Three hundred dollars.
That’s how much it costs for a season-ticket-holding or suite-holding Dallas Cowboys fan to skip tailgating and have a pre-home-game meal at the new AT&T Stadium Club. To be fair, the restaurant offers one hell of a hook: that fee covers unlimited buffet food and drink in a “premier modern dining experience,” from four hours before kickoff to an hour after time expires, with menu specials themed around each visiting team’s geography.
But is the AT&T Stadium Club worth the $300-per-game fee? I found out by visiting on days with no stadium events, when the restaurant becomes an upscale sports bar open to any broke-ass member of the general public.
Early signs are good. The Stadium Club space is a knockout: a sleek black modernist “Cheers-on-a-spaceship” bar, with elegant dark wood paneling, reflective glass and as many gigantic TVs as a football fan could want. There’s an even swankier, airier bar space down the hall, which opens only during big events, like home and away games. The bathrooms are flanked by the tall, gleaming silver trophy from Super Bowl VI.
But there’s a metaphorical sign of the half-assedness to come: Those bathrooms have ordinary Softsoap dispensers from Wal-Mart. Sure enough, the sports bar fare here is elevated in presentation and price, but not so elevated in anything else.
To be fair, only some of the food is aggressively bad. The Big D pizza ($10) is supposed to involve pepperoni, jalapeños and mozzarella, but it comes blanketed in crushed red pepper flakes, the most red pepper I’ve ever seen. The crust is crisp, the tomato sauce has that sweet Domino’s tang and the toppings taste like red pepper flakes.
The Cowboys chefs dump so much lime juice into their guacamole it tastes of nothing else. Are they disguising a lack of freshness? That guac comes on the chip-and-dip trio ($8), with competent queso and salsa that’s tomato-heavy, spice-light. Our trio originally arrived as a duo, before a waiter alerted us that the kitchen had forgotten a dip.
The brisket tacos ($9) are a low point. Barbecued brisket is piled into three tacos, each with two gummy straight-from-the-bag corn tortillas, and topped with shredded lettuce with brown spots. (The menu falsely advertised cabbage and cilantro.) The fatty brisket needs something — acid? pickled onion? chile de arbol salsa? any kind of sauce at all? — because the overall concept of putting brisket on ungrilled tortillas with lettuce is just dumb.
Fish and chips ($14) come to the table without having once seen a saltshaker. The fish batter is thick and cardboardian, the fries limp and puffy. A brisket sandwich ($16) arrives strikingly presented on the plate, and strikingly bland to match, with tough, chippy meat doused in barbecue sauce and practically no other sign of life.
So what's good? The hot wings aren’t crisp but taste fine ($10). (The kitchen forgot our dipping sauce.) The “44 Farms Angus” burger patty ($12) is underseasoned and alarmingly compressed, like it was molded into industrial pucks, but overall is a passable stadium burger.
On Monday nights there’s a glorious $5 old fashioned special, and the drinks are classier than the price would suggest. My cheap old fashioneds were made with demerara syrup, cherries and customer’s choice of Bulleit, Sazerac Rye and other good liquors.
The vodka selection is composed entirely of standard or flavored bottlings from Effen, the brand sponsored by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.
And there is one stupendous side dish: the green beans ($2). Not only are they fresh rather than canned, but the green beans are genuinely terrific, crisp and lightly crunchy, spicy from a splash of chili and topped generously with sesame seeds.
On a quiet night, the bartending is friendly and terrific, but a Cowboys away game is a different experience. My friend and I attended the Stadium Club for the team’s recent road defeat to the Giants, and the place was packed with fans; we stood up for the entire first half. The crowd applauded when Cowboys players appeared in advertisements. The atmosphere was great.
But the dining experience sucked. The Stadium Club scheduled two bartenders for a room with over 150 customers. Understandably, they worked frenetically with heads down, ignoring refill requests. My friend had to wait 20 minutes for his first beer and 47 minutes for his second, and was never offered a third.
Staffing and management continually fumbled the ball: A bartender wasted time walking to the kitchen with a mug when our neighbor complained that her coffee was served cold (she rejected the second coffee, too); we watched at least four pints of beer get poured down the drain because they sat on the pass for over 20 minutes without any waiter picking them up; a bartender poured five shots of Hennessy which sat at the pass for 15 minutes before a floor manager, who'd stopped to watch the game and shout at the TV, found them and asked, "What is this? Whose is this?"; a young couple chipped away with their spoons at rock-solid vanilla ice cream before giving up and leaving; our neighbor was so neglected by the bartender that we bought him a sympathy beer.
At one point, a waiter arrived at the bar with a half-full glass of a brown liquor and set it down next to some newly-made drinks. A bartender looked at that glass, poured some Jack Daniel's into it and passed it to a new customer.
No doubt somebody will write to me and complain that the AT&T Stadium Club is not meant for restaurant critics, or that it’s not an appropriate subject of a review.
But food writers serve two purposes. The first is to act as advocates for good, promoting the best parts of a city’s culinary scene, encouraging innovation and helping readers find (we hope) their new favorite restaurants.
The second role is to act as consumer advocates, sparing our readers from wasting their time and money. Which means that when a huge new eatery opens at the region’s most famous building, we need to investigate. And when it charges $300 for a meal — one of the most expensive menus in Texas, and one of the most expensive buffets in the world — we need to investigate.
The AT&T Stadium Club can be a decent sports bar, especially on $5 old fashioned night. Maybe the kitchen magically improves when it serves its $300 buffet. But when the Club claims to be a dining destination, when it touts one-percenter exclusivity as a substitute for culinary effort, when it fails to prepare for road game crowds, when it hires inadequate staff and gives them no support, when it charges $16 for a sandwich but can’t be bothered to buy a real soap dispenser, when it can’t even get us a Miller Lite — well, what’s the point?
As we left, the Giants clinching victory over Dallas, my friend said, “I’m so glad we never have to go to that fucking place again.”
AT&T Stadium Club, 1 AT&T Way, Arlington, 817-892-5800. Open daily 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; restricted access during Cowboys home games and other stadium events.