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.
State Fair of Texas
Carousels, the giant Ferris wheel, pie-baking contests, friendly 4H kids in overalls grooming their prize pigs—everywhere you turn at the State Fair of Texas (running this year through October 21), it's a scene from Charlotte's Web. If you haven't been to the fair in a few years, rest assured that it's still chock full of old-fashioned goodness. The junk food's fried without trans fats now, so go ahead and stuff yourself on Fletcher's Corny Dogs, Belgian waffles and funnel cakes. Filling the 277 acres of walkways, the Midway and the Art Deco exhibit buildings at Fair Park are new versions of the old favorites. Carnies still beckon you to take your chances pitching balls at milk bottles. Kids still scream on the Wild Mouse ride. The Frisbee-catching dogs draw big crowds, as do the horse trainers, cattle auctioneers and fast-talking guys demonstrating slice-and-dice kitchen gadgets. Around that corner is a hula girl, around the next are Irish dancers. Up there is a juggler on stilts and watch out for the Human Cannonball. Our State Fair is the best state fair. Still.
Dinosaur Valley State Park
You can swim and step in the fossilized tracks of Acrocanthosaurus, a three-toed, two-legged carnosaur, or Pleurocoelus, a four-legged plant-eating sauropod, at Dinosaur Valley State Park, located near Glen Rose, 90 minutes from downtown Dallas. The fossilized tracks are found beside the Paluxy River, which winds through the park, and quite a few families have discovered that this is a great place to swim (in relatively clean water) and learn something about science at the same time. The river isn't particularly deep, and while a few spots are faster-flowing, all but the smallest kids can handle the current. The park also offers hiking trails, picnicking facilities and wildlife viewing.

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