Best Of :: People & Places
Oh, sure, with its sprawling, asphalt-surrounded strip-mall kinda thing going on, Firewater may provide an apt analogy for the geography of our fair burg, and it ain't gonna win any architectural awards, but the place is friendly and roomy, the beer cheap and cold. The interior has no special qualities other than that it reminds one of the interior of a ship—long galleys and strange twists amidst a generally open interior—but it's Firewater's outdoor stage that really makes it worth a slightly heavy cover charge. Outside is a wooden deck, flanked on one side with a three-headed mini-Bellagio fountain and on the other by a long bar. The deck is fronted by the stage, which holds your usual cast of characters (everyone from KISS cover bands to DOMA winners Mad Mexicans to hard rockers Max Cady), and we defy any club in town to put together a better sound system. Even outside, amidst the soft, maddening, staticky noise of the fountains, your band is gonna sound good. Damn good.
Go figure. The only place we could find those nifty vintage rock-and-roll tees for our kid was at Haute Apple Pie on the square in downtown McKinney, which has gone through quite the transformation since the days when the coolest thing up there was a record store that sold us Get the Knack in 1981. Until recently the world's largest antique shop, downtown McKinney is what the West Village wants to be and what Deep Ellum ought to be—a smorgasbord of hip retailers (Bath Junkie, Alternative Furnishings, Mom and POPcorn Company) and cool clothing stores and some of the finest dining in North Texas. Within a couple of blocks are four of our favorite places to hang in the 972: Rick's Chophouse and Wine Bar, which boasts a plush library bar bigger and badder than any we've ever seen; Café Malaga, a superior tapas joint; La Misha, a coffee house Dallas would die for; and Spoons Café, a low-key eatery that feels like home...if you're from Austin. Add to that an amazing rare-book store (The Book Gallery, to which people come from all around for great prices on amazing finds), a new boutique inn that used to be a historic hotel (the Grand Hotel, actually, with a dazzling formal ballroom all ready for your special occasions) and two wineries (Landon Winery and Lone Star Wine Cellars) at which we've been known to tipple till we wobble, and you've got the making of a special weekend every weekend.
Why is it that no matter what happens to the Cowboys, everyone is still hung up on the team's ex-coach, the legendary Bill Parcells? Neither Cowboys fans nor players ever warmed up to the aging, dyed-blond grump, who did a perfectly average job in his four-year stint here. He improved the team some, though he never broke their epic playoff-win drought. Despite a rather forgettable record, Parcells haunts Valley Ranch like a ghost at a shuttered mental hospital. He's brought up, of course, by the media, who loved the perceived rivalry between Parcells and Jerry Jones, and the players, who either looked upon him as a father or as tyrant. But even Jones himself and Wade Phillips still talk about Parcells. We're not quite sure why the Cowboys can't quit Parcells, but not since Heath and Jake has a bunch of Cowboys shown this kind of passion.
This is Dallas, and we're a material bunch. Frankly, with the right attitude, there's no shame in that. Take for instance the need for a little air-conditioned walking space. NorthPark Center is the finest of the mall walks. Covered parking is nearly always available, and thanks to recent mall additions, walkers get a perfect lap. Natural light beams in through periodic skylights, beautiful wearables and trinkets abound for extensive eyeballing (no wallet required for that), people-watching is prime and with the addition of a brilliantly varied food court, strollers can replenish with Snappy Salads, Hibachi-San, The Original Soup Man and others. Take in a movie and head back out for another 2.72-mile circuit (maps of various routes available at northparkcenter.com).
We want it all from our bar. We like a bar with a nice blend of drunks and fashionable folk so we can have something to laugh at and ogle while we take in our Boddingtons (which they have on tap, thanks) or Stella or vodka whatevers. We love a comfortable bar stool. We love the option of ordering really, really good food (Guinness steak sandwich with fries, please) to soak up our drink. We appreciate the presence of DJ Mr. Rid's Scaraoke every Thursday night for a good bit of self-humiliation if the mood strikes us. We like a mix of regular faces and a steady stream of first-timers. And we adore the opportunity to return hung-over the next morning for an outta-sight weekend brunch (gingerbread pancakes or eggs Florentine with a damn fine Bloody Mary) to a place that looks like it survived the night before much better than we did.
We are so gonna regret this. Look, just keep this little secret between us, OK? There's this great little bar on Maple Avenue that's not called The Grapevine, which we love, but apparently so does everyone else. Sometimes you just need a drink, a friendly face and a quiet, cozy place to sit and ponder your beer bubbles. That's why we love The Windmill. Owned and operated by a friendly New Yorker who introduces himself simply as Charlie, this joint is sort of little place that drives home the difference between a bar and a nightclub. Beneath the neon windmill on the roof is a secret treasure chamber, dark enough to let you sit in peace and contemplate your day, yet lighted enough to allow you to look your drinking companion in the eye. It's also one of the few places we've been to where you can actually walk up to the bar without looking like Marion Barber cutting up the middle. The Windmill even has a "cell phone booth," a former pay phone booth (look it up, kids) to give you privacy while making a call. Don't be ringing up a bunch of frat boys to come out for the night, though. We want to keep this "best" place the best.
At the Old Monk you can select from 14 beers on draft and nearly 50 bottled beers, including Belgian varieties so strong they could intoxicate Nate Newton. Of course, it's not just the selection of fine brew that makes the Old Monk a Dallas institution; it's the cozy feel of the place, highlighted by dark wood floors, elegant antiques and round, polished tables that look like they came from your grandparents' house, which in our case render us a little nostalgic. While the place is always full, the bartenders have a knack for handling your drink requests quickly and perfectly, giving patrons the best of both worlds: a fun, lively atmosphere and top-shelf service.
Anyone who thinks horse racing is a dying sport ought to head out to Lone Star Park. Despite record rainfall this year, the park enjoyed one of its best years in attendance in the decade since it opened. Surprisingly, at least to anyone who has been to a horse track on the East Coast, Lone Star has a great family atmosphere. But that's not what keeps the place afloat. Like any other track, gamblers are its lifeblood, and there's a reason they keep coming back: Horse racing is as good a bet as any to turn a profit. Regulars will tell you about the fella who turned a 20-cent superfecta bet into $32,000. To the uninitiated, that may sound confusing, but there's plenty of information available at the park to help beginners (starting with the first pages of the daily race program). Once you get started, there's no stopping. You'll be digging every last dime out of your pocket in the hopes that this superfecta or exacta or quinella will be the big one. And if not, there's always the next race.
Even though it's not as part and parcel of Dixie as, say, Mobile, Alabama, Dallas is still a pretty Southern town. It is, as well, a music town, though you'd never know it judging from the dearth of national coverage. And, let's not forget the bloodline of blues legacy that runs through Deep Ellum—with all the Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson lore that takes place in that locale, you'd think Main and Hall was the site of a certain legendary crossroads. Odd, then, that Dallas doesn't boast many blues clubs, though we do have our fair share of white boys trying their hands at it, precious few of whom have actually achieved transcendence in the genre (thanks, Vaughn brothers, for keeping real). Still, we've got what no other city has: The Goat. The place kicks it no frills gen-u-ine, with dog-eared tables and karaoke that most folks dig without a trace of irony. This is a place where hipsters and regular ol' people mingle with ease, any differences they might have smoothed out by music and booze—and isn't that what the blues are all about?
Ah, the intoxicating scent of a true honky-tonk: smoky, boot-scuffed wood infused with years of spilled Bud Light and a hearty pinch of tobacco. Big-name places such as Billy Bob's and Cowboys purport to provide visitors with a high-quality honky-tonk experience, and they do a fine job, but they just don't have that sweet honky-tonk smell. Not, at least, the way Hoots does. The skating-rink-sized dance hall is situated way out in Rendon, so fancified big-city line dancers might scoff at making the drive, but any true boot-scooter knows there's some real getting down to be done in the boonies. Holler your favorite tune at the band, and chances are the boys (and girl!) can pull it off. In fact, do a turn or two to some Hank Jr., just for us. 'Preciate it.
There may be better places to see a show in North Texas, but for communal atmosphere, it's hard to beat Secret Headquarters, the DIY, blink-and-you'd-miss-it lair of musicians, artists and eccentrics just off the Denton square. Located in the old Art Prostitute space, SHQ is the definition of laid back, with no real stage (unless you count a rug and some lamps in the corner) and only one unisex bathroom. And with no pool tables or flat-screen TVs, you only have two options: watch the bands—could be country bands, could be noise bands, could be punk bands, could be singer-songwriters, could be all of the above—or sit in the alley and drink. It's that simple. And it's that beautiful.
Where else in Dallas can you stand around a campfire—or lounge on a nearby hammock, for that matter—while listening to live music with a bottle in your hand? Standing in the wide, rustic yard in the dark, it's easy to pretend you're in the Texas Hill Country or even back at summer camp, except instead of roasting marshmallows you're nursing a beer. And the best part? The thing about campfires is that somehow they make it nearly impossible to be uptight, cocky or generally idiotic, the result being a mellow crowd just out for a good time under the stars.