It came in the form of Misty, a friend of Linda. We were at a bar flirting with Linda--we think; the night is kind of a blur--while Misty sat considering this week's Burning Question. "A lot of it is how you perceive things," she finally said.
Well, throw away the dictionary.
First, a little background. Anyone familiar with this column knows of our affinity for Sense, the upscale, "members-only" establishment on Henderson Avenue. Even though valets hide our car in The Old Monk's lot so as not to drive away well-heeled guests, and waitstaff scurry from the room when we enter, we consider it the best bar in Dallas. Several of our friends, however, refuse to try the place, labeling Sense too pretentious for their tastes.
Now here's where Misty's comment comes into play. Pretentiousness is merely a matter of personal judgment, especially when you define it as more than unjustified ostentation--and having tossed our dictionary fairly recently, we must. For example, Dallas seems downright amiable when compared with Los Angeles nightlife ("L.A. is Dallas on steroids," says Nora, whom we encountered drinking at Nikita). Yeah, there are certain accoutrements we associate with snobbishness, such as costly attire or overpriced drinks. It's difficult, however, to characterize a martini, say, as a more pompous drink than a Bud Light. "Anybody can order Grey Goose and tonic," explains Matthew, poet laureate of Dallas nightlife and front man for several establishments. "It's not posturing." We prefer, therefore, to define the word broadly.
Pretension exists whenever one person or group feels excluded from the crowd. Our Sense-wary friends don't understand that, once past the door guy, it's a welcoming place. Strangers interact, buy each other drinks, invite unknown folks to join the table--that sort of thing. Crowds at more "comfortable" locations, such as Champps, tend to cluster in groups and snub solo guests, as well as the Prada people.
Not that the Prada types mind. "I hope if I ever walk into Champps, no one talks to me," says Tim Tremoni, manager at Shade.
Even worse, the staunch regulars at neighborhood bars often rebuff newcomers.
"If you're not in the loop, it's very pretentious," Tremoni continues from his table at the Addison Champps--just kidding. "When you're part of it, it's not pretentious, because everyone welcomes you."
So, all that being said, is Dallas really full of snobbish, preening wannabes?
Most people we approached while researching the question nodded immediately, then began to waffle like John Kerry addressing a conference of bipolar patients. Laurie Buland, a bartender at Absinthe, offered an enthusiastic "yes" initially, before acknowledging that "with any city you'll have pretentious people." Perhaps a trip to Addison causes some to scoff. Others will never set foot in an Uptown hot spot. It's always someone else--the tank-topped crowd at Duke's or the haughty debutantes at Dragonfly--who has a problem.
"Pretension is a two-way street," points out Sheryl, drinking at Candle Room. "You walk into a place and think it's pretentious, well, what are you doing wrong?"
In other words, it's relatively easy to fit in with any Dallas crowd by acting the part. "Everybody's got a representative face," says Sherry Maddox, bartender at Nikita. "When you go out, you put on that face and become what attracts people." And that's true whether you hang out at The Londoner in Addison or Obar downtown. Oftentimes, the same people bounce from neighborhood dive to local pub to destination hot spot.
"The way we dress, the cars we drive, the guest lists, VIP areas--it's geared toward ego, and it works," explains Adam Salazar, bartender at Seven, Nikita and Medici. "But if we were truly pretentious, places like Hurricane Grill and The Old Monk wouldn't exist. Hell, Greenville would be gone."
Granted, it's the guest lists and cars that typically arouse the ire of self-appointed non-snobs. Yet the desire to look good, impress the valet with a foreign set of wheels or stand out from the crowd is not necessarily insidious. One could, in fact, compare the façade of style so apparent in Dallas to a more natural human struggle.
"Striving to be something else, isn't that the American dream?" Matthew asks.
We caught up with the poet laureate over a couple of nights at Jaden's and Martini Ranch. He laughs when people refer to the city as a haven of snotty behavior. "We're more casual, more welcoming, the antithesis of aristocracy," he says. The most unsophisticated Mid-Cities sort need only don proper attire and adopt some initiative to hobnob with the pretty people at Sense, Candle Room or Medici. "If anything, that's unpretentious."
In every bar we visit, people seem willing to introduce themselves and engage in banalities--provided we attempt to fit in. That means dressing down for Duke's or Carson's and dressing up for Dragonfly or Seven. Nothing wrong with that; we're conscious of cars, clothes, shoes and the baubles of life, but we're not snobs.
We just grumble about snobs.
"The worst of pretension is to complain about the pretension of others," Matthew says, "and I hear it all the time." Moaning about our own level of ostentation is just about the only constant in Dallas nightlife. "We have more per capita complaints than any other city," he continues. "If we're not pretentious, but everybody's bitching about it, someone has to be the asshole."
Hmm...we have some ideas about that. The poet laureate, however, prefers to answer this week's Burning Question in a most succinct manner. "We are all assholes."