Spend any time with Ray Washburne at Highland Park Village, and it will seem like the real estate investor and restaurateur knows every single person in the world.

When I walk into the new Bistro 31—which recently took over a portion of the space formerly occupied by Harold’s in the historic shopping center—at 7:30 a.m. on a Monday, I tell the host whom I’m there to meet, and he immediately points me to a table against the front windows of the restaurant, where Washburne sits drinking a cup of coffee and reading the Dallas Morning News. He folds the paper, sets it aside, and raises his tall frame up from his chair to greet me.

Right from the start he’s got his salesman’s hat on (perhaps he never takes it off), telling me about the many changes he and his brother-in-law, Stephen Summers, have been making to “the Village” since buying it for about $170 million in May 2009. It’s clearly the crown jewel among the real estate properties that Washburne owns (through various entities, including Charter Holdings), and he wants me to know about every bit of polish that’s been applied to shine the place up.

They’ve planted a host of new trees. They’re growing ivy on some of the bare white walls. They hired the company that designed the exterior lighting at the U.S. Capitol to give HPV the feel of a European village at night. The movie theater was overhauled, and they’ve recruited more restaurant tenants. A clock tower is being erected in what was a largely unused courtyard, which is being converted into a second-floor dining patio for Bistro 31 and a new outdoor bar for Mi Cocina (of which Washburne is also part owner through his MCrowd Restaurant Group Inc.).

“This center was really being run as a local shopping destination, and we’ve converted it into an international shopping destination,” he
says.

Substantially raising rents at the Village drove out retailers like Banana Republic, which had an 8,000-square-foot space, but has provided the opportunity to bring in more high-end storefronts like Diane von Furstenberg and Stella McCartney. As a result, Washburne says, sales revenue for the center’s tenants was up 9 percent in 2010, and another 17-18 percent in 2011.

Looking over the short breakfast menu, he orders the granola, and I follow his lead. From talking about high-fashion retailers, Washburne’s attention turns to glancing out the window where a worker can be seen removing the Southern Methodist University flags that had been on display throughout the parking lot and replacing them with Texas Rangers flags ahead of the World Series.

“I get more comments about the flags than about anything,” Washburne says.

He likes to keep the center showing support for local sports teams. For the same reason he considers the movie theater, grocery store, coffee shop, and Deno’s of Highland Park Shoe Service to be vital components of the proper tenant mix. He believes it helps keep the Village a neighborhood asset, as well as an international attraction.

“There are very few places you go where someone comes out of the Tom Thumb and then they walk down to Harry Winston,” he says.

In these early morning hours only the Starbucks is buzzing with traffic. Most of the other stores haven’t yet opened. A couple walks by with their dog. Washburne waves to them. That’s Jan Miller, the book agent, and her husband, he explains.

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Our food arrives, and I can tell immediately that Washburne regrets his order. He smiles and says diplomatically, “Something different,” before picking up his spoon and digging in. Most mornings he begins by driving carpool for his three children and four of their classmates. Then he’ll head to a breakfast meeting, most often at the Preston Center Taco Diner (another MCrowd restaurant) for its Mexican offerings.

What was described on the menu as honey-roasted granola with berries and Greek yogurt is more accurately described as a big bowl of Greek yogurt with a sprinkling of granola on top and berries on the side. It was tasty, to be sure, but not what the menu promised.

As we’re contending with our meal, Washburne spies another woman pulling up nearby in her Mercedes. She was president of Crystal Charity Ball last year, he explains, as she heads into Starbucks in an athletic outfit. He loves that the Village remains a place people feel equally comfortable whether dressed in workout clothes or in their finest fashions.

Soon he’s eager to show me exactly what he’s been telling me about for the last hour, having promised a tour of the center when we’re finished. I expect that we’ll run into his friends and get pitched potential deals even on such a short walk (we later do and we are).

Washburne waves to a dapperly dressed host at Bristol 31, who’s standing only a few feet away, eating at the bar. “Hey, Marcus, can we get the check, please? And what are you eating this morning?”

“The Basque omelet,” Marcus replies, listing the ingredients involved.

“I had the granola this morning,” Washburne says. “A suggestion on the granola? There was a lot of yogurt, not a lot of granola.” He turns to me and asks “Did you think the same thing?”

I agree. “Just a thought for you,” Washburne tells Marcus, who says nothing in response. He just smiles as he turns his attention to retrieving our bill.

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