcased ambitious cooking—or fret about overstretched chefs and diner fatigue? Is the proper response to the reopened Green Room a loud cheer for the folks who bothered to resurrect an icon or a head shake-and-hang at the futility of dwelling on the past?
Since I'd like to have it both ways (see above), I present here two different end-of-year lists, one for optimists and one for pessimists. If you're the sort of diner who thinks servers spit in your food and believes flavored foams are the greatest swindle ever perpetrated against the eating public—who pays for air, anyhow?—you'll want to cozy up with the restaurant closings and chef departures rehashed on the list of five reasons Dallas diners should brace for a lean year in 2011.
But if you're the sort of diner who tips more when your server neglects you, since she's obviously busy, bless her heart, and gladly tries every critter organ set before you, you'll want to skip straightaway to this year's shining edible moments, which provide five great reasons Dallas diners can look forward to an engaging, vibrant local food scene in 2011. I know I'm rooting for it.
The Pessimistic Dallas Eater's Take
1. Money was tight: Money may be the root of all evil, but the lack of it is the root of all troubles in the restaurant industry: Every other bullet point on this list can be tracked back to the flagging economy. Continued scrimping meant chefs citywide didn't have the resources or the confidence to experiment and innovate. Instead, independent restaurants aped corporate cost-cutting measures to keep their dining rooms afloat: Kitchens dispensed with local produce, while Horne & Dekker tried opening without an executive chef. Restaurants can't thrive when customers don't spend.
2. York Street closed: Food lovers who lamented the state of the local food movement in Dallas could always console themselves with York Street, a bastion of the highest-quality ingredients, creativity and elegant technique. Then chef Sharon Hage decided she was done. Citing personal reasons, she closed the restaurant this fall, denying Dallas diners their favorite example of locavorism and food without pretense.
3. Luxury took a nose-dive: Many diners adore Nosh, the moderately priced bistro Avner and Celeste Samuel opened this year. But nobody would mistake the clubby restaurant for its predecessor, Aurora, which for seven years dished out the kind of opulence that made Bear Sterns parties seem tasteful. Turned out, the Champagne cart, foie gras and truffles weren't a good match for a recession, so the Samuels closed Aurora. The number of Dallasites who could afford a dinner with a four-digit price tag is minuscule, of course, but the demise of glitz and glamour is a depressing indicator that dining's migrating from fun to functional.
4. A top chef got the boot: After the lifetime supplies of Buitoni pasta and Glad storage containers are exhausted, after the trips to Spain and New Zealand have been taken, former contestants on Top Chef can still lean on the love and adulation of their hometowns. Except in Dallas, where season seven fan favorite Tiffany Derry found herself out of a job when Go Fish Ocean Club closed suddenly. Derry wasn't the only celebrated chef who had trouble translating fame into fortune this year, but Dallas diners' apparent lack of interest in her cooking was a sad reflection of the community's feeble support for its culinary practitioners who've made good.
5. Theatergoers lost an after-show spot: Dali may not have been the most important restaurant in Dallas, but the 2-year-old One Arts Plaza wine bar—which served far better food than a Chardonnay drinker who glanced at the deceptively simple menu would ever expect—played an important part. In addition to providing the artsy set with crab cakes before and after operas and ballets, the restaurant helped assert the role of the culinary arts in the city's cultural life. Its position in the arts district proved eating and drinking matter as much to a city's intellectual vitality as paintings, sculptures and brilliantly designed buildings—until it shut down without warning.
The Optimistic Dallas Eater's Take
1. 48 Nights was an incredible success: There's nothing wrong with raising tens of thousands of dollars for charity, but the pop-up 48 Nights project wasn't just a fund-raiser. The guerrilla 30-seat restaurant in Oak Cliff, staffed by a rotating series of the city's biggest-name chefs, infused the Dallas dining scene with excitement, energy and a spirit of collaboration that's critical for a growing food community. The sold-out dinners were playful and brave and wonderful.
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2. Paul Quinn College planted seeds: Paul Quinn College had a football field, but since the beleaguered school no longer had a football team, leaders this year transformed the tract of land into an urban farm. The Food for Good Farm is designed to grow healthy food for the surrounding neighborhood—where produce is hard to come by—and teach entrepreneurial skills to Paul Quinn students. But diners across the city should benefit from the expansion of the local farming community, which has long been too scattered and fragmented to develop the distribution networks needed to put fresh ingredients on restaurant plates or flex much political muscle.
3. Jay Jerrier ordered a new pizza oven: The pizzaiolo behind Il Cane Rosso is settling down with a restaurant in Deep Ellum, for which he's ordered a very fancy Italian pizza oven. And Jerrier's not the only producer getting geeky about culinary equipment: Oddfellows, itching to provide a world-class coffee experience in Oak Cliff, installed a La Marzocco Strada espresso machine, while Lockhart Smokehouse—perhaps next year's most eagerly anticipated opening—plans to smoke its meat in a Bewley wood-fired pit. Such commitment to quality and craft means better eating for everyone.
4. Neighborhood Services opened and opened and...: Nick Badovinus spun-off Neighborhood Services twice this year, setting up the schmoozy Tavern on Henderson Avenue and pitch-perfect Bar & Grill in north Dallas. What makes the restaurants notable—other than the highly praised veal schnitzel—is the warm service and real neighborhood feel that's eluded so many Dallas restaurants. The success of Neighborhood Services bodes extremely well for eateries that connect with their guests and serve honest food.
5. The cocktail scene got all stirred up: When Jason Kosmas, the revered barkeep who this year relocated to Dallas, offered a cocktail seminar for fellow pros last year, 10 people showed up. This year, there were nearly 40 bartenders in attendance. Local bartenders are getting serious about fresh ingredients, authenticity, technique, flavor and making Dallas a destination for the nation's drinkers. And where bartenders go, chefs are sure to follow.