It's 7 on a Friday night, and there's something odd, eerie even, about the Bishop Arts District. There are these things called "pedestrians" here (pronounced "ped-ESS-tree-ans"), moving past crowded patio tables on long, limb-looking contraptions that are strangely devoid of mufflers. Elsewhere people are idling — standing, it's apparently called — on small strips of cement and brick, like tiny streets with no cars or stoplights.
Inside the stores that dot Bishop Street, things are even weirder. There's a chocolate shop called Dude, Sweet that will sell you dehydrated blue cheese and sea salt fudge, and a Soda Shop will sell you a bottle of soda that tastes like turkey and gravy. There's also art you can browse for hours before totally failing to buy. I'm not certain what this is, but it's surely not Dallas. Perhaps I fell through a wormhole and into some other dimension. Does Portland have its own dimension? I must look this up.
This place hasn't always existed. Not like this. In the fall of 2002, as Tony Alvarez put the finishing touches on a Southern-fried sit-down spot called Hattie's, the homey Tex-Mex of El Jordan Café was the only notable food served nearby. Nobody came to Oak Cliff to eat back then. Tillman's Roadhouse had opened around the corner a few years before, but it didn't have the draw to lure customers from across the river.
David Spence witnessed the transition. The real estate mogul behind some of Oak Cliff's more interesting apartment buildings and dining spaces (including Bolsa and Lucia) bought his first property in 1995 and went on to help usher zoning and design changes that had a significant impact on the Bishop Arts District. Hattie's, he says, was the wormhole's first fissure.
"It was Hattie's that pulled on patrons from Highland Park and University Park," he says. The restaurant's clean lines, white tablecloths and simple Southern cuisine called to North Dallas diners who were sick of Mercury and Suze. "Hattie's is the place where North Dallas first felt comfortable, and still feels comfortable, dining in Oak Cliff," Spence says.
They're as comfortable as ever. Over the past 10 years, Hattie's has run a somewhat boring but always bustling bistro, and the patrons sitting at their tables haven't changed much at all. Diners skew older. At first, it's a sea of empty nesters and couples nearing retirement, and then it gradually skews younger (but not too young) as the night wears on. They're mostly loyalists, and all of them look as if they'd be happy to come back to Hattie's for 10 more years, bouncing out the door each night with mac and cheese leftovers in tow.
It's not a dynamic or inventive menu that calls to them. Hattie's serves up Low Country Cliché, with a menu drawn from Magnolia Café and Blossom in Charleston, South Carolina, according to Lisa Arango, who opened Hattie's with Alvarez and Hal Dantzler. Back then she went by Lisa Kelly, then a marriage took her to New Orleans before a brief return to Dallas. She's currently in New York State, where she works as a private chef.
Arango was working at Parigi when Alvarez and Dantzler offered her the job, and the young, self-taught chef (one of the few women chefs in Dallas at the time) took to Southern cuisine like butter to biscuits. Arango plated up the same pecan-crusted catfish, grits and pulled pork, and prosciutto-wrapped figs stuffed with walnuts and blue cheese that you can get at Hattie's today. Sure, the menu's changed some, but that evolution has remained true to the initial vision the owners had when they opened the door: refined but approachable Southern comfort food.
There are shrimp and grits and fried green tomatoes with an herbal buttermilk dressing. There are fried oysters, too, wrapped in bacon and dotted with horseradish cream on a bed of brash cabbage slaw.
On one of my visits, tomato soup with grilled cheese arrived with a cheese sandwich that wasn't very grilled, but the soup had a smooth, velvety texture and deep flavor derived from plenty of sautéed peppers and onions.
Roast chicken came crispy and seasoned perfectly, but it was a little late in the spring for the bed of muddy root vegetables that supported the poultry. The seasonal vegetables served with the catfish plate were more like it — bright and green and almost summery broccoli and squash — even if the plate looked like something you've been served at a wedding.
Lamb chops were more interesting. The kitchen cuts them two bones to a chop so the grill could impart a nice char on the outside while the center remained a deep crimson. They came with bright green collards and spoon bread as moist as loose grits. (You really do need to eat it with a spoon.)
Steaks, chops and a popular side of mac and cheese round out a menu that feels a little dated — but that's exactly why it works. North Dallasites didn't come to Oak Cliff for emulsified foams and trendy offal; they came for the comforting plates they've grown accustomed to, served by a professional waitstaff. Locals from the neighborhood come for the same familiarity. They've all grown comfortable in Hattie's consistency.
When I talked to Spence, I described the scene I encountered during my first visit to Hattie's: people on their feet for longer than the trip from the valet to the door, young kids and families walking — walking! — the streets. "That is the marker of this still being a local neighborhood hangout," Spence told me. That's a central element to the appeal of the Bishop Arts District. Through all this expansion and improvement, the neighborhood never abandoned its roots.
Hattie's hasn't abandoned its heritage either. Despite its consistent success, the restaurant remains a singular entity. "We thought about putting a second location in Highland Park," Dantzler said when asked about expansion, "but didn't want to cannibalize from what we have here." Which makes sense. Why drive to them when, for almost a decade now, they've proved they're more willing to drive to you?