THE WIZARDS OF OZ:
Sous chef Guy Bernal (left) and executive chef Jean LaFont put chic
substance, like duck with fresh peaches, on the menu at the stylish Oz.
When Oz opened in the nosebleed country on LBJ, it changed everything. For the first time, you were where you ate. But behind the glitz and glamour of the tri-level, mirrored, neon-lit club, there was a serious kitchen, run by French chef Jean LaFont, that produced highly imaginative, mostly French-style food. We raved breathlessly about "quenelles so light they take your breath away." Food became part of the definition of hip. And it’s been that way ever since.
1975: First Courses
Shoppers ate the ladies’ lunch fare (popovers and fresh fruit with poppy seed dressing, both still on the menu) at Neiman’s Zodiac Room. Another lunch spot opened that would cast a long shadow. Former Pyramid Room chef Guy Calluaud, whose great-grandmother cheffed for Napoleon III, opened Calluaud Traiteur, a small French cafe "tucked into a corner in the Quadrangle" that served French standards. Chili’s Bar and Grill kicked off Dallas’ chain-restaurant craze. Gene Street and Phil Cobb opened the Black-eyed Pea and Dixie House restaurants, which glorified chicken-fried steak and squash casserole and pioneered the home-cooking niche. In 1986, they sold the chain to a British conglomerate for $47 million.
1976: Swinging Singles
Theme restaurants like Ichabod’s, Daddy’s Money, and T.G.I. Friday’s made Greenville Avenue party central. "Disco dining" reached its peak at Elon, where one D reviewer reported, "Occasionally a tightly wrapped buttock would cruise past my escargot." Hep cats crowded into the venerable (and sorely missed) Strictly Tabu for terrific pizza and jazz in a "sort of plain, unaffected, classy-tacky" atmosphere. And Dallas took "a step forward for the limited world of Greek cuisine" when the Parthenon opened on Mockingbird Lane, where the food was secondary to the belly dancing of Chastity Fox. The Bronx, training ground of Stephan Pyles, opened on Cedar Springs.
SPAGHETTI OH!: Alberto Lombardi was the king of Dallas Italian food.
We finally started swishing and sipping when La Cave popped open "with a refreshing idea whose arrival was overdue—the wine bar." A dozen fine wines by the glass—ranging in price from 89 cents to $1.49. Alberto Lombardi opened Lombardi’s, where he and Luciano Cola were kissing hands years before Franco Bertolasi. We were strictly a marinara town. A few pricey palaces like Mario’s served "Northern Italian," meaning veal, but as far as we knew, Italy had only two regions—red and white, South and North, hearty and elegant.
1978: Culinary Temples
The well-heeled and wannabes called months in advance to reserve a table at Jean Claude, Jean Claude Prevot’s temple of food. The chef as artiste worked his magic in an open kitchen. This was the root of the "celebrity chef." The changing menu was recited tableside to the humble diner who was well-advised to abstain from cocktails till dinner was ordered, lest he forget the hors d’oeuvres before the waiter finished describing the entrées. Antares opened in the top of the brand-new Hyatt Regency Hotel, the latest landmark building of Dallas, and the first to overpower Pegasus. Significantly, a restaurant is the new symbol of the city.
1979: Beyond France
"Guy Calluaud is the best chef in town," we proclaimed, and the hardest working. We praised the steak Parisienne and the squab, admiring "the GC trademark of elegant simplicity." Dallas was sharpening its palate and still (cautiously) exploring the flavors of the rest of the world. Pita Place, "an Arabic restaurant run by Israelis where you can get chocolate mousse for dessert," revealed the mysteries of falafel, and Asuka was the first Japanese restaurant to "open with no chefs in karate outfits." "Sashimi" made its first appearance in the magazine.
1980: The Wine-O’s and the O’s
Suddenly, wine evolved from red or white to Burgundy or Chablis, partly because of places like La Cave and Marty’s, our first real highbrow wine and pâté retailer. Gene Street’s first bar, J Alfred’s, morphed trendily into the Wine Press; Jennivine took an English approach to wine; and St. Martin’s house red was Chatefleur, "one of the great buys of our time," we thought. Shannon Wynne opened his seminal bar, 8.0, first of his oh-so-hip hangouts that would culminate in the infamous Nostromo and Tango. Meanwhile, the Mansion on Turtle Creek had yet to impress us. With Christian Cheim as chef, we declared, "Unfortunately, the kitchen is not yet able to deliver with a style that matches the service and surroundings. Eventually this kitchen will find its stride."
1981: See Food
In 1981, we remarked, "There are more restaurants on Greenville Avenue than in the entire state of Nebraska." Our critics turned their attention to the new "onslaught of seafood." Jozef’s was serving sole and smoked freshwater trout. Cafe Pacific’s crab Louis was a hit in Highland Park. About Dungeness at the Crazy Crab, we raved, "It gives you a certain sense of accomplishment after you’ve smashed those formidable-looking claws into a pile of harmless shells." And Ratcliffe’s "Continental Seafood" meant shrimp and crab in white wine in a pastry shell covered with hollandaise and a wine cellar that was the talk of the town. At the time, the average Dallasite was eating out three times a week. "If you’ve elbowed your way into Mario and Alberto’s, you’ll swear they all eat here three times a week," we said.
MAIS, OUI: The opening of the French Room brought glamourous dining and style under one rococo roof.
Overwrought, rococo, angel-bedecked, and gilded, the French Room opened in the extravagant style Dallas has always loved. Chef Roland Passot ruled in the kitchen, and we were in love, too. "Nothing short of something physical and amorous could surpass the sublime quality of this food," we said. Meanwhile, the American Nouvelle Cuisine revolution that would overthrow the French—and everyone else—was cooking at Agnew’s in Adelstein Plaza.
1983: Let Them Eat Bread
With the support of Mr. Stanley himself, Patrick Esquerre opened the first La Madeleine on Mockingbird Lane. Everything from the toilets to the plumbing was French, the bakers spoke no English, and Dallas’ breadbasket changed almost overnight. The baguette had arrived. Our bread-consciousness had risen like yeast, setting the scene for Massimo da Milano’s stifada rolls (on every restaurant table) and Empire Bakery’s artisanal masterpieces.
1984: The Turning Point
Chili guru, author of the ultimate A Bowl of Red, and defender of the no-bean stew, Frank Tolbert, died. Routh Street Cafe opened, serving Paula Lambert’s handmade cheese and American wine. "We don’t know of another restaurant in town that combines such excitement and comfort," we said. Still, we wondered, "Is Southwestern Cuisine anything more than a gimmick?" Routh Street and Nana Bar & Grill gave us a resounding yes. But the sushi tsunami loomed large, and Mr. Sushi was making waves: "An authentic sushi bar, a counter behind which several formidable-looking Japanese men wield vicious-looking knives to slice hunks, cubes, and slivers of raw fish. If this doesn’t excite you, maybe you haven’t been brave enough to try raw fish."
1985: Italian Invasion
Short story: Dallas surrendered to Nuvo Cucina. "Dallas is finally catching up with Wolfgang Puck’s California—at last, we have a chichi pizza place." The spinach-topped, artisan-crust pizza first popularized at Ciao and Adriano’s showed up on menus everywhere. Continental became Cal-Ital. That none of these ’80s establishments remain points to another characteristic of the Dallas dining scene: it’s hard to stay in business.
DEAN’S DREAM: Dean Fearing pushed the Mansion on Turtle Creek into the international spotlight.
Former star Jean Claude closed shop, Old Warsaw relocated, and the Pyramid Room started to crumble. India Palace, our first upscale Indian eatery, opened, and Thai cafes proliferated. But the big story was the Mansion on Turtle Creek. Dean Fearing moved from the Verandah Club to the Mansion and provided pronounceable elegance. "Now, with Dean Fearing and his brilliant New Southwestern Cuisine menu safely ensconced, the Mansion has food to equal its surroundings," we said. But we still referred to sushi as "bait" and wondered, "Why would humans want to eat raw fish and vinegar-flavored rice, a combination better suited for their cat’s dinner than their own?" Still, Sushi on McKinney introduced the sushi bar as a post-modern singles hangout.
1987: Designer Dining
Designer Paul Draper made his mark at San Simeon, a perfectly crafted New American restaurant. In Draper’s meticulously stylish interior, the dream team of Patrick Columbo (food and beverage manager at the Mansion) and chef Richard Chamberlain made restaurants into places to see as well as eat in. Draper would go on to design Sfuzzi, Seventeen Seventeen, the Crescent Club, Anzu, Voltaire, and countless other Dallas restaurants, blazing an imaginative trail in eatery décor.
1988: Location & Locations
Everything about Sfuzzi was hip. Located on McKinney Avenue, the new pizzeria was a "fashionably frenzied room full of fashionably friendly waiters serving fashionable frozen bellinis to a high-fashion mob." The dining districts of Dallas emerged, as McKinney became one of many restaurant rows. Blue Mesa, a "New New Mexican Mexican restaurant," opened in what was then Sakowitz Village and established a new kind of Mexican flavor. The West End lost its edge, creative restaurateurs like Richard Chase abandoned the scene, and in the end, funky Austin import Chuy’s left downtown and staked a claim on the soon-to-be-hot "new North Dallas location" in the Knox-Henderson neighborhood.
1989: What Do
At the close of the decade, D asked seven arbiters to discuss the state of Dallas cuisine and where it was going. Lori Finkelman-Holben (Riviera), George Toomer ("consultant and interpreter of public taste"), Phil Cobb, Patrick Columbo, Jack Knox, Ron McDougall (then president of Chili’s), and John Dayton (co-owner of Routh Street and Baby Routh) gathered to talk about dining trends. Their consensus? "Restaurants aren’t owned anymore by people who know about food," Toomer said. "I think the Cajun trend died because it was strange food," Finkelman-Holben said, wondering, "What are we going to see in the ’90s?" "Drive-thru takeout food barns," Toomer said. What was really happening was creative Dallas chefs were introducing Thai touches into their New American menus, and the godmother of all things Thai in Dallas, Annie Wong, was returning the compliment by mixing Southwestern and Oriental ingredients with her stellar Thai cuisine at Krisda’s.
1990: New Age Everything
"Keeping up with Dallas restaurant turnovers, name changes, and ownership transfers is as complicated as keeping up with the relationships on a soap opera," we said. "In fact, they may be more complicated." Everything was evolving; everything was labeled New Age, even barbecue. Along with most other Dallas matrons, the venerable Peggy’s Beef Bar gave itself a facelift and took the name Peggy Sue BBQ. How New Age can barbecue be? Well, the biggest buzz about Peggy Sue’s was around the fabulous fresh spinach.
1991: Mexican Revival
Phil Romano entered the scene with his new kind of upscale chain. Macaroni Grill, aka "Fuddrucker’s with an Italian accent," was on its way to becoming a nationally known Italian brand. At the other end of the spectrum, Phil and Janet Cobb opened Mi Piaci, an artisanal Italian restaurant with a notable wine cellar. But the real news was Mi Cocina, a new kind of Mexican restaurant—high-style, high-decibel, high-dollar enchiladas that raised the bar tabs on margaritas and level of Tex-Mex sophistication all over Dallas.
Avner Samuel, one of the fathers of Southwest Cuisine, returned to Dallas and opened the first of many outrageously creative restaurants, "putting the fun back in fine dining." Avner’s on McKinney debuted $7 foie gras and showcased the international flavors he’d learned in London and Hong Kong. Meanwhile, in Deep Ellum on Main Street, Eduardo Greene opened Eduardo’s Aca y Alla, which two years later became Monica’s Aca y Alla. The green enchiladas, unlike the owner’s sexual orientation, have not changed. Cafe Brazil started the first caffeine rumblings in town.
1993: To the Hoods
Ricky Tillman brought Rosewood finesse to Oak Cliff at Tillman’s Corner. Instead of burgers and backgammon, swinging-singles land became the home of Royal Thai. The daughter of Plano’s longtime neighborhood hangout Nakamoto pioneered the upper reaches of McKinney Avenue with a feng shui atmosphere at Anzu. PoPolo’s, a Cal-Ital restaurant with a friendly bar scene and the jazz sounds of pre-Grammy winner Norah Jones debuted in Preston Royal Shopping Center. Matt Martinez opened No Place, a serious Texas restaurant, in Lakewood. Mai Phom, the original Vietnamese cook in Dallas, opened Mai’s in the heart of Park Cities.
1994: The Star Is Born
Dallas’ definitive restaurant, Star Canyon, opened to huge acclaim and month-long reservation lists. Southwest Cuisine reached its apex in this restaurant, the creation of all-star duo Stephan Pyles and Michael Cox. Unfortunately, the twin powers of restaurant success—artistry and money—went mano a mano at Star Canyon, and, not surprisingly, the money won. In 1998 Star Canyon sold to Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, which predictably tried to replicate the magic all over the country. To the bitter satisfaction of foodies, Star Canyon could not be duplicated.
1995: Second Generation
Twenty years ago, we wondered if Southwest Cuisine was a gimmick. By 1995, a new generation of chefs was kicking the techniques of their forefathers up a notch. Chris Pyun scaled down his avant-French cuisine by mixing local and seasonal ingredients with exotic Southwestern elements on his menu at the Green Room. Kent Rathbun was center stage at the newly refurbished Landmark dining room where he was experimenting with "ethnic spice" in his New World Cuisine—beyond New Texan and New American. Nancy Beckham opened Brazos on Greenville Avenue, a Southwest bistro with the same seasonal philosophy as Routh Street and the Mansion but at beer-drinker prices. Rathbun’s brother Kevin was the genial chef who made Stephan Pyles’ Baby Routh his own child. Marc Cassel (Green Room), Jim Severson (Sevy’s), and Jamie Sanford (Lola) were close behind.
1996: Gourmet Gets Going
Today, it’s hard to imagine a grocery store without a row of roasted chickens or a vegetable bin without prepackaged salad. But "home meal replacement" and "gourmet foods to go" didn’t exist in Dallas until Phil Romano opened Eatzi’s. He combined the restaurant business with the grocery business. City Cafe opened a ready-for-pickup spot, and Dallas hostesses were grateful. In Addison, La Spiga sold rustic, crusty loaves of bread and mini quiches. It wouldn’t be long before the sharpened palates of Dallas flocked to buy gourmet groceries when Austin’s fabled food store, Central Market, opened its first North Texas location in 2001. Whole Foods had already brought its gourmet granola philosophy to town.
LOVER BOY: Nick Barclay (Barclays) brought international flavors to the Dallas palate.
When veteran Dallas chef Nick Barclay left Dani Catering and opened Barclays, it was an instant sensation. His monthly evolving cuisine elevated the pub-food image of British food to new heights—literally. His monument to vegetables—a 6-inch tower of mashed potatoes, mushrooms, and grilled vegetables topped with onions—is still remembered with fondness. Downtown chef Chris Svalesen was making taller waves at Fish, a fine seafood restaurant that featured formidable presentations of swordfish perched on its side, while 8-inch towers of showy chocolate sacks filled with mousse and topped with whipped cream were the rage at Gershwin’s. Sea bass was the ubiquitous fresh fish in town, making a splash at AquaKnox, Lombardi Mare, and Truluck’s.
1998: Stampede of the High-end Steakhouse
Dale Wamstad redefined the Dallas steakhouse in 1981 when he opened Del Frisco’s on Lemmon Avenue. Bob Sambol bought the place from Wamstad and turned it into Bob’s Steak & Chophouse in 1994. Wamstad moved north and opened Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse with Dee Lincoln. These protein pioneers were later joined by Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s. But the red-meat revolution really unfurled in ’98 with the opening of Al Biernat’s, III Forks, Capital Grille, and Stone Trail, and continued to explode with Pappas Bros., Texas de Brazil, Sullivan’s, Nick & Sam’s, and Charolais.
1999: Big-boy Chefs and Global Confusion
Sophistication soared and so did prices, as Dallas chefs took the world, mixed it up, and brought the resulting Tower of Babel to the plate. King of fusion confusion Kent Rathbun, along with owner and art collector Robert Hoffman, took two years to put together Abacus, where the cuisine had no national boundaries and the lobster shooters still prevail. Voltaire, perceived by many to be the most expensive restaurant in town, with its Dale Chihuly ceiling and a New York chef, stocked 15,000 bottles of wine and served canapés for $24. Suze, a more approachable eatery opened by former hippie chick Susie Priorie, did sophisticated versions of comfort food with Routh Street vet Russell Hodges. Suze is now owned by former sous chef Gilbert Garza, and Hodges and Priorie run Iris, which is wildly popular for its approachable cuisine and—borrowing a page from Shannon Wynne’s old book—local art.
2000: Growing Pains
Nick Barclay closed shop and headed back to England, and super chef Stephan Pyles left Star Canyon, saying goodbye to Dallas and the corporate dining world of Carlson Restaurants Worldwide. Grady Spears split from Reata, and Danielle Custer left Laurel’s for Seattle. Strictly Tabu shut its doors, and some catering company painted over the great art on the walls at 8.0. But Janet and Phil Cobb opened Salve, adding Italian glitz to Uptown. And the energizer bunny of the business, Monica Greene, gave traditional Mexican food fans a rush at Ciudad. In Barclays old spot, rookie restaurateur Van Roberts opened Lola, while downtown got a shot in the dining arm with the upscale Jeroboam.
2001: Alpha Females
The mother-daughter combo of Marilyn Romweber and Andrea Falls had opened groundbreaking Parigi in 1985. Lori Finkelman-Holben helped Riviera’s rise to five stars, while chef Helen Duran ruled at the Crescent Club. But for years in Dallas, the good ol’ boys were kings of the kitchen, and female executive chefs were few. In 2001, the new millennium’s luminaries began to emerge: Sharon Hage at York Street, Joanne Bondy at Ciudad, Khanh Dao at Steel, and Dunia Borga at La Duni.
2002: High End and Low Times
The whole world took a tumble after the catastrophe of 9/11, and many in the Dallas restaurant business are still feeling the effects. High-end eateries like Salve and Voltaire bit the dust, but other Dallas chefs coped well with disaster. Chris Svalesen served sublime food at 36 Degrees, even before the place finished construction. And Oceanaire Seafood Room defied the stigma of chains with its simple, elegant menu. The West Village was the big story, with five new places: Nikita, Tom Tom Noodle House, Ferré, Crú, and Paris Vendome, which was manned by the talented Chris Ward. The M Crowd executive chef divided his time and wore out his toll tag running the newly opened Mercury at Willow Bend, as well as Citizen and Mercury Grill.
AMBITIOUS: Avner Samuel keeps it small, but elegant.
As if 9/11 weren’t enough, the Dallas City Council banned smoking in Dallas restaurants, and lots of big guys took a hit. That left plenty of room for the little guys to get going. And when that going got tough, the toughest of all, Avner Samuel, went counterintuitive by opening Aurora, a fantastically ambitious restaurant in an idealistically small space, where he hopes to live out his dream of chef as artiste. Others retreated to the suburbs—particularly to the Shops at Legacy in Plano, where Kent Rathbun shifted his focus from lobster shooters to mac and cheese at Jasper’s.
2004: So Far so Good
The economy is still feeling the effects of terrorism (and the ban on smoking), but during the last 30 years, Dallas has become a destination for foodies. The City of Dallas and our mayor are now spending money to promote the town as a great place to eat. Restaurants define the city, and the city has a defined cuisine. We spend $4 billion a year on dining out, we’ve got defined neighborhoods for Korean and Chinese food, and our chefs are on national cooking shows and magazine covers. Stephan Pyles has plans to open a new restaurant, and it won’t be long before Kent Rathbun brings home a coveted James Beard Award. Everything old will be new again.
Photos: Lafont: Kris Hundt; Oz: Courtesy of Jean Lafont; Lombardi: Courtesy
of Lombardi’s; French Room: James Bland; Fearing: David Woo/Dallas
Morning News; Greene: James Bland; Samuel: Stephen Karlisch; Barclay:
Michael Mulvay/Dallas Morning News; Hage and Ward: James Bland; Iris:
Kevin Hunter Marple