Restaurateur Nick Badovinus calls it "a collision of roughness and opulence." Other people probably just call it cooking meat over an open fire.
"There's nothing more primitive than dead flesh over open fire," Badovinus says. "People have been doing it that way for a while."
For the last several weeks, Badovinus (Montlake Cut, Neighborhood Services) has been doing it this way at Town Hearth, a Design District restaurant that specializes in meat — steaks in particular — cooked over an open flame. Town Hearth's cooking methods are an interesting juxtaposition to its atmosphere. Rich, dark wood and leather, endless mirrors, vintage motorcycles, ornate chandeliers, an actual submarine in a custom-made tank between the bar and the dining room — it's a gorgeous, over-the-top space, which is exactly what Badovinus was going for.
"It's certainly a big bet, and certainly a larger footprint than anything we've done," Badovinus says. But this big bet has been in the making for a while.
Town Hearth's vibe started to come together when Badovinus learned that British furniture store Timothy Oulton was closing its Dallas location in 2015. As a customer, he always loved the installation with its remote-controlled submersible, decommissioned in 1991, that was formerly used to sweep for mines on the ocean floor.
"I knew what it did for me as a customer going in that store," he says. "It immediately put you in a good mood — it's so substantial, yet whimsical. And oftentimes, whimsy is not substantial."
When Timothy Oulton closed, he was determined to buy that submersible. Buy it he did — along with 64 chandeliers — and he had to keep it in storage for more than a year while figuring out what he would do with it. He dreamed of using it as a divider between a restaurant's standard seating and the bar, which is exactly what it does now at Town Hearth, where it sits in its custom-made tank surrounded by glittering chandeliers.
"It's so disarming, all that stuff," Badovinus says. "They're just a fabulous break from the everyday world."
In typical Badovinus style, these aren't the only noticeable details in the restaurant. There are the two vintage Ducati motorcycles ("They're kind of a thing for me," he says. "I like 'em, and I have a few others.") along with a 1961 MG parked next to the open kitchen. When you make a trip to the opulent restrooms, you'll hear vintage baseball and football games playing over the speakers. The extensive whiskey list is delivered to customers tucked inside vintage Zane Grey novels, a quiet tribute to his grandfather's love of vintage Westerns.
At every turn, there are painstaking Badovinus details, some of which — like the submersible and the MG — the restaurant itself was built around.
But perhaps the most painstaking element comes in the decision to cook everything over wood, which can be a tricky endeavor and perhaps even a bit terrifying when customers are dropping upward of $100 on a cut of meat.
"It's much more technical just in terms of working the fire; it's a living, breathing thing," Badovinus says. "Like most things that are very straightforward, they take some know-how. Technology means you can leave stuff alone; maintaining a fire is the opposite."
The menu's prices certainly reflect that extra effort. For a premium steak, expect to drop $45 to $145 and up, and entrees will set diners back $19 to $50. Much of the menu is a la carte as well, which can add up fast, and most of the beautifully crafted cocktails are $14 or $15.
But Town Hearth isn't really meant to be an everyday dining spot; it's a treat, an indulgence. It's a restaurant with a '74 Ducati Sport listed as a "premium" side dish available for a mere $75,000.
Equal parts opulent and whimsical, Town Hearth's vibe is a fun departure from reality for those whose realities can afford it.
Town Hearth, 1617 Market Center Blvd.
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