Diners generally care more about the chef than the restaurant owner. After all, you visit Nana for Anthony Bombaci's brilliant touch rather than for decisions made in some distant Hilton boardroom.
Yet the best restaurateurs shape the local scene in more ways than we imagine. They turn worn out buildings into drawing cards, bring vitality (wanted or not) to neighborhoods, push our tastes up or nudge them toward the middle.
Owning a restaurant is also risky. Profit margins can be thin and crowds fickle. Very few normal folks get into the business.
Here are the ones--normal or not--who we think performed at the peak...
Best restaurateurs of 2009:
1. Chris Zielke/Chris Jeffers
Last year the former bartenders struck it big with Bolsa. This year they opened Smoke, a concept based more on old-fashioned wood-fired cooking than on barbecue--although there's some of that, as well. In other words, they are two for two.
2. Nick Badovinus
The chef-owner of Neighborhood Services took over a jinxed location, transformed it into a destination and then decided to opened two NS spin offs in the near future. That's a pretty good record over the course of one year.
3. Donald Chick
The owner of Park had to sell chef Marc Cassel on the concept. They battled high expectations and a bumpy start. Now traffic backs up on Henderson Avenue almost every night as crowds converge on the space.
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Best restaurateurs of the 00s:
1. Tristan Simon
Few shaped the Dallas nightlife landscape over the last ten years like Simon. His achievements include Cuba Libre, Hibiscus, Fireside Pies, Sense, Candleroom, The Porch...Some of his places are gone and some have faded, but Henderson Avenue will never be the same because of him.
2. Alberto Lombardi
We rarely list his restaurants among the city's best, but that hardly matters. Lombardi's venues are, for the most part, wildly successful. If not, he pulls them and moves on, not wishing to let anything drag his empire down.
3. Bob Sambol
Yeah, he's taken a beating lately. But in the 00s, Sambol took the pretentious steakhouse concept and gave it universal appeal, opening branches (which he later sold) of his Lemmon Ave. restaurant in Plano, Grapevine--even far off Denver. As the era of opulence ended, Sambol's troubles began.