Murray Street Coffee Shop
As we write this, we know some colleague is hunched over a laptop somewhere, pounding out words of deathless prose about the Best Coffee Shop in Dallas. We can only hope Murray Street Coffee has been chosen, but if it hasn't, the lovely little spot at Main and Murray streets needs at least a little cred for its mellow Wednesday night groove, complete with a DJ who rolls from experimental post-rock to deep reggae cuts—on vinyl, usually—whilst you sip your latte, Stella or mimosa. The sounds strike a perfect balance between background music and primary entertainment, as the mix snakes its way down the cute stairwell to the second floor, winding its way around your mod Plexiglas table and the pillows of the comfy vintage couch that holds your derriere. The owners of Murray Street are music heads, so there will always be something good on the sound system, but Wednesday nights are a special affair.
Want to show someone the Trinity River, up close and personal? Just take them over the bridge on Sylvan Avenue, where the river flows leisurely mere feet below the road (or sometimes a few feet above the road, as it did in July), the Dallas skyline looming clear and unobstructed before you. There's even a place to pull over so you can take in the view, watch a pick-up soccer game, marvel at the egrets and hawks as they fly overhead and have a serious talk about what a shame it would be to see it all mussed up with a goddamn toll road.
Galleries located on small-town squares usually aren't exactly on the cutting edge of the art world. But in Waxahachie there's a rare jewel that doesn't traffic in bluebonnet photos and Thomas Kinkade prints. Since 1987, the Webb Gallery has been a haven for killer oddball stuff, a fitting description for the outsider art and folk detritus that adorns every available space in the 10,000-square-foot building off the Waxahachie square. Whether it's old carnival banners, a collection of creepy Masonic masks or a cubist painting of a country singer, you're sure to find something that will catch your eye and remind you how wonderfully weird the people of Texas can be.
At 15, this Hockaday School 10th-grader already has played the great trifecta of young girls' roles: Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. She's a star in major productions at Dallas Children's Theater, where she also volunteers in their theater summer camps. "I loved acting from the first time I was onstage," says Pam, who first hit the boards at age 5. She also has an interest in moviemaking and every Father's Day makes a short film for her dad, Dick, a Dallas lawyer who shed a few tears as he watched Pam play young Helen Keller. She says she hopes to study at an "artsy college" and continue acting for as long as she can. "The best thing you can have is an audience that laughs or gasps in the right places," says Pam. "The audience is one of the greatest parts about acting." And fine acting like Pam's is one of the great things about being in the audience.

CULTURE: Queens of Hearts (and Other Places)

To reach Mistress Zaria's palace of pain, you must get on and off two freeways, negotiate tricky turns through a bland suburban subdivision, go over a bridge and continue right on through the looking glass. The black-clad kitten in spiked heels and Amy Winehouse eyeliner may or may not give you the most direct route to the rented two-story condo she uses for her appointments as a professional dominatrix. She often sends first-timers down a rabbit hole or two before allowing them to cross her threshold.

"If they finally make it, I might take them on," purrs Zaria (who will reveal only her nom de domme).

Pass the entrance exam and you will gain admittance to Mistress Zaria's "dungeon," a converted bedroom decorated in early Marquis de Sade. Black vinyl walls gleam under blood-red light bulbs, reflecting eerily in floor-to-ceiling mirrors. In the corner by blacked-out windows a massage table hulks under a thick vinyl sheet. A motorized hoist raises and lowers a leather swing.

In a closet hang tools of Zaria's trade: stiff wire brushes, brass knuckles, nipple clamps, paddles, riding crops, feather dusters, floggers, masks, blindfolds and gags. With her collection of props and contraptions, Zaria ties up, chains, handcuffs, whips, spanks and physically hurts and humiliates her clients, who pay $200 (and up) an hour for the privilege.

She'll grant almost any request as long as it's legal and not "too personal." Dominatrices do not have sex with the men (and very few women) who seek their services. Zaria's specialty is sadomasochism laced with fetishism. Want to be slapped, strapped, sat on and spit on? She's your girl. She'll fulfill your desire to have your bare fanny tanned by Wonder Woman (one of her most requested costumes), and she'll enthusiastically play the role of sassy secretary turning the tables on the boss. She'll shake Jacob Marley's chains for a naked make-believe Scrooge. But she won't do baby-diaper scenarios or "doctor stuff." Don't ask for strap-ons or "anal training." She has limits.

"One man wanted me to throw cream pies at him," Zaria says. "That sounded too easy, so I refused." Another offered to pay her $200 to take him to a barber for a haircut. "That was too much like a mommy thing. I didn't trust him."

Of her hundreds of clients—she books three to four a day, seven days a week, she says—at least 25 percent are into cross-dressing. They're the biggest flakes, she says, but she'll dress them up in frilly frocks and then dress them down, verbally, physically and emotionally, if they pay enough.

For more than a decade, Zaria, who's in her late 30s and has a degree in business, has entertained the whipping whims of a loyal clientele. She became a professional dominatrix—a woman who dominates others for pay—through her involvement in the local "leather community." A bondage-discipline-sadomasochism seminar taught safety measures such aspre-appointment phone interviews to weed out "weirdos." Good customer service, she learned, means no insulting penis size or weight—unless that's what the guy is into.

Who are her customers? Zaria says her average client is 45, white, Republican and holds a supervisory- or management-level position. He's married, has kids, goes to church and belongs to the country club. As often as twice a week, he visits Zaria's candlelit lair to give up all control and act the part of helpless submissive. In her appointment book are names of top executives at Merrill Lynch and American Airlines. Her youngest client is 22. Her oldest is 82.

At least a dozen professional dommes currently practice in the Dallas area. The legendary Mistress Ruth Cole, a 300-pound hard-core dominatrix, was the greatest of them all, by many accounts. She trained a number of currently practicing domination/submission specialists, including Mistress Zaria, before her sudden death in 1996.

Through conducting consensual acts of domination and submission for money, dommes permit clients to live out taboo fantasies in safe, sane environments. Relinquishing power to the domme, the submissive finds an emotional and erotic outlet. "Scenes," as sessions are called, use a "safe word" to prevent the dominatrix from going too far. "You have to be careful when you're dealing with someone's head," says Mistress Zaria. Some men say "no" or "stop" as part of their fantasy. Only by uttering the safe word—Zaria tells subs to say "mercy"—does all play end immediately.

In a quiet second-floor apartment overlooking a lake just outside the Dallas city limits, Mistress Montana looks more like a Junior League soccer mom than a veteran dominatrix. Dressed in a beige sweater, black skirt and leopard-print stomp-me pumps, the pretty 40-year-old blonde welcomes visitors into a living room appointed with beige furniture and watery art prints. She's a mother of two kids in private school and owns a home in an upscale bedroom community where neighbors have no idea she earns $200 to $300 a session applying hardwood paddles and cats o' nine tails to the pale buttocks of middle-aged CEOs, high-profile real estate developers and at least one local TV newsman.

A typical appointment involves conversation, maybe some light refreshments, then a trip to her dungeon. Montana's recreation room is a windowless red and black den filled with things that make men go "ouch," including a full-body swing that supports up to 850 pounds. Speaking in a hypnotic murmur, Montana will blindfold a client, run her fingernails up and down his naked torso—"I like to say I'm inspecting my property"—then transition to the dark side. "They can tell me what they like, but in here, it's my gig," says Montana, who expresses a preference for hardwood spanking devices. Like Mistress Zaria, her safe word is "mercy."

Montana was drawn toward domme-dom after working as a phone-sex operator 20 years ago. Most callers were submissives seeking discipline from a sexy-sounding dame. "I did research into the psychology of it, into the profile of the person who longs for that. It's almost like being a sex therapist," says Mistress Montana. "So many of them, their mamas really messed them up. They can't talk to anyone else about what they need. They'd feel too exposed telling their wives. So they come to me on their lunch hour."

What she won't do: fisting, knife play, blood sports, "brown showers" (look it up at your peril) and "Roman showers," which Zaria won't do either. (Don't look that last one up. You don't want to know.) She also refuses to take on personal slaves who want to dress like French maids and do household chores. "They never get the floor clean, and they're always underfoot," Montana says.

One of her favorite games involves attaching a line of wooden clothespins to sensitive areas, then suddenly ripping them away. Mercy. — Elaine Liner

You couldn't turn on a Top-40 radio station this year without hearing Justin Timberlake's bold declaration: "I'm bringing sexy back." At first, his claim seemed silly. Sexy told us it loved us, and it made us breakfast. But then sexy never called. Actresses lost so much weight that ribs became the new breasts. We were forced to visualize Senator Larry Craig legislating all over some dude in an airport bathroom. And in a final, crushing blow, Jenna Jameson gave up pornography, for fuck's sake (or, rather, for not fucking's sake.)

But watching sweet J.T. slink across a stage or a television screen does remind us that once, there was sexy. The same thing happens when you walk into the Velvet Hookah. Oversized plush cushions cover the floor, surrounded by gauzy jewel-toned curtains. Dim lighting casts shadows on the elaborate, phallic glass hookahs on every table. (There are no talking caterpillars sitting atop mushrooms, but if you have enough 'shrooms before you go, there might be.) The music, a blend of house, lounge and world beats, snakes suggestively through the Velvet Hookah's three smoking rooms, coaxing conversation, not silencing it.

"Sexy never left," says Jei Baker, the Velvet Hookah's founder and self-described "brand architect." "It was just over here." Even at its busiest, the bar is serene. Hookah requires nothing more than sitting and smoking. Low seating encourages guests to lean close together. Soft-focus lighting works better than the best beer goggles.

Memo to Dallas' exclusive, swanky nightspots perched atop certain luxury hotels with one-letter names: Sexy isn't about shoving remixed Top-40 hits into people's ears, charging $11 for drinks and encouraging patrons to dry hump on the dance floor before they even get a chance to swap names. That's just Carson's Live with a bigger tab at the end of the night. Real luxury is about a unique experience. And there's no place in town like Deep Ellum's Velvet Hookah.

"We have the best shisha in the world," Baker says, using the aficionado's term for specially flavored hookah tobacco, which he imports from Jordan before curing and flavoring every batch himself. Baker started making the Velvet Hookah's special proprietary blends when the bar opened on September 4, 2002. In five years, Baker has created 169 flavors of shisha.

Some restaurants may have hookah, says Baker, but nobody does it like Velvet. That's because, he says, he started the business without "the pre-sets that become limitations." Baker's a guy from southern Dallas. He used to travel a lot when he worked for Club Med before opening the bar, but he knew little about Arab culture, in which the hookah was popularized. And so mixing liquor with hookah, something Arabs would never do, didn't seem illogical to Baker. The Velvet Hookah was born after Baker's original business partner tried to join the dot-com boom by selling hookahs online. The site didn't take off, and "we had a garage full of hookahs."

With hookah, there's the sense that what you're smoking is actually a gas, not a cloud of filtered additives. Shisha is three things: tobacco, molasses or honey, which is used for curing; and fruit flavors or essences. The tobacco isn't burned, it's baked. Velvet uses traditional Egyptian hookahs, with one or two hoses. That engenders conversation, which was the original purpose of hookah.

"If you have the hookah," Baker says late one Monday night when the bar is closed, "you have the floor." He takes a hit of an orange-flavored blend in a miniature hookah he carries with him. "Mo-bowl technology," he calls it.

The Velvet Hookah, in the heart of Deep Ellum at the corner of Main and Crowdus streets, is an anchor in an area besieged by controversy and economic hardship.

It's hard, he says, staying afloat while the city's tearing up the northern access points to Deep Ellum to put in a DART station. And the homeless people are a problem too. But, he says, "violent crime doesn't happen down here," thanks to an increased police presence. Baker focuses on the future Deep Ellum. If that means losing the grit and grime that some believe are the soul of the neighborhood, too bad. "Gentrification is what it is," he says. And the Velvet Hookah is about constant reinvention.

When tall, modern tables and stark décor didn't work, they went Mediterranean. Belly dancing was OK for a while, but not anymore. Instead, Baker says, he's bringing in a Cirque du Soleil-trained trapeze act. And starting this month, Baker began selling trademarked Velvet Hookah shisha blends online. A fine idea, but the communal Velvet Hookah experience is a difficult one to replicate.

"All week long we section ourselves off" in cubicles and cars, Baker says. That's why there's only bar service these days at Velvet, no table service. It creates flow, which creates conversation, which creates community. And forcing people to ask for shisha blends called "Floral Fixation" and "Le Petite Mort," well, that creates sexy time. — Andrea Grimes

AMC NorthPark 15
Some of us spend way too much time in the dark—the literal dark, not the figurative—and there's but one theater in town in which we'd choose to spend that time: the AMC NorthPark 15, which has been open for about a year and already distinguished itself as the area's finest googolplex. We dig everything about it, from the self-serve kiosks lined up downstairs to the view of the NorthPark Garden from the upstairs lobby, in which we've been known to kick back before a screening just 'cause it's there. (No videogames, only a view to a chill.) And, of course, the theaters themselves are all you could ask for: comfy chairs, enormo screen, boomin' loud speakers, plenty of room to let a movie like Transformers run amok in the aisles. And if the movie sucks, well, you could always walk out and head into the best mall in town; our kid does it all the friggin' time.
Deep Ellum's Club Dada has been around for 21 years, its venerable chipped brick walls and cozy stage welcoming the most storied of Dallas—and national—musicians. Everyone was all ape-shit about Trees back in the day, but Dada's the one that lasted, and Dada's the one that packs the joint with Hot Hot Heat one night, with Hendrick the next, then with Hard Night's Day and then with a community barbecue on the newly revamped, friendly back patio. It may just be the most eclectic spot in town, and that's as alternative as it gets.
White Rock Lake
Either you already know about this gem or you're wondering who in their right mind would traipse through the cement city of Dallas with binoculars looking for exotic birds. White Rock Lake has numerous places to observe a variety of winged creatures throughout the year, but these are our favorites. There's the beach by the boathouse, which depending on the season is party central for various types of ducks, red-winged blackbirds, great egrets, herons and pelicans. Nearby is the hill behind the beach, where hundreds of green monk parakeets live in complex nests among the power lines, and farther east the spillway at the intersection of Garland and Winsted roads. Especially after a rain, it's an aviary that puts any zoo to shame. Sunset is best, so bring a date and some wine.
The Amsterdam Bar
What's a bar without a TV tuned to this season's local sporting events, a bleating, mooing installation of Big Buck Hunter and overpowering neon lights advertising watered-down domestic light beers? Why, it's a bar with a little European sensibility, of course. The Amsterdam Bar says it right there in the name, but in case there was any doubt, the place carries Maredsous, Kronenberg and Hoegaarden on tap for the finicky import drinker. Oh, and that backyard bier garden helps the bar's trans-Atlantic image, along with the whimsical variety of colorful glass lamps strewn about the ceiling. The bar's sole distraction is its jukebox, packed with classics and indie hits, which is really all you need to strike up a conversation with the next table—just like those crazy Euros do. The Amsterdam Bar is an ideal old-world escape in a city that prizes modern schwag and slick, plastic American packaging. Cheers. Or slainte. Or prosit.

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