It seems like the only people who don't romanticize opening their own restaurant are people who have actually opened one. Home cooks are lulled into the fantasy by guests who gush over dishes that have been slaved over for a day. Diners see mistakes they're sure they could fix with the wave of a spatula. They all dream up elaborate menu themes based on their personal tastes and color schemes for the walls that will never come to fruition. The more serious restaurant daydreamers -- the ones who end up standing in the lobby of city hall holding a binder full of paper and longing for the boring job they abandoned for this dream -- talk in pressured speech about farm-to-table menus, local beers galore and, most important, the handcrafted everything that will draw an endless stream of customers.
These are the buzzwords driving the industry right now. You'll see them in one form or another on almost every menu at a restaurant that's opened in the last three years, and you'll see them at older restaurants trying to gain new life, too. In an effort to differentiate themselves from the machines that crank out commodity meals, chefs and restaurateurs claim credit for every single ingredient they don't have trucked in by Ben E. Keith or Sysco.
But it's easy to napkin-scribble platitudes about locavorism and artisanal ingredients. Incorporating those ideals into the moving machinery of a successful restaurant is more difficult. Beyond cost, there's handling and labor to produce that grainy mustard made with a dark, local stout. And because handcrafted ingredients are free of preservatives, what isn't used in a day or two is often thrown out.
Carter Voekel, who opened Cold Beer Company with his partners in Deep Ellum this summer, knows how hard it is to fold responsible sourcing into a profitable restaurant model. Back in April, when Voekel talked with the Observer about his coming bar and restaurant, local ingredients were a key focus of his planned kitchen. He described a small menu based on local ingredients wherever possible. He would source his meat from Rudolph's Butcher Shop, right up the street, and his cheese from the Mozzarella Company, which is even closer. CBC sounded like a restaurant that could be profiled in Edible Dallas. Behold: The Ultra-Local Restaurant and Bar.
While Voekel laid out his vision, CBC the building was little more than a rundown box at a busy intersection on the edge of a changing neighborhood. Now, the building that had been vacant and windowless for years boasts a big addition, a pair of garage doors that effectively erase an entire wall, and patios that wrap around threes sides. Framed by Main Street and Exposition Avenue, the oddly shaped lot is a boozy Pleasure Island. And it really is a great place to drink.
There are regular tables out front and high tops on the north side of the building with quick access to the bar through a massive pass-through window. A third section of patio flanks the opposite side of the building, making for a patio that's almost large enough to get lost in. Propane heaters are on their way, according to Voekel, and as we slide deeper into fall, it's not that hard to envision customers in coats and hoodies lingering outside long after the mercury falls.
It's a little harder to envision them nibbling on kale and other cold-weather vegetables. For all the talk of local ingredients, CBC is a bar primarily, and while the owners have done a decent job leaning on local merchants, executing local ingredient sourcing has proven harder than they expected.
Voekel says the ground beef for the meatballs is purchased from Local Yocal, a butcher and market in McKinney that supplies responsibly sourced meats. The bread for the sandwiches is purchased from The Bakery Group here in Dallas, and cheese for the cheese plates is purchased from the Mozzarella Company right there in Deep Ellum. From there, things begin to get a little shaky.
Voekel says he purchases all of his produce at the Dallas Farmers Market, but that only guarantees that he's shopping locally. With Hawaiian pineapples available throughout the year and stalls that sell products purchased from the same large distributors, shopping downtown isn't that different from shopping at your neighborhood grocery store.
Voekel also concedes he couldn't work with Rudolph's for his hot dogs and briskets. "It does become a little bit cost prohibitive," he told me. Instead, the restaurant serves hot dogs from Nathan's, a New York-based company so large it's traded on the NASDAQ. The dogs suffer for it; Rudolph's links, with a natural casing and a flavor profile unique to Dallas, are clearly superior. Top a Rudolph's dog as they do at CBC, with combinations including brisket, cheddar and barbecue sauce, or bacon and macaroni cheese, and you could see the bar gaining a reputation as that quirky little hot dog space with the stellar patio and loads of cold beer. For now, though, the hot dogs are something to eat when you're drunk. That Local Yocal meat might make up for things, but it's folded into meatballs that are doused in a noticeably sweet tomato sauce before they're topped with cheap provolone cheese. Consume after four CBs for best results.
If you want special, look to the pickles you'll find served alongside most mains, or in a glass jar by themselves if you're ready to commit. The cucumbers may not be seasonal or local but they're brined with plenty of salt, vinegar, peppers, dill and coriander. This is a pickle with real personality, a pickle that makes a statement and a pickle you might want to take home at the end of the evening. (They'll happily let you take the jar with you.) Customers won't need to take any of their pimento cheese sandwich home, because they disappear from the small metal plates in about a minute. Jalapeños and soft, smoked Gouda cheese hide in the mix that's spread between two slices of warm, toasted bread. It's a cozy and soothing sandwich that pops with heat and other unexpected flavors, and it's a sandwich that's good enough to give CBC something resembling an identity.
CBC could stand alone on glasses of chilled beer, pimento cheese sandwiches and pickles for days, because when the beef meets the flat top, customers return to restaurants that offer something memorable. That's why just down the street, Pecan Lodge and Cane Rosso have been killing it with lines out the door: They both boast dishes that make them unique. Neither of them spends too much time huffing and puffing about beets harvested within a day's walk of the kitchen. They let the food do the talking.
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That's not to say that restaurants that carefully select their ingredients don't get ahead. In fact, the easiest way to produce memorable food is to procure the very best ingredients possible and do as little to them as possible. And every potential restaurateur who is trying the idea on for size should know it's a lot of work.
"There's only so many hours in the day," Voekel said when I asked about managing various ingredient suppliers with locations all over the DFW area. "Sure, it would be easy to grab a truck and pick up all of your ingredients every day," he said. "It doesn't make sense when you're trying to run a business." His pimento cheese sandwiches, pickles and cold beer suffice, especially once the weightless buzzwords float away for good.
Cold Beer Company 3600 Main St., 214-370-9301, coldbeerco.com, 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Friday, noon-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday. $$
Pimento cheese sandwich $9 Pickles $5 Hot dogs $6-$8 Cold beer $4.50-$8