All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their history while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
For chef Brian Luscher, taking ownership of The Grape was like coming home. He’d been chef for about five years under the past owners, and together with his team — Courtney, his wife, along with investors — crafted a business proposal and took over the joint that had been nestled into Greenville Avenue for 35-plus years. Then, the stock market began to crumble like a dry cracker. The effect rippled: Business was yawning just a month and a half after Luscher got the keys. It was around that time that Dallas nearly lost one of its most important restaurants.
Like a magnifying glass to sunlight, The Grape focuses the joy of food into a concentrated stream.
“What the hell do we do?” Luscher says, recounting the feeling at the time. At one point, they were down ten of thousands of dollars, often not taking salary. So they dug in. They looked at a crumbling economy and decided to stick to the original vision. They’d make it their story. In 2009, Texas Monthly
named their white cheddar-topped brunch burger the best cheeseburger in the entire damn state.
“Had the burger thing not hit, I’m not sure where we’d be,” Luscher says.
Earlier this week, Luscher’s Red Hots, chef Brian’s hot dog joint — a beautiful, mustardy balm of a place that tasted like the fresh, cold air in Chicago — was forced to close
. It was a blow to the gut. Many, myself included
, felt like a chunk of us, the piece that stored the memories of food that made us goddamn smile, floated off into space like a balloon. The business just wasn't there, Luscher says. So he closed it for good.
“All I want to do is sit on my motorcycle and head west,” Luscher says. He’s kidding, but you can hear the wistful pain of having to shut down a place so near to his heart. “I just want to cook.”
Late in October of this year, the Luschers celebrated The Grape’s 44th year on Greenville avenue. And it’s never been a more important restaurant in Dallas.
The bar twinkles. A couple of hours before closing for the night, I’m at the counter with a gin martini that’s as cold and sheened with ice as a Chicago street, glinting with Boursin cheese (made in-house) stuffed into green olives. I’m remembering why this place is so deeply warming and critical in a food universe that’s inflating — and at times imploding.
The Grape presents honest, simple bistro food, always with style but never with pretension. Warm bread is presented in a basket with a ramekin of marble-white, magnificently creamy butter. The butter, of course, is made in-house, whipped and topped with flakes of Maldon sea salt. Paired with wine, or a crisp-cold martini, it's simple yet elating.
Braised lamb tartines arrive hot, crusty french bread rounds topped with shredded lamb, roasted garlic, sweet onion jam, oven-dried tomatoes and a strong “cambazola” cheese (think Gorgonzola). The lamb is tender and garlicky, and the cheese is funky. The jam and tomatoes cut through the richness, gentle and easy like a canoe through a lake. It’s awesome. It’s food that looks like you’d serve it for friends, after mowing through drinks, teeth stained with wine — yet it tastes like expertise.
This is the importance of this restaurant and why it needs to live on in our growing city: Like a magnifying glass to sunlight, The Grape focuses the joy of food into a concentrated stream. When you’re sitting at the chair at The Grape, there’s a feeling of candlelit comfort that ensures Dallas diners that food trends without soul aren't going to invade this space. The focus is on food that makes you happy, no matter what lists say is totally hot right now.
“Just because it’s crafted in-house with tweezers doesn’t mean its good,” Luscher says, ranting about the great fallacy of artisan foods. It should be visceral and real, he means. In other words, it should put a huge, raw smile on your face.
“One should not be penalized to dine well,” he says pointedly. He wants rosy cheeks, blushing with wine, and lips glistening from steak fat. The Grape’s food encapsulates that joy. After 44 years, its elegant yet simple bistro dishes still have a rowdy energy to them. After all this time, what more is there to learn about this place?
“We have one of the best wine programs in the city,” Luscher says, talking a price strategy that’s not meant to gouge. A variety of old world meets new.
In front of me, crab cakes land with delicate crescent moons of grapefruit on top, a luscious avocado mousse bedded underneath.
Then, the famous mushroom soup shows up. You know this soup: Loaded with chopped button mushrooms and garlic and fresh thyme and butter, rich with the color of a milk-chocolatey wood, and equally timeless. It is, without a better word, perfect.
And to think, we almost lost it.
The Grape is at 2808 Greenville Ave.