Restaurant Review: Marquee Grill & Bar
Top Chef Tre Wilcox takes his talents to Highland Park Village.
A champagne-colored Lexus SUV filled with four well-coifed, middle-aged women pulls up to the valet stand. Attendants surround the car and, with a flourish, simultaneously fling open all four doors. Expensive perfume scents the hot summer breeze. One woman stoops to adjust her strappy Jimmy Choos while another rearranges the belt over her Prada sundress. And then, with everything just so, they step onto the sidewalk and approach the entrance to Marquee Grill & Bar in Highland Park Village.
Before they can push through the doors, though, a shiny black Bentley jumps the curb and parks on the sidewalk. The women shriek as the driver dashes like Errol Flynn to greet them. A striking, raven-haired woman then slides out of the Bentley’s passenger seat, and her pouty Valentino red lips part. She says, “What perfect timing!”
Indeed, everything seems perfect and wonderful at Highland Park Village. Developers Ray Washburne and Stephen Summers bought the property two years ago and have performed enough reconstructive surgery on the aging beauty that the 80-year-old shopping center looks half its age. The underutilized spaces are now filled and riffraff occupants have been replaced with sparkling, high-dollar tenants such as Stella McCartney, Christian Louboutin, and Diane von Furstenburg.
And Brian Twomey. Who? You won’t find that 38-year-old whippersnapper’s name in The Dallas Social Directory. A quick look at Twomey’s résumé reveals he’s not a blue blood. His first restaurant, Loft 610, was in—gasp—Plano. His second, The Common Table, is a casual pub in Uptown. Not only was he raised in Lake Highlands, Twomey was once a “lowly cube jockey” at Pizza Hut, as he puts it. Hardly the pedigree one would expect from a man now in his position. His Twomey Concepts owns and operates Marquee Grill & Bar and The Village Theatre.
It’s a wonder the deal ever happened. Washburne had a vision for restoring the Highland Park theater and adding a multi-story restaurant next door, and he was wrapping up the process of interviewing people to carry out that vision. Through a friend in real estate, though, Twomey was granted a late meeting and worked 48 hours straight on his proposal. He already had one ace in his plan: Tre Wilcox, the handsome chef who wowed Highland Park diners during his seven-year stint at Abacus and gained a national following after starring for two seasons on Bravo’s Top Chef. Twomey hired Wilcox in 2009 to retool Loft 610’s menu and promised him his own restaurant some day. Now he had a chance to showcase Wilcox in the highest-priced restaurant space in Dallas. Twomey won the job.
Washburne tested him early. “This was not like any other deal where the landlord was pitching you,” Twomey says. “This was you pitching the landlord. Washburne said he liked me and was going to give me a shot. Then he told me there would be no money for improvement and I had to do it on my own.” Plus, Twomey would have to toss in $600,000 toward the theater renovations.
Twomey needed $4 million fast. He found it when he ran into his old Pizza Hut boss, Peter Hearl. “He put up meaningful dollars and bought into my company,” Twomey says. “Then we leaned on his son, Mark, an investment banker in New York, to move to Dallas and be my partner.”
Many more “meaningful dollars” later, Twomey and Mark Hearl are running one of the most fashionable restaurants in Dallas. Their all-star staff did not come cheap. Besides Wilcox, there’s Justin Beam. The former general manager at Fearing’s and bar manager at Craft runs the front of the house. Jeff Yerger, once the general manager at Abacus, assists him. Jason Kosmas and his manly mustache are behind the sexy bar. Forbes magazine once named the latter the best bartender in New York. Wilcox staffed his kitchen with his loyal band of “little brothers,” including Jermaine Brown, Tim Woehr, Brian Bell, Tommy Smith, and Oliver Sitrin.
If the restaurant is busy, there isn’t a bad spot in the house. The 270 seats are spread over two floors and three patios. The premium spot is the Chef’s Dining Room downstairs. Here the setting is feminine and formal, with dramatic coffee-brown booths, white-clothed tables, large silver-framed mirrors, and shiny ’70s-style chandeliers. The Chef’s Dining Room is the only place to view the exhibition kitchen where Wilcox and company perform their choreographed cooking show.
Halfway up the stairs, carpeted in a black, brown, and blue geometric pattern, you’ll find a narrow dining area to the right. The clubby space designed by Zero 3 with bent-wood cane-back chairs overlooks the outdoor Romeo and Juliet-style balcony. Across the hall you’ll find the entrance to Kosmas’ bar. Take a few more steps up to a dining room on the top floor filled with banquettes for two, four-top tables, and brown leather booths. The upstairs decor is more midcentury modern by way of country club, with Armani green cypress stained walls lined with brown leather booths on one side and exposed brick along the other. A skylight lightens the space.
We arrived at 6:30 on a Friday evening and were the first table seated upstairs. We felt like we’d been banished to Siberia. Our only company was the waitstaff huddled behind the service bar, just arm’s length from our table. We could hear them gossiping about customers who’d been overserved the night before.
Eventually, a waiter approached. He winked at me and said, “Hello, beautiful ladies. May I suggest a nice, crisp white wine for you tonight? It is from Austria.”