It's hard not to notice them in a city as car-centric as Dallas. People — walking on their actual feet — seem to be wandering though the streets of Deep Ellum a whole lot more lately, sometimes even when the sun is still up, before the shows start at the clubs.
The 'hood's fortunes have always waxed and waned over the years, with restaurants and bars moving in and out while a handful of stalwarts rode with the tide. But in just this past year, that tide seems to be rising to new heights, and the energy along Elm, Main and Commerce streets is surging. Parking is still a bitch, but on any given weekend night the streets and sidewalks are packed with pedestrians, with buskers filling in the gaps with music and other performances.
Appearances can be deceiving, of course, especially after one too many cocktails and a food-induced semi-coma. Are those really pedestrians wandering Dallas streets, or a hallucination caused by wolfing down one too many hand-made hot dogs? At least one distinguished local publication agreed there were signs — 50 of them, to be exact — that Deep Ellum is back, but those guys have been known to have a drink or six themselves, so we decided to ask some business people if they're seeing what we're seeing.
Much of this change was spurred when parking and the sidewalks along Elm Street were renovated. With more room for a stroll and pedestrians interacting less with cars, people feel welcome to linger and explore where they might have hit one restaurant before jumping back in their cars. Of course, no one's coming to Deep Ellum just because they've heard the sidewalks are nice, but they will come for barbecue, especially Diane and Justin Fourton's. Their Pecan Lodge has always been successful, but since relocating from the Farmers Market last year, "the move has resulted in a tremendous increase in business for us,” Justin says. Some of those sales can be from increased hours — the restaurant used to close after lunch — but the neighborhood's appeal and mix of unique businesses are helping the Fourtons sell a lot more brisket.
The crowds aren't coming just for smoked meat, either. Gabe Sanchez, who opened Black Swan Saloon in 2010, says he has seen a big boost in customers as well. “The last year and a half, things have been great,” Sanchez says, but business was slow when he first opened. “Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays the whole neighborhood was dead,” he says, but now those early days in the week are when he sees the most out-of-town customers. In just the past week, Sanchez said, he has mixed drinks for a group from Denver and customers from DC and LA. “New Yorkers are coming in,” he adds, demonstrating that Deep Ellum’s draw extends far outside the city limits — it’s becoming a bit of a tourist destination.
For some older restaurants in Deep Ellum, the influx in traffic has been a mixed bag. Laura Harrell has been working at All Good Cafe for a decade, where she’s now a manager. “We took a bit of a hit when Pecan Lodge first opened,” she says. Customers were initially curious about the new options, but they eventually came to miss All Good's chicken-fried steak, and business evened out again, Harrel said. “We’ve maintained our regulars.”
Pete Zotos of St. Pete’s Dancing Marlin, which opened in 1994, echoes that sentiment. “We’ve got the regulars,” he says. “But the new regulars are a very fickle group.” Zotos says most of the new foot traffic ends up in the newly opened businesses, and he’s starting to look at ways he can change St. Pete’s to court these new customers. Zotos says he’s never been one to chase trends, but “it’s time to do something.” He’s taking a hard look as his menu, and a patio renovation is in the works.
Meanwhile, Pecan Lodge, Luscher’s Red Hots, D.E. Armoury, Brick & Bones and a slew of new business give hungry diners a new reason to check out Deep Ellum, and the neighborhood as a whole is becoming one of the most vibrant places in Dallas to spend an evening.
Foot traffic really is up. Back at the Dallas Farmers Market where Pecan Lodge first opened, customers came for lunch and bolted seconds after they wiped the brisket grease from their chins. “People are eating and wandering the neighborhood,” Justin says of his customers now. He notices his to-go bags in hands on the sidewalk, which makes a lot of sense. After some meat and a couple sides, nothing feels better than a leisurely walk.
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.