Vice Grip

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It was the year of smoke. So many Dallas restaurant landmarks went up in the stuff in 2003, and so many Pall Malls and Partagas Churchills didn't, at least not within restaurant walls. And walls will be the most crucial culinary consideration in Dallas from now on, thanks to the mayor.

This past spring Mayor Laura Miller pushed through a smoking ban in Dallas, prohibiting tobacco fog in establishments that derive more than 25 percent of their revenue from food sales. Smoke-friendly bars and lounges must be completely sealed off from dining areas.

Social nannies cheered and operators jeered, as the cost of the former's sense of personal righteousness must be borne by the latter's bottom line.


Vice Grip

Vice Grip

But some say those with cost concerns are simply whining. Acclaimed chef Kent Rathbun, founder of Abacus and Jasper's, has been running ads in restaurant publications extolling the virtues of smoke-free dining environments. "If anybody tells you smoke-free measures hurt hospitality, don't believe it," Rathbun insists in ad text on behalf of a project called TobaccoScam. "...Going smoke-free four years before the rest of Dallas' restaurants showed that when you focus on your guests' total comfort and well-being, no one misses secondhand smoke--not even customers who still smoke!"

Rathbun's comments are no doubt true--for him (he couldn't be reached for comment). But there's a difference between his attaining a state of higher consciousness through personal realization and personal choice and having it rammed down your throat by municipal edict--a peculiar form of "catching on." So it's no surprise that a number of Dallas restaurateurs take umbrage with his conclusion. Jeffrey Yarbrough claims the smoking ban killed off his bar business, mortally wounding his groundbreaking noodle restaurant Liberty this past November. Mark Maguire of Maguire's Regional Cuisine in North Dallas and M Grill & Tap in Uptown says the ban knocked the breath out of his bar at Maguire's, kicking down revenues 14 percent. But he really felt the squeeze at M Grill & Tap--inevitable when he has Frankie Carabetta's Manhattan bar blowing smoke down his neck from across the street. "The smoking ban killed my late-night business," he says. After the ban went into effect, Maguire says revenues plunged from an average per-week take of $6,000 between 9 p.m.-2 a.m. to $700-$1,500 per week over the same five-hour span. He now shuts down at 11 p.m.

"It's been troublesome," says Gene Street, operator of III Forks, who bemoans the loss of event bookings because of the ban. "We just provide big ashtrays right outside the front door." Over at Jeroboam Brasserie downtown, operator Whit Meyers says the ban bled the life out of his once-sizzling late-night lounge business. "If you go around town and see the bars that have smoking and the ones that don't, there's some correlation there as far as volume goes," he says. "I mean The Loon is just knocking it out of the park right now."

Yeah, The Loon may be booming through its thick fog. But if other restaurants are truly suffering, they haven't assembled much credible data--anecdotal or otherwise--to illustrate their plight. (There was virtually no consumer outcry driving this top-down edict, an indication of the effectiveness of existing restaurant ventilation systems and smoking section design.) Some restaurateurs are privately appalled by the utter lack of political savvy among Dallas restaurateurs, a gap that stood out starkly against Mayor Miller's shrewd instincts. Witness the feeble attempts to mobilize tip-dependent employees in the smoking-ban fight.

Rathbun's claims notwithstanding, the smoking ban has indelibly altered the Dallas restaurant scene. The restaurant lounge is dead. And whether through dumb luck or uncanny prescience, Tristan Simon felt this social tremor well before it shook his competitors. In retrospect, his pre-ban blueprints for the semi-private nightclubs Sense and Candle Room look astonishingly brilliant. Any smoke revenue shaved from his heavily bar-dependent Cuba Libre was immediately soaked up by Candle Room. And he was able to maintain a grip on Cuba Libre's customer base by embarking on a methodical campaign with chef Nick Badovinus to upgrade the culinary value of the menu while simultaneously exerting heavy downward pressure on costs--this, months before the ban caught the rest of the industry with its butt exposed. By the time the ban hit, he had already established the perception that Cuba Libre was an affordable, chef-driven dining destination rather than a nightclub.

And if genius is the shameless theft of ideas, then Phil Romano and partner Joe Palladino are Mensa inductees. Their chosen salve to soothe the anticipated slump in their Nick & Sam's after-dinner bar business led to the creation of their $1.2 million semi-private club Medici this fall, just down the street from their steak house. Medici tosses little appetizers at its limo-driven clientele in small enough quantities to slip through Mayor Miller's 25 percent food-revenue loophole. The club will also be fed by their joint venture project with Fernando and Gino Masci, founders of Il Mulino. The home-style Italian restaurant, which debuted in New York in 1981, will open in the former Casa Dominguez space on Cedar Springs Road next February.

So while the smoking ban does leave Dallas in a quandary, it doesn't spell disaster. "People who have a desire to be in that hip lounge environment that they crave as part of their urban experience, you can't beat them down," says Matthew Mabel, president of Surrender Inc., a management and hospitality consulting firm.

As the restaurant lounge adapts or dies in Dallas, it may very well re-emerge in the bedroom communities up north where smoking decisions are largely left to operators. After state legislators relaxed requirements for local wet-dry elections this past May, a flood of petition drives led to ballot measures aimed at going damp. So far, elections will in all likelihood be held in McKinney, Allen and Plano in May. Mabel points out that the driving force behind these elections is grocery and restaurant chains, who avoid building in dry areas, thereby shutting off lush sources of local tax revenue. But a byproduct of these ballot measures, which will allow beer and wine restaurant service and retail sales in dry areas as well as scuttle the annoying private club membership requirement in restaurants in "partial wet" locales, may be the emergence of the restaurant lounge in the hinterlands. The Asian restaurant-lounge Naan in the Shops at Legacy, a development with high-density residential lofts and town homes on the drawing board, could be the first of many.

Beyond tax revenue issues, there is palpable frustration among the grassroots in these communities because local laws lag far behind the culinary sophistication of residents. It's virtually impossible to find higher-alcohol wines like California Zinfandel or the much sought-after Amarone from Italy in these communities, because existing laws cap legal wine sales at 14 percent alcohol by volume. Frustration may even boil over to some day allow retail liquor sales in these communities (state law relaxed these wet-dry election requirements too, but they are still more restrictive than those for beer and wine). How many spoons will be hurled in kitchens when the amateur cooks who learned their stuff in cooking classes at Central Market and Whole Foods realize they can't obtain the fuel for their Madeira sauce or Cognac reduction without a trip to the next county? The ground is shifting.

Which is why 2003 may turn out to be the most pivotal restaurant year in recent memory. The evolutionary shifts have been dramatic, with the industry sloughing off huge chunks of its history. Several landmarks were scrubbed from the landscape this year, including Marty's (after 60 years), Il Sorrento (after 53 years), Ruggeri's (skipped Dallas for Colleyville after 18 years), The Riviera (after 19 years) and Star Canyon (after nine years), chef Stephan Pyles' groundbreaking restaurant serving New Texas cuisine. Add to that the sudden death of famed Dallas restaurateur Mel Hollen (Atlantic Café, Jaxx Café, Mel Hollen's Fine Dining, Café Pacific) at the age of 61. Hollen was found dead in his El Paso hotel room of an apparent heart attack. He was helping to open a restaurtant there.

Yet during this ground-rattling, a cluster of neighborhood, chef-driven restaurants bloomed, including Standard 2706 (Timothy Byres), Local (Tracy Miller), Aurora (Avner Samuel), Stolik (Francisco Mendonca), and Iris (Russell Hodges). The return of founding chef Matthew Antonovich to Sipango is the maraschino cherry atop this chef-driven cream puff.

But the closure of The Riviera is a potent metaphor for the current changes. The Old Warsaw and Ernie's aside, the passing of The Riviera was the dying gasp of traditional Continental cuisine. If the prolific breeding of sushi restaurants is any indicator, the continents have shifted. "Continental used to be European," says Mabel. It now means Asian. "It may be hard to find a good Chinese restaurant, but it's real easy to find more exotic, more interesting, more authentic restaurants of all other Asian nations," he says.

And while the burst of tapas restaurants (Nandina, Rouge, Urban Tapas, Americas, Spike and Republic) may suggest something of significance, it's probably more novelty than trend. History shows these "little plates" adventures get mercilessly crushed (Geode, Bibendum) when they evolve beyond their Spanish roots. "Small plates just won't have widespread traction," says Mabel. "It's not an easy way to eat for a lot of people."

Smoking ban aside, Dallas restaurant fortunes will soon flourish. Wine lists are energized again, with pricier bottles selling well, though a good chunk of the telecom/dot.com-driven high-dollar wine business is probably gone for good. Price points showing the most spark are in the $100 range. Meyers says he's "selling the hell" out of Silver Oak cabernet at $99 a bottle at Jeroboam. "I'm putting to shame all of my counterparts," he boasts.

According to the Texas Restaurant Association, the industry began its turnaround in August, when restaurants started adding jobs, and Texas restaurants are expected to post sales of $27.1 billion in 2004, representing a 5.2 percent uptick over 2003.

"The recovery is real for us," says Street, whose III Forks and Cool River Café are among the top-grossing restaurants in Texas, each with annual sales in the $10 million range. Though Street and his Consolidated Restaurant Operations scuttled a deal to pick up 119 Chevy's Fresh Mex and 10 Fuzio Universal Pasta from Emeryville, California-based Chevy's Inc. (Street says ousted California Governor Gray Davis' 11th-hour blizzard of business-unfriendly legislation choked the deal), steak sales are picking up, mostly because of the Atkins and South Beach diet crazes, which feature low-carb, high-protein regimens. (Though as this went to press, Fleming's Steak House closed its doors.) Diners are dumping the corn and potatoes from their plates. "We have a lot of people that say no bread, please, but boy, they're eatin' the steaks," he says. This despite an average $2 spike in steak menu prices because of a beef shortage.

Say what you will about Dallas: In the end, it all boils down to steak.

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