Town Down

There's an inspiring point in the Disney film Miracle, when hockey coach Kurt Russell lectures his team on moments, opportunities or something. We've pretty much memorized the speech.

Naturally it came to mind when we first considered this week's topic. The real Dallas; well, to solve that riddle would quickly place the Burning Question crew right up there with past anthropology greats. Just think about it: Margaret Mead spent years roaming the primitive villages of Samoa to uncover the true nature of adolescence. Claude Levi-Strauss knew that answers to social structures and kinship lurked in the Amazon rainforest. Our research merely required a week or two slamming 80 proof spirits at different bars around town.

Like a normal week, really.

Sure, opportunities to shake up the academic canon are risky. Some office-bound scholar lambasted Mead's work. And no one remembers poor Claude because of some tailor with a similar name. There's also the ever-present threat of ridicule.

"Real Dallas," warns Matthew, poet laureate of local nightlife, "anyone who uses those two words together is going to start snickering."

Like any city, Dallas defies easy labels. Old soap opera images of cowboy hats and big hair inform many outsiders. A lot of people speak of excess and pretension, although that combination doesn't fully describe the culture, either. There's an almost overt pressure to fit in, lease a set of status wheels and slurp down bottles of Stella Artois. It's more a function of market size, however, than cultural haughtiness. "It's a big little town," explains Brian McCullough, bartender at Martini Ranch. "Everybody knows everybody."

Well, not really. We sidled up to a pert blonde waiting for a seat at Vickery Park--didn't know her--and offered to buy a drink to, you know, weaken her resistance.

Turns out she works for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

People in rural communities often study outsiders for a while before accepting them into the group. Likewise, says Susan Marrs, who we encountered sipping wine at Hibiscus, "Dallas is tough to break into when you first get here, but once they know you it's the easiest city in the world." Few bars or restaurants in the area shun people from any demographic, provided they adhere to an establishment's code of dress or behavior.

"This city is a completely homogenous market," Matthew adds. "It's a continuum, upscale to downscale."

Thus you're likely to run into the same crowd at Dragonfly and Primo's. Dean Fearing hangs out there, by the way. Dirk Nowitski prefers The Loon. We've dined at a table next to Jerry Jones in the Landmark and elbowed Mark Cuban out of the way at Sense. But which place represents the city so well you'd drag a visitor there to see the real Dallas?

"Medici, Sense, Candle Room--those are the finest nightlife experiences in the city," Matthew says. "It pains me, but I don't think I'd take them there."

No, the real Dallas resides at a place hip enough for the fickle 500 yet not precocious or overdone; a venue attracting Uptown guys, shirttails dangling, and suburban parents who dropped the idea of mass fashion years ago; a spot where a slick Mercedes battles a beat-up Dodge Shadow for the final parking spot. An establishment, in other words, where urban excess and Southern hospitality meet.

"I'm afraid that The Grapevine might be the real Dallas," suggests Hibiscus bartender Ben Caudle with some chagrin.

Yes, The Grapevine, an eclectic Uptown dive. Unkempt, furniture in disarray, a seedy reputation and a basketball court for ambitious drunks.

Old and young, rich and poor, straightlaced and denizens of the "gayborhood" all mingle at the Maple Avenue hovel. "It's like if Dallas was a person and you sawed it down the middle," says Mike Wallace, bartender at the Old Monk. We suspect he envisions layers of strata rather than a gory mess. Some people compare it to a cool New York bar and our city envies everything Big Apple. We even import New York chains such as Nobu in a sorry effort to affirm our status as a player. The Grapevine draws strong crowds most nights. Dallas equates trendy with mass appeal. Yet it's offbeat enough to be a fave of the in-the-know party people.

"A very interesting thing goes on," Marrs explains. "People go there and the layers come off. They don't have to wear their masks anymore."

Sure, we considered many other places, such as Tei Tei Robata Bar. The venerable Japanese destination remains trendy and attracts a disparate group. But at The Grapevine, says bartender Gail Kerr, "You can act crazy and no one cares or people watch if you don't act crazy--it's definitely a mix of everything."

And there you have it, a bar that captures as many parts of Dallas as possible and throws them together.

We've never understood the attraction of The Grapevine, but that must be it. Or perhaps, as Wallace says, we all need someplace to escape rows of Uptown townhouses, rows of Plano McMansions, rows of M Streets ranch homes and think, "Hey, I'd kinda like to see a drag queen play basketball today."

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Dave Faries
Contact: Dave Faries