Past Vs. Progress

For us the year 2004 began in a drunken stupor, surrounded by the equally drunken and stupefied masses gathered at Sense. It ended in much the same way.

This week's Burning Question, however, concerns the in-betweens, the dismal months of 2004.

Any literary recap of the year just past must surely become an ode to fiasco, a paean to a time when poker nudged past reality television as America's national obsession. Not Another Vietnam bore on with no light at the end of the tunnel. And our re-elected administration handed out Medals of Freedom to anyone committing unimaginable blunders.

Which means we're almost certain to receive one. Hell, we stumbled through a series of mishaps while researching the "is there an alcohol you won't drink?" story that would put George Tenet to shame.

What a year. Gay men and women apparently set out to destroy sacred institutions and our American way of life, at least according to Fox News. Draft dodgers were venerated as model citizens while real combat veterans past and present suffered blows from nebulous antagonists. The so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in John Kerry's case. Current soldiers had to put up with Donald Rumsfeld.

So why look back on a year dominated by Paris and Nicole, Ashlee and Jessica, and others culled from the barest intellectual stock?

Well, because we cover nightlife, the only bright spot in an otherwise miserable season.

Across the nation, alcohol sales jumped almost 7 percent--a harbinger of something, we just can't remember what. In Dallas, during a year of sputtering economic activity, several new places opened: Lush, Vain, Drama Room and Purgatory for a start. Martini Ranch returned to the scene and began recouping their Monday night crowd. Although Stolik died (mercifully), other teetering clubs--Medici, Dralion, Nikita--suddenly found new life. Seven reinvented itself as one of the city's ubiquitous upscale lounges. Meanwhile, the usual hotspots remained, well, hot.

"The nightlife segment is just exploding," says Phil Natale, bartender at Sense. "Options are plentiful."

Ah, the bounty of the land. Only the yearlong plunge of Deep Ellum and the continuing saga of downtown clubs contradict the nightlife boom.

"The last time I was in Deep Ellum, I was accosted by a homeless guy," recalls party girl and would-be lawyer Lindsay Barbee of the area's woes. "And then trying to park..."

And downtown? "It won't be a nightclub that saves downtown," reports Matthew, poet laureate of Dallas nightlife. Only Obar stands out from the spate of establishments straining to remain open.

Now, we could throw around sales figures and other data to confirm the buoyancy of the city's night scene. Indeed, our editor always encourages us to practice what he calls "real" journalism. But in a country fixated on Bill O'Reilly, dubious news channels and more dubious blog sites, it seems that thoroughness and detail and such have become situational. Besides, the thing we found interesting as we spoke to people around town was the vague sense that Dallas is shedding some of its past. For instance, Eddie Germann of Seven and The Men's Club looks back on a "transforming, rebuilding" year. Other bartenders, too, describe the outlines of a shift, noticeable yet somehow ephemeral.

"It's almost like we're coming into a new stage," Germann explains.

Jimmy Hall at Martini Ranch suggests "there's more self-control creeping in," referring to a demand for the traditional rather than the trendy. "Not only is the market maturing," Natale agrees, "but this city has a chance right now to define itself from the nightlife standpoint."

Like we said, vague.

They base this perceived shift on the apparent demise of the "follow the leader" habits that characterized club hopping for so long. "We're past the 'hot new club' phase," Matthew says. "Design and quality may not be winning out, but we're moving beyond the fickle 500."

People in Dallas selecting their haunt for the evening based on atmosphere or conviviality? Unheard of.

Perhaps we missed out on some of that maturation while pursuing stories on fruity drinks, white wines, pick up lines, speed dating and the like. The bits of wisdom we recall from 2004? The time we ordered a colorful drink at Al Biernat's and a woman turned suddenly and blurted "a pussy drink?" Or the evening at Republic when we overheard a woman say "I'm just going to have one drink; I don't have the breasts to hang out here." Or the time Ashley, a staff member at Candle Room, pointed out "drunk people and sober people just don't get along."

Somehow we missed the self-control trend.

For the Burning Question crew, 2004 stood out because of disc jockey Action Jaxon, the Turkish coffee martini at Kismet, Raven from The Men's Club, the Anderson brothers, doorman extraordinaire Todd Wright, the prickly pear margarita at Fireside Pies, Christiano Conti of Arcodoro & Pomodoro and his willingness to educate, Mattie Roberts, cooking classes, Brandy Gomez, Joel Harloff...we could go on and on.

Harloff revamped the menu at Landmark Restaurant when he took over the kitchen, turning out exquisite cuisine. Fireside Pies introduced gourmet pizza to the city--finally. Cretia's combined food and alcohol with shopping (a place for couples to spend a Saturday afternoon together). A few stunning restaurants, such as Hector's and Vermilion, opened in a year that, according to the National Restaurant Association, should see Texans shell out more than $28 billion for food service, once final numbers are in.

All in all, Americans spent around $425 billion on food prepared outside the home in 2004, although that figure includes the $180 steak Britney Spears bought for her pet lap dog. No, not her husband, her Chihuahua. That kind of behavior netted her a top spot--tied with Paris Hilton--on the most annoying people of 2004 list. (We have a few tiebreaker ideas, by the way). Most annoying in the Dallas night scene? Probably Phil Romano for his publicity-stunt lawsuit following a four-star write up in The Dallas Morning News.

At least one publicity-driven phenomenon faded last year. After peaking in January, when 9 percent of our country's gullible population claimed some form of high-protein habit participation, in low-carb plans fell steadily throughout the rest of 2004.

Of course, the Burning Question crew is known more for our intrepid study of the alcoholic side of nightlife. Still, we managed a few notable dining excursions during the year. In one instance we convinced The Grape to host an all-star cast (including chefs Harloff, James Neel and Nick Badovinus) and serve haggis, scrapple and head cheese. We now fear retribution from said chefs. We also slipped away for a tour of fine dining establishments in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Of course, we blew our entire annual budget on one meal at a place in Brussels with three Michelin stars. We spent the rest of the year running errands and doing odd jobs for our editor.

Like we said, one fiasco of a year.

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