Restaurant Reviews

Taming Cowtown

"Why isn't this is in Dallas?" was the out-loud reaction of a friend when he first set eyes on USA Cafe. (From blocks away, I might add. You can't miss it, and I'd like to try.)

Good question.
USA Cafe--big, trendy, and mega in every way ("23,000 square feet of good food and fun," brags the phone-mail menu)--is exactly the kind of national, glitzy, media-moshing, eatertainment theme park that Dallas adores, its opening thoroughly covered by the panting people-press. Why isn't it in the West End?

Is it because Fort Worth is becoming the city Dallas wants to be?
For years, Fort Worth has been a food-free zone. Sure, Dallasites could say superciliously, it's got great museums, but where do you go to eat? Dallas was the city with the world-class restaurants, and after all, what really counts as culture? I know all about the few exceptions--apologies to Michael, Michel, and Bernard--but no one could have called Cowtown a great place to eat. Until now. The Basses have reinvented their hometown's downtown, and part of the result is a dining renaissance all over Fort Worth.

Like I said, you can't miss USA Cafe--over its entrance, the Lady of Liberty's bust is extremely prominent. Inside, you're greeted by more larger-than-you'd-like art. Artist-of-all-trades Bob Wade's simple-minded satire of Mount Rushmore depicts Washington in a baseball cap, Lincoln in a leather football helmet, Teddy with a stogie and fedora, Jefferson decked out in feathers. It's a reminder that one of the problems with this particular theme is its celebrity deficit. It's also an appropriately cliched vision that prepares you for more of the same downstairs, where you can hang out in the brewpub-sports bar or eat from a slightly more legitimate menu in the grill. It's not much of a choice, really. Everywhere, the decor plays the same red, white, and blue chords--walls are plastered with newspaper (free press, cheap wallpaper), the Declaration of Independence is punned at every turn, and famous Americans' witticisms and wise sayings serve as graffiti. For instance, there's one from Will Rogers: "Calvin Coolidge didn't say much, and when he did, he didn't say much," an easy paraphrase for USA Cafe itself, a theme restaurant whose concept is stretched as thin as democracy.

The pub features a cyberbar--a bank of frozen-up computers that, when we were there, denied anyone access to anything, in front of a wall of Warholian flags. So we perched at a stilt-legged table in sight of the sports events repeating themselves on the multiple monitors and surveyed the scene while we waited for a waitress. We waited so long that we started wondering how far they were planning on taking this American theme. Was the goal for us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, so to speak, and serve ourselves? I finally went and asked the bartender if we were supposed to be waited on. He answered, "yeah, something like that," and sent a waitress over with beer--"New World Amber," a nice, bitter brew and "Lady Liberty," one of those fruit-flavored mysteries that brewpubs consider a necessity. The pub serves sandwiches, burgers, and soups, an American snack menu that is expanded on in the grill across the hall. But of course the grill isn't notable for its food--what has people talking is its semi-stage and chorus line of chambray-clad waiters and waitresses who can all sing and dance, and unfortunately do. We were eating early, and the waitstaff outnumbered the diners by maybe three to one; this didn't improve service any, but did inspire a semi-spontaneous rehearsal of several routines. When things are really busy, I hear they break into more choreographed boogaloo.

An American theme restaurant is not a new idea--it's been done before and better. One wonders if USA's owners (I like that phrase) ever visited Ark Restaurant Group's America in New York, with its coast-to- coast mural and menu. But USA Cafe celebrates America's generic food, the kudzu cuisine that's smothering regionalism.

Leaving USA Cafe, you have to blink for a minute to realize that you're outside the theme restaurant. Because downtown Fort Worth is becoming a theme park. Forget Cowtown--those billionaire brothers are busy building Basstown, their city of dreams, and people are coming. In the past year or two, Sundance Square in downtown Fort Worth has become a dining and entertainment nucleus, and it's enticed a number of Dallas restaurants to go west. Blue Mesa Grill, Mi Cocina, Empire Baking Company, 8.0, and Flying Saucer transplants are all flourishing--some, like Mi Cocina, wildly.

Shannon Wynne, owner of 8.0 and Flying Saucer, says his business is up 20 percent at Flying Saucer, and he attributes a lot of that success directly to the Basses, the Medicis of Fort Worth. "They told me people in Fort Worth won't stand in line and wait, but now lines at my place are half a block long. The Basses have done it." You see lots of people out at night on the streets of Sundance Square, because the streets are patrolled by what Wynne likes to call the "Bass-stapo," a private police security group that communicates with Fort Worth Police Department.

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Mary Brown Malouf