Norma's Cafe

"We eat here every Friday because Norma's is Oak Cliff," said businessman and community activist Ralph Isenberg. Norma's is that and much more. It's an archetypal Southern breakfast and lunch spot, a place that feels familiar from the first visit, and, best of all, it's a living time capsule of a long-gone Dallas. Opened in 1956, Norma's has defied modernization. As a result, the effect is that of having ventured into one of the black-and-white photographs that crowd the walls. As you wander around the two spacious rooms you see neither the crumbling Texas Theater of today nor the already seedy hideout for Lee Harvey Oswald, but a glamorous and spiffy movie basilica with Gable and Harlow on the marquee. The staff provides a similar window on the easy, unstudied friendliness of an earlier Dallas.

La Madeleine

It's French, which helps, but what sets La Madeleine apart from other food-court stops is the tastefulness of the place. For one, the food at La Madeleine is flat-out better than anywhere else in the mall: The tomato basil soup is the best; the pesto pasta salad is light yet alive with flavor; and just try to stop at one cup of strawberries Romanoff. Secondly and, to be more accurate, amazingly, the procession to place an order and receive food has the ease of a fast-food line without the feel, once in line, that we're all orphans in a Charles Dickens novel, food trays extended, waiting for our gruel.

Cosmic Café
Catherine Downes

Cosmic Café is the one vegetarian restaurant where we can go knowing our carnivore friends aren't going to leave us alone at a table for four while they go down the street to a burger place. The converted house is funky but not too scary (unless you find murals of monkeys, sitar music and a fish tank scary). The same goes for the food. Indian-inspired veggie-based dishes with funny names (Buddha's Delight, Herban Renewal, Sufi Special) are zesty and fresh but not tofu/textured vegetable protein/Quorn terrifying. The less adventurous have options, too. There's also cake, smoothies, beans and rice, ice cream, and peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches (served on nan, not on white bread, of course). The ultimate test: We took our small-town, steak 'n' taters, falafel-what? mom, and not only did she find something to eat, she liked it and asked to go back. Vegetarians don't have to eat alone!

Readers' Pick

Cosmic Café

Iron Cactus

This is really no contest. How do we know? Because our wife is the margarita-drinkin'-est fool alive. You think you're a 'rita fool? You couldn't out-fool her on the foolingest day of your life if you had yourself an electrified fooling machine. We're talkin' 'bout a fool. And when she first stepped her fool foot in Iron Cactus, she ordered herself a house margarita and quickly proclaimed it the best she'd had that year. Potent but not overly tequila-ed, tart with a hint of sweetness, this drink alone makes it worth trying to find a parking place downtown. And, most likely, deciding to hitch a ride home after downing more than one of them.

Readers' Pick

Mi Cocina

Various locations

Behold, a pouch of tiny mushroom magic (not that kind of magic).
Beth Rankin
Behold, a pouch of tiny mushroom magic (not that kind of magic).

God knows how many times we found ourselves on Lower Greenville on a Saturday night in the mid-'90s with a woozy tummy in need of filling. Happened every weekend, it seemed, and always we'd sprint (or wobble, whatever) over to chef Teiichi Sakurai's Teppo, which was awesome not only because of its location but because it served up some of the best sushi in the city. Six years ago, Sakurai opened up this hoity-toity companion restaurant, and it remains the best Japanese joint in town; come for the Kobe steak, stay for the fried soft-shell crab and marinated sea bass and quail on a stick (the latter of which used to be our nickname in high school). And in between, have the gentlemen behind the counter hand-roll you a little sumpin-sumpin. It'll get you high.

Readers' Pick

Blue Fish

3519 Greenville Ave.

214-824-3474

What do Madonna and Mike Modano have in common with dozens of other celebrities and athletes and thousands of ordinary citizens who love good food? According to Chris Walter, Midwest regional partner, all have serious vittles--cooked and uncooked--delivered to their homes by Horizon Foods. "Our trucks pull up to the door, and our representatives put the food right in our customers' freezers." In business since 1979 and in Dallas since 1997, Horizon provides a wide array of seafood, steaks and poultry, as well as dozens of other items including soups, pizzas, hors d'oeuvres and desserts. All uncooked items are trimmed and individually wrapped, and every item comes "guaranteed to your palate. If you don't like it for any reason, we'll happily exchange it," Walter says.

The Meridian Room

Old-fashioned drinks require a certain atmosphere. Not necessarily a clubbish dark wood and leather, billowing clouds of cigar smoke, British accents type thing, mind you. Cocktails like the negroni or the mint julep or the old-fashioned call out for a bar. That is, a room dominated by a long counter backed by rows and rows of alcohol--the kind of place your grandfather frequented back when the greatest generation led this country through Prohibition, the Depression, war. You know, the good old days. The Meridian Room is such a place. Sophisticated without being fancy, it's a throwback in time listing a number of classic cocktails on the bar menu.

Avila's Mexican Restaurant

Yeah, yeah, we know. This is Tex-Mex, not true Mexican cuisine. With food this good, though, why be so persnickety? This tiny restaurant in a brightly painted converted house on Maple Avenue has all we expect in a Mexican joint--tasty, cheesy enchiladas, fiery salsa, creamy guacamole and rich tortilla soup--plus it offers something we don't expect. You can actually eat a full meal here and walk away without that heavy lump in your stomach that we call Tex-Mex belly. Lighter on salt and grease than typical Tex-Mex fare, Avila's food nevertheless is full-flavored and rich. Try the chicken enchiladas with tomatillo sauce--even avid calorie counters won't feel too guilty. The recipes are variations of the dishes Anita Avila and her husband used to cook for their houseful of guests, says son Ricky, who works there along with his mother and brother Octavio. A mother's touch--that must be what makes the food so special.

Readers' Pick

Luna de Noche

Various locations

Brothers Fried Chicken

We have this aunt. Her name is Lena. Well, technically she's a great-aunt, as she is our grandmother's sister. Anyway, her schtick is that she's always cooking. You walk in her house, any time of the day past 11 a.m., and there is a huge cast-iron skillet full of chicken frying sitting atop her stove. And the smell is unbelievable. So you would make up excuses to go there--"Gotta take Aunt Lena some Aquaman comics, so see you later!"--just so you could eat this juicy, sumptuous, peppery fried chicken. And when we moved away, we were sad, because we didn't think you could find fried chicken like that. And then one innocent day, we ordered fried chicken from Brothers. And we ate so much we got sick. And we cried on our bones and called Aunt Lena that night just to say hi. What we're saying is the chicken here is damn good.

Readers' Pick

Circle Grill

3701 N. Buckner Blvd.

214-324-4140

Pogo's Liquors Inc

Why is Pogo's a great place to shop? It's not because it covers just about every wine region in existence, or because it has low-riser wine racks instead of those floor-to-ceiling high-rises with Bordeaux avalanche insurance, or because it has a friendly staff who tell you what the heck's up with the Lois Gruner Veltliner from Austria. It's not even because it has a broad selection of wine half-bottles or because it stocks Hanger 1 Vodka Buddha's hand citron at eye level. It's not even because it carries accessories like martini olives, corkscrews and specialized beverage glasses. No, it's great because it carries stuff like that often harsh grape sludge spirit known as grappa with varietal labels such as Dolcetto, chardonnay and pinot noir.

Readers' Pick

Goody Goody

Various locations

Best Of Dallas®

Best Of