"She was a good cook, as cooks go, and as cooks go, she went." Occasionally a cliche loses all relevance--this line (supposedly of S. J. Perelman's) makes absolutely no sense at all now that nobody has a personal cook and there's only one place that even claims to want to do it your way. (Of course, you can interpret Perelman's aphorism to mean that Mom's still the cook for most of us and sure enough, the divorce rate continues to skyrocket, as moms get fed up and go.) But--only slightly paraphrased--it does hold true for the cook's work place. The number of annual restaurant closings nearly equals the number of openings. (A good proportion if it were just confined to brewpubs.) In other words, there are lots of good restaurants out there, as restaurants go, and most restaurants go.
The new year is as much a time to rest against proven wisdom (or cliches) as to form hopeful new resolutions; remember, the old Roman Janus had one face looking forward and one backward. Out of this year's crop of new restaurants, I certainly have my own favorites, but rather than set forth my personal top ten (relying again on an adage, "de gustibus non est disputandum," meaning my favorites very likely won't be yours anyway, or one man's food is another man's dog food), it may be more interesting to indulge in some New Year's soothsaying and make an educated prediction as to which restaurants will still be here next year.
The first thing to remember about restaurants is that, basically, they're just real estate. So, "location, location, location" becomes the relevant cliche. Some supposedly jinxed spaces see half a dozen restaurant tenants come and go in a single year; some seem to thrive inexplicably just because of where they are. But the main reason most restaurants fail is shortage of capital. You have to have enough money to float the thing until the slow and stupid public gets to your door and proves it will come back. Keeping these truths in mind, it seems that Seventeen Seventeen at the Dallas Museum of Art has it hands-down in a bid for continued success--it's certainly had a full house ever since it opened. With the considerable expertise of the high society catering firm, dani Foods, behind it (along with the considerable financial support of dani's owner, Robert Hoffman, Jr.), the star quality of executive chef Kent Rathbun, and the hands-on talents of chefs George and Katie Brown, it's hard to see how Seventeen Seventeen could not be a winner. And though you may (and I have) deride a city that wants to make its art museum a mall, you have to grant that Seventeen Seventeen will have done us all a favor if it attracts even one person to the museum for dinner who would not go there for, say, an exhibit of underlit but unusual objects from the Momoyama period of Japan. Who knows? Perhaps that one person will see something neat on his way up the barrel vault to the restaurant and return to the Museum for the actual art. Seventeen Seventeen, by being the center of Dallas' social whirl this season, has actually transformed a possibly terrible location (cultural institution) by Dallas standards, into a desirable one (chic restaurant). Truthfully, the elegant interior design by Paul Draper and the imaginative food would probably make Seventeen Seventeen a success even without its pretty classy but unnecessary appendage of an art museum.
Seventeen Seventeen may have garnered the most attention in the Dallas society columns in 1996, but nationally, Eatzi's got all the ink. The restaurant world is watching Brinker International's new concept closely to see if it works; if it does, that world will be filled with variations on this home meal replacement palace, designed for the formerly invisible niche between grocery stores and restaurants. In other words, Eatzi's is specifically for those previously umarketed-to and conflicted individuals who don't want to cook but don't want to eat out. (What to do?!) Rumors abound, as they say. Some assert that Eatzi's gigantic overhead is killing any profits, and that's why the roll-out of new units has been taking so long; others maintain that Brinker is just fine-tuning a business that has turned out to be successful beyond any Chili's-inspired dream. Even if Brinker can't groom it into the kind of cash cow he likes in his stable, the Eatzi's concept has carved a niche in Dallas that will be filled by other opera-blaring grocery stores masquerading as boutiques. Already there are other gourmet shops opening in its wake (City Harvest, for instance, operated by a trio of refugees from Marty's, the erstwhile queen of Dallas gourmet shops) and one, Sigel's in Addison, has enough money (see above) behind it to make it a real contender. In the same way that first La Madeleine and then Empire Baking Company raised our yeast expectations, Eatzi's has raised our grocery consciousness; Dallas pantries will never be the same, whether Eatzi's goes or not.
Experience does not invariably result in good judgment, but it generally helps a little. So backing a veteran hedges your bet. One crazy thing about the restaurant business is that, once someone has established a place (by working 18 hours a day, seven days a week), for some inexplicable reason, they're impelled to go out and open another one. A number of such fanatical old Dallas hands opened restaurants this year: Jack Chaplin opened his Wood Grill in Deep Ellum (in the best location in Deep Ellum, I might point out), and his ex-partner in Daddy Jack's, Kenny Bower, cloned the original and called it Lefty's. Thanks to these pros, I expect we'll be eating Ritz-cracker-stuffed fish well into the next millennium.
Picardys Shrimp is the creation of Mansion veteran Angus MacKay and Red, Hot and Blue partner Don Lindsley, whose upscale background is only evident in the smooth service. Picardys atmosphere is unpretentious; the seafood, mostly shrimp, is reasonably priced, and excellent.
The musketeer trio of Franco Bertolasi, David Holben, and Michael Caolo opened Toscana, another version of their glitterati trattoria formula, this one with genuine sex appeal--Franco's daughters, Bianca and Tessa, run the place. Pascal Cayet opened Lavendou, a North Dallas expansion of Chez Gerard which, despite the dilatorily Gallic service and the serious problems with the woodburning oven (a piece of equipment which should receive "appliance of the year award"), still stands a chance of survival just because it's the only decent French restaurant north of LBJ. Alberto Lombardi, one of Dallas' savviest restaurant entrepreneurs, recently opened Lombardi Mare in Addison, another design coup for Paul Draper. Just original enough to keep it from seeming formulaic, just elegant enough to make you feel like you've been "out to dinner" (not just replacing a home meal), just inexpensive enough to make it easy to eat there often, Lombardi Mare beautifully walks the thin line between tres chic and mass-produced, and it's probably the first in a Lombardi's school of Italian seafood restaurants.
If idealism was always rewarded, then Russ Hodges' Americana would stay open for good. Technically, chef Hodges opened the restaurant in 1995, but he bought it from the original owner in 1996, so it squeaks into this discussion on a technicality. Americana is the one place in town that has remained true to the faith in regional American food that sparked the whole new American food revolution. Hodges was part of that movement when he was kitchen staff at Routh Street Cafe (which was located in the same old house now home to Americana), and his restaurant's menu is proof that he's never forgotten those principles. But even though the dining rooms are beautiful in an American minimal style and the food is wonderful in an American opulent style, Americana is just now shaking off the shadow of its real estate which has been slightly haunted since the Cafe closed.
There are lots of niches in the Dallas restaurant scene that have yet to be filled--we don't have a good Indonesian restaurant, for instance (anyone else longing for rijstaffel?), nor can we indulge our taste for Scandinavian gravlax or Hungarian goulash. But our world is getting bigger--the wild success of tiny Cafe Izmir, the low-budget sleeper of the season, proved that we have an appetite for the exotic (or for anything besides cheese enchiladas). Izmir's bossy one-price-for-dinner menu, intensely flavorful Middle Eastern food, and faux-undiscovered atmosphere guarantees it continued success, as does its owners' vaunted policy of no expansion, no cloning, no Addison. Marrakesh, from another country new to Dallas' culinary map, likewise seems here to stay for awhile. The plush, windowless dining room is as private as a harem; the food, much of it mingling meat with sweet, is luxuriously foreign; and, especially on weekends when the belly dancers get those quarters rolling on their stomachs...well, dinner at Marrakesh has multiple attractions. So does La Valentina, the big-budget Mexico City restaurant in Addison with the mariachi soundtrack, but Valentina has more square footage to sell, and whether it can convince Dallas that a Mexican dinner should round out at about 20 bucks will be interesting to see. I wouldn't put pesos on it, myself, much as I like those little fish tacos.
That's not to say there's not always room for another great cheese enchilada, and Omega, nothing but a friendly little Tex-Mex restaurant cleverly located in Deep Ellum, provides one. It's bound to be there for a while for the same reason Lavendou might last in Addison--it's the only one around.
Finally, speaking of staying and going, a sad farewell to Larry North's nightmare, a restaurant institution that never counted a fat gram, never had a North Plate. Forgettable restaurants are shuttered every day and no one remembers, but an institution like the Highland Park Cafeteria is a rare thing. Its passing deserves mention and perhaps a moment of salivating silence to reflect on the now-gone zucchini muffins, chicken and dumplings, overcooked vegetables, perfectly triangular cakes of fried cod, chocolate meringue pie, the best iced tea in town, and our family's favorite birthday cake, the big square devil's food. A clean, pleasant dining room, helpful, friendly waitstaff, a wide selection of comfort food--what more does a restaurant need to survive? Who can tell?
Favorite Foods of 1996 in no particular order:
House Smoked Turkey and Bacon Club Sandwich on Raisin Pecan Bread with Horseradish Mayonnaise $8.00
Grilled Sweetbreads with Giant Mushrooms $8.25
La Valentina de Mexico:
Los Tacos de Don Elias $8.50
French Onion Soup $4.75
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Grilled Shrimp Taco $6.75
Pesciolini Fritti $6.25