Let's face it: Downtown ain't pretty. With few exceptions, Dallas downtown plays host to big ugly buildings, lots of concrete, little plant life, crowded streets and empty sidewalks. The important thing to remember is that there are exceptions, foremost among them the tiny strip of restaurants and cafes known as Stone Street Gardens. This little cranny connecting Main and Elm streets offers what passes for charm in Dallas--outdoor seating, interesting architecture, cool happy hour and nightspots, a pleasant place for lunch alone or with a friend. Now if whatever was infecting the rest of our poor center city could be eradicated with a dose of smart development like this, we'd be, like, almost a real city.

Fireside Pies

Every man fears "women's drinks" for one reason: Ordering a fruity neon drink may cause a bit of...well...shrinkage. But if you pack more than enough to spare, there's no reason not to fight through the crowds at Fireside Pies and order up a prickly pear margarita. The color alone--a cross between fuchsia and flaming pink--is enough to cause your masculine regions to shrivel up and your voice to reach the eunuch octave. Just think of it this way: They create the drink from a manly portion of tequila; pureed cactus from the very fields where guys like Randolph Scott and John Wayne chugged rotgut whiskey while huntin' down renegade "injuns"; fresh-squeezed lime juice (probably hacked from trees by rusted machetes); and orange liqueur. French stuff--can't help you there. But it's rimmed with salt chiseled from mines deep in the Urals by tough old prisoners from the Gulag. Whatever you need to convince yourself, the effort is worth it. The cocktail is refreshing and has a kick, sweet but not fruity.

It's the weekend. You've worked hard for five days, and you're ready to rip it up. But before you brave Deep Ellum or Lower Greenville, you need a little boost, a way to ease into what is sure to be a night of unbridled debauchery. What you need is Down Bar and Lounge. The Dallas Morning News called this place a "haven for the unpretentious," and we agree. With its laid-back atmosphere and friendly clientele, Down is anything but a downer. Bartenders/owners Tim and Craig are quick with a joke and to light up your smoke, and they'll send you out the door with a smile and a good start to a decent buzz.

Recently, we went on a scotch-tasting journey around Dallas. We ordered the same drink, Dewar's rocks, at many fine bars about town. It wasn't at all unusual for that drink to cost upward of eight bucks. Usually, there was just enough scotch in there to get our scotch buds active, but not nearly enough to placate them. That was not true at The Loon. Long a legend in town for its stiff pours, the bar on the wrong side of the tracks from the West Village proved itself most generous. For $5.25, we got nearly four fingers of the sweet, pale brown liquor. Since you'll be drinking fewer rounds, be sure to tip handsomely. Especially to the bartender with the tattoo on her back. At least we think it was a tattoo. After two of those drinks, it could have been a gecko loose in her britches.

Wait until late, 11 p.m. or even later, then come to the Jasmine Cafe in what's left of the old downtown in Richardson on Main Street (Belt Line Road east of Central Expressway). A mainly Middle Eastern crowd, salted with whatever you call non-Middle Easterners, gathers over thick, sugared Turkish coffee and Turkish Delight candies. The hookah pipes begin to bubble and brew (tobacco in the bowls). You can buy your own hookah for $40 to $100. The sound system plays hits like "Habena," "Toutah" and "Me Alli We Oltelu." In the pale light of parking lots, backs of commercial buildings soften into outlines that could be walls of sun-dried brick. Chatter and laughter in several languages including English continue into the wee hours. The air is cool. Finally, somebody knows how to live in this hot, hot place.

Eulogized by such coolies as Spike Lee, Jonathan Lethem and Tom Waits, the city of Brooklyn has no shortage of die-hard fans. And why not? It's cool, culturally rich and diverse (well, if you exclude Williamsburg). The same could be said for the relatively new Oak Cliff jazz club of the same name. Owners Robyn and Lorna Tate have created a music haven that cuts across color lines to offer one of the most consistent and enjoyable jazz evenings in the city. Resident artists like Martha Burks and the Freddie Jones Quartet pack the house, which is small enough that people in the know arrive early to secure a table. It's a chance to soak up the friendly atmosphere, and the menu offers a sophisticated selection of entrées and finger foods. A smoke-free club with a family-run feel, Brooklyn is one of those rare locales: a live music venue where you can bring your parents and your kids.

Readers' Pick

Sambuca

2120 McKinney Ave.

214-744-0820

The Old Monk

Its happy-hour deals are paltry. It offers no Golden Tee; doesn't have a dance floor; bathrooms are small; front deck overlooks a busy intersection; isn't open for lunch and is often so dark inside you can barely read. Did we mention how much we love Old Monk? This is a bar's bar, a true pub, a place that takes Irish mainstays (lots of good strong beers on tap, very few tequila choices, several great whiskey options) and combines them with a low-key charm and usually excellent customer service to form our long-standing favorite bar in Dallas. In fact, there's a four-seat table next to the double doors that lead to the covered patio. Please sit somewhere else. That's our spot.

Readers' Pick

Adair's Saloon

2624 Commerce St.

214-939-9900

Married people know about scheduling a night out together. With the kids, the jobs and the chores, sometimes you gotta have it on the calendar--tickets paid for, reservations made--or you'll end up at the same pizza joint again. For an easy night of culture and togetherness, subscribe to season tickets at Theatre Three. The 2004-'05 season includes A Woman of Independent Means, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife and Rounding Third. Money, marriage and baseball: What else is there? Several plays on the schedule include free pre-show appetizers provided by nearby restaurants, including East Wind (Vietnamese) and Johnny Orleans Kitchen (Cajun). Or pop into Baker Bros. or Tin Star for an early meal. Après show, hit the Dream Café for coffee and dessert. At least you'll have something to talk about besides Junior's latest report card.

Happy hour makes us just that. So happy. Often for more than an hour. It really is one of the great marketing concepts of the 20th century, right up there with the Marlboro Man and "Be All That You Can Be." It helps those of us who need to unwind with a cold adult beverage before going home to face the crushing conformity and soul-draining small talk that constitute family life in America in 2004. And we get munchies! M Grill & Tap is still our favorite combination of class and cheap happy-hour offerings. From 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, it offers half-price on its beer, frozen margaritas, well drinks and pizzas. Two words: yuh-um. For the sissies, you can get a glass of red or white at the bar or on the patio for less than 4 bucks. Mondays offer even more discounts on bottled beer. If you're reading this on a weekday and it's near quitting time, we both know where you're headed.

Readers' Pick

Blue Mesa Grill

Various locations

Play outside all you want; the mosquitoes are all yours, and good luck with that sunburn, holmes. Us, we like our play time inside--and in an upscale shopping mall, no less, near the food court (Cinnabontastic!) and not too far from the Apple Store, where they sell the 40GB iPod we're too cheap to buy but not to stare at longingly. Besides, this place is awesome: Kiddos can climb all over giant, cushiony replicas of what appears to be the world's messiest dinner table. There's the giant platter of steak and sunny-side-up eggs, a cup of hot cocoa, a giant half of an enormous grapefruit and even a bottle of overturned hot sauce, all of which the little ones run on and jump on and slide down till they're too exhausted to think of eating. The floor's bouncy for the kids just learning to walk, and parents can sit and watch from the comfy seats that line the playground like a fence; there's just one entrance, making it extremely safe. And, of course, the mall's kiddie clothing stores are all neatly gathered nearby, which makes this an expensive day out but well worth it.

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