Toulouse Cafe and Bar

If it was a brave man who ate the first oyster, imagine the cojones on the guy who slurped down the first mussel. Its shell, black and pointy, opens to reveal an orange, amorphous mass of meat. Sometimes the smell ain't so great either. But put enough culinary goop on it, spice it and butter it and let it stew in something saucy, and the result is a feast for the senses. Toulouse Café and Bar offers five—count them, five—variations on the mussel theme, in both appetizer and entrée portions. There is our traditional French fave—marinière—which slathers the little critters in garlic, white wine, butter and shallots. For the more adventurous, there's the Thai—coconut milk, yellow curry, tomatoes, lemongrass, ginger, cilantro and lime. Sopping up the sauce with Toulouse's crispy French bread is a culinary imperative. As is a side order of pomme frites—aka french fries with attitude. Nothing brave about eating the last two items unless you use them to chase the taste of the Green Room mussels—jalapeño, ginger, shiitake mushrooms, Champagne and garlic.

Best Never-Knew-It-Was-a-Restaurant Restaurant

The Cock and Bull

The Cock & Bull

Like its nearby Lakewood neighbor The Lakewood Landing, The Cock and Bull hardly screams high class from its exterior. In fact, you're far more likely to walk on past it and never even know it existed unless you walked this block of Gaston with a watchful eye. When you get inside, there's nothing too fancy about the place either—looks like a dive bar, really. But then you glance to the back of the room and notice the chalkboard: Wow, a steak special...for $22? What kind of place is this? So you ask for a menu, and you look at your dining options. Hey, you think to yourself, some of this looks pretty good! And, boy, is it—although some of it can get a little pricey. For the most taste bud pleasure for your buck, your best bet's the Blue Bell Burger. Trust.

Yes, it tortures us to select a foreigner for this honor—a chain no less, with installments in New York, Las Vegas, D.C., Sonoma, California and Reno, Nevada, among other locales. Chef Charlie Palmer's Dallas increment sits in the Joule Urban Resort in a rehabilitated Main Street building in all of its Texas handsome, breezy-themed glory. So it at least has a Dallas pedigree. Chew on the house-cured artisan salumi or the simply prepared vegetables dripping in brown butter. Savor seared foie gras or spoon bone marrow flan over a dry-aged sirloin. Dine on lentil-crusted monkfish or crisped arctic char. Or duck. No restaurant has brought so much to such a stylishly cozy space.

Grimaldi's Pizzeria

When fired for power, coal has a bad rep. It's a spitter of soot, a puker of sulfur, a farter of greenhouse flatus. But when firing pizza, it transforms into fossilized sublimity. Founded in East Harlem in 1931 and spread from New York to Arizona, Nevada and Texas, Grimaldi's cooks its pizzas in a coal-fired brick oven—just as the local parlor Coal Vines does. But the Neapolitan-style pizzas Gramaldi's makes are more focused, with chewy crusts that are smoky without the bitter char. They're aromatic pies with slightly cauterized toppings that fuse tenuously with the crust, creating a mosaic of exquisite stink. These are pies you want in your face.

Patrizio Restaurant

If you're a fan of the Bellini, a mixture of Champagne and peach schnapps, then you must have spent most of July at Patrizio enjoying the $1 Bellini promotion. But even if you missed a chance at Bellinis for a buck, Patrizio offers the right atmosphere to relax and enjoy one. Or two. Or five. The Italian music, the décor and even the neatly dressed waitstaff bring you to Italy, birthplace of the Bellini, which was named after Venetian artist Giovanni Bellini because the drink resembled the color he used in his painting of a saint. So getting toasted on a Bellini is both a religious experience and a form of art appreciation.

Penzey's Spices

If variety is the spice of life and you're feeling the need to spice up your mealtimes, then Penzeys Spices is place to start. With more than 250 different herbs, spices, seasonings and sprinkles to choose from, Penzeys has every standard spice your grandma would've cooked with plus a few to make her purple hair stand on end. For example, their great collection of curry powders, the tart heat from their Turkish Aleppo pepper or the rich, smoky flavor of their smoked Spanish paprika. But even if the spiciest thing you'd ever add to a dish is black pepper, the knowledgeable staff can help you find the right one for the job—after all, they have seven different kinds of peppercorns with an additional six pepper blends. But if tabletop pepper isn't hot enough for you, then try one of their 13 varieties of chili peppers. How about cinnamon? Get it eight different ways. And, seriously, for the best cinnamon toast you've ever had, buy a jar of the Extra Fancy Vietnamese Cinnamon. Selling spices by mail order for more than 20 years, Penzeys opened their first storefront location in '97. And when they finally opened their Dallas location three years ago, we were more than a little giddy.

Avanti Ristorante

Avanti is one of the best restaurants in Uptown, and it certainly ranks as the most romantic. The dim lighting, small and intimate dining area and classy look make for the perfect dating experience. The live music also adds to the romantic appeal. It's not a loud, intrusive sound that interrupts the atmosphere, but instead, it adds a soft soundtrack in the background—just right. The menu features seafood items such as yellowfin tuna, pan-seared snapper, Chilean sea bass, pistachio-crusted halibut, crab cakes and lobster. But, for the non-seafood lover, duck, veal, lamb, sirloin and various pasta dishes are available. For dates that go late into the night, Avanti offers a moonlight breakfast from midnight to 3 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings. We recommend the filet mignon sandwich with french fries ($13) because if you've made it this far into the night, you've done something right, so why not reward yourself?

Blue Canyon Restaurant

The typical pretzel rarely goes beyond its traditional role as a lager enhancement. Blue Canyon puts a twist in its twist. It's pulverized to powder a trout. The trout is then bathed in whole-grain mustard butter, capped with a crispy fried basil leaf and pocked with a birdshot blast of capers. The pearly sweet trout, delicate and fanned into a slope, blankets a bumpy miscellany of red potatoes and wilted spinach in pesto. Pair it with a Pabst.

Baby Back Shak
Observer file photo

What started out as a backyard barbecue for family on Sundays has emerged into the best place to gnaw on a slab of ribs in Dallas. Clarence Cohens just couldn't keep it all in the family, so eventually he began selling it just south of downtown in a two-room dive known as Baby Back Shak. His Memphis-style herb-rubbed ribs are so moist, tender and flavorful you don't even need any barbecue sauce to enhance. Since its recent discovery, the downtown lunch crowd swamps this place, which stays open until 5:45. No dinner done here. There are more than ribs, of course: sliced beef, pulled pork, smoked turkey and ham are all served lean but liberally, portion-wise. And for a bizarre barbecue twist there is grilled Cornish hen. But it's the killer ribs that make lunch and life worthwhile and will draw you back to the Shak.

Green Spot Market and Fuels

So you gotta get out of town. The car is packed and ready to go, and now you need fuel and snacks. Don't turn to the usual Fritos and Orange Crush. The Green Spot has even better fuel for the drive. Try some Kashi cookies, Bare Naked granola, a bottled Izze or fountain Blue Sky soda, and don't forget some Seventh Generation paper products just to be on the safe side. Plus, you don't have to feel so bad about the growing bag of trash in the car—the Green Spot's fountain drink containers and straws are all compostable and made from corn. And if you're getting behind the wheel of a diesel, Bruce Bagelman and Alvaro Garza's pumps can supply you with B5 biodiesel, or B100 from a separate straight-to-vehicle pump (they also offer basic gasoline). Add in the vegan options and fresh, gourmet local snacks and you might be in for the healthiest road trip fill-up you've ever had. When it comes to naturals and affordable alt-fuels, Dallas folks can finally stop asking, "Are we there yet?"

Best Of Dallas®

Best Of